HOUGHTON, Mich. — While most of the top skiers lined up for the start of the women’s 20-kilometer freestyle mass start at U.S. Cross Country Championships, including eventual winner Caitlin Patterson, logged numerous hours of training during the past year, at least one who finished in the top 10 claimed she has not.
“I have three jobs, so I basically don’t train,” said Eliska Hajkova, assistant coach of the Boulder Nordic Junior Racing Team, after placing sixth in the freestyle distance race on Thursday at the Michigan Tech Trails. “I just coach and do everything the juniors do.”
Hajkova, originally from the Czech Republic, added, “And you know, they’re great. They have the spirit, they have the will to go, they have everything in front of them, and it powers me.”
Still, the lineup Hajkova and many other competitors faced in the 20 k, like Patterson of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP) and Chelsea Holmes of Alaska Pacific University (APU) to name a few, presented a challenge.
With these powerhouses in front and hungry racers like Hajkova close behind, the women’s field charged the course, Holmes heading the herd out of the mass start.
“At the low point in the course, around 5 k the first time around, pretty much everyone was together,” Holmes recalled in a post-race phone interview. “When we came out of the low point, Caitlin [Patterson] and Anne Hart took the front for a little bit. But mostly, I was in front.”
As Holmes settled back into the front for the next climb, the pace quickened and a lead group began to develop.
“I could every once in a while see the pack behind us dwindling, and people dropping off little by little,” Patterson said.
As racers began to string out on 10 k course, the lead pack quickly became five women: Patterson, Holmes, Katharine Ogden of the Stratton Mountain School (SMS) and Anne Hart of Stratton’s elite T2 Team, and Hajkova.
By the time the five arrived at the 8 k mark, Erika Flowers, Hart’s SMST2 teammate, had caught up.
“My goal was to start really hard and try and not get pushed to the back, then conserve throughout the first lap,” Flowers explained. “It actually broke up quite a bit more quickly than I would have expected and I got dropped a little bit.”
With a pull from the front, Flowers hunted down the chase pack and latched onto Hajkova.
“Eliska and I were skiing together in the second lap, and we kept going back and forth,” Flowers said.
As the women rounded into their second 10 k lap, the race became a push through pain for some. Four women broke away: Patterson, Hart, Ogden, and Holmes.
“In the second lap the [top four] dropped me so hard because I was going all out from the beginning,” Hajkova said. She stuck with Flowers for the rest of the second lap.
“During the first lap I was feeling fairly smooth and relaxed and I thought people around me were working a little harder,” Patterson recalled. “But then there was one point early in the second lap when I almost got gapped. I came over the top of the hill at 3 k [on the course] probably, five or six seconds behind the other three.”
Knowing the potential for the group to get away from her, Patterson quickly maneuvered into a tuck after cresting the hill.
“My skis were absolutely amazing,” Patterson said. “I caught all the way back up and was even almost ahead of them by the downhill.”
Patterson led the group descent toward the hairpin turn. However, by the time the group reached the climb, Holmes was taking charge up front.
“Chelsea was leading a lot of the race so I definitely commend her on that,” Patterson said. “I tried to lead some, but I was getting tired and just found it more efficient to ski behind. Katharine and Anne were skiing behind almost the whole time, too.”
In her second 20 k race ever, 18-year-old Ogden, who raced to third overall, found following to be her ideal positioning.
“It was awesome skiing with Caitlin , Chelsea, and Anne Hart,” Ogden said. “Just being able to ski behind them is so nice for me, I can really learn a lot from them and catch a ride on the downhills.”
The four raced together until the final 1 k, where a battle between Holmes, Hart and Patterson began to take shape.
“As we were coming up that last one k of the course, Anne got into the front,” Patterson explained. “Chelsea and I both tried to go around her a few times and then Chelsea succeeded and put a little gap on me, but I never gave up and there was just enough time for me to power through.”
With 200 meters to the finish, Holmes remained in front of Patterson. Ogden, who had passed Hart, raced not far behind in third.
Patterson then moved to the right of Holmes as the two — both originally from near Anchorage, Alaska (Holmes grew up in Girdwood) — approached the last 100-meter stretch to the finish.
In a final punch, Patterson took the win, 4 seconds ahead of Holmes, in 1:01.03.5.
“It’s such a hard finish,” Patterson said. “I felt like I was definitely hurting, yet I’d had the opportunity to race it similarly in the skate sprint the other day, and my legs were burning and dying so much worse in the sprint so … I knew I could do it.”
After Holmes, three Stratton women crossed the with Ogden in third (7.8 seconds behind Patterson), Hart in fourth (+16.5), and Flowers finishing 59 seconds later in fifth.
“It’s a good confidence builder. They skied with maturity,” said SMST2 coach Patrick O’Brien. “They started out well and knew that gaps were going to happen on that course and that they were positioning themselves in the right place. I really can’t ask for more.”
Ogden said she plans to finish out nationals with the classic sprint on Saturday, then head back to the East Coast for a few SuperTour races before flying to Romania for Junior World Championships.
Both Hart and Flowers will also stick around for the sprints, though Flowers’s immediate plans after U.S. nationals diverge from staying at home.
“I’m actually going over to Europe — I’m going to go see Andy, which will be awesome,” she said. Flowers is dating U.S. Ski Team member Andy Newell.
“So I’ll be on the ‘U.S.A cheer squad’ next weekend [at the World Cup] in Slovenia,” she said.
Patterson may also travel to Europe, anticipating a World Cup start.
“I think I can say it’s fairly certain I will get a World Cup spot for Period 3 now,” she said, regarding her point accumulation after three races at U.S. nationals. She won Sunday’s 10 k classic individual start for her first-career national title, then placed third in the freestyle sprint on Monday.
In all, Patterson has five career podiums at nationals, three of which came this week.
While Patterson will also stay for Saturday’s sprint, a few athletes and coaches have other obligations, school being one of them.
“We have to go home because the kids have to go to school. They’ve already missed a week,” Hajkova said, referring to her junior athletes.
Kelsey Phinney, a senior at Middlebury College who raced to a solid seventh, 21 seconds behind Hajkova, will return to the East Coast for the start of the college race season.
“Seeing as it’s my last college season, most of my big races are yet to come, so coming here was just to do a little racing and have fun,” Phinney said. “I really wanted to be top ten in a distance race this week. Without putting too much pressure on myself, I felt that with the right day and good legs I could definitely do that.”
One more off day remains before the 1.5 k classic sprints on Saturday.
— Kaitlyn Patterson contributed reporting