ANCHORAGE, Alaska — No two races are exactly alike, the saying goes, and there’s a lot of truth to this cliché. But if you step back just a little bit, two race days can start to look awfully similar to one another.
For example, for the second time this week, a Hanneman brother won the sprint qualifier, Reese Hanneman won the final, and Alaska Pacific University (APU) put three athletes in the final and two on the podium on a perfect day for sprinting at Kincaid Park. That was the story on Monday, when Reese Hanneman led teammate Tyler Kornfield and Ben Saxton of the Stratton Mountain School (SMS) Elite Team across the line in the men’s classic sprint at 2018 U.S. Cross Country Championships. But it was also the case on Friday, when Reese was first and Kornfield was third in the freestyle sprint. It’s been a good week for the Hanneman family.
The classic sprint, the final race of this year’s U.S. nationals, had a slightly more subdued feel than the three that preceded it.
The fields were 50 percent smaller; a combined 160 athletes skied in the qualifier on Monday compared to 337 on Friday, as many juniors opted out of a race whose results did not bear on qualification for international trips and championship teams, and some athletes had already left town. The spectator numbers were smaller, measuring in the dozens rather than the hundreds after three days of packed parking lots and raucous crowds, as the first day of school following winter break sent local students back to the classroom. And the athletes were tired, too, after a full week of racing.
“I was just running on fumes out there, especially after the 30 k yesterday,” fifth-place finisher Kevin Bolger, of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF) told FasterSkier after the men’s final.
But cross-country skiers are nothing if not resilient, and so, just after 10 a.m., Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess (Bend Endurance Academy) once again led 95 men out onto the qualifying course at 15-second intervals. The temperature was 10 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the display on the stadium scoreboard. The sun had yet to rise and start burning off the morning’s dense fog. It felt cold.
“It’s a very quintessential Alaskan day,” women’s domestic podium bronze medalist Becca Rorabaugh (APU) said after. “It’s like an Alaska temperature, and I feel like a lot of the Alaskan teams have great skis, it’s hard-wax skiing, and it’s just a classic race day. It’s very Alaskan.”
Hanneman Brothers Headline Qualifier
APU skiers did very well in the time-trial portion of the morning, which has added, if not exclusive, significance for Olympic qualifying purposes slightly a month before the 2018 Winter Olympics begin in PyeongChang, South Korea.
Reese Hanneman, 28, who grew up in Fairbanks, covered the brand-new, 1.6-kilometer sprint course in 3:21.93, a time good for the fastest qualifying mark on the day. And he did so by nearly three seconds. Next best was his APU teammate and younger brother, Logan Hanneman, 2.84 seconds back. Third was his APU teammate Tyler Kornfield, 4.23 seconds off Reese’s mark.
The brothers Hanneman are skiing qualifiers well these days, to put it mildly. Logan, 24, won Friday’s sprint qualifier, with Reese qualified third.
In light of the bonus points awarded for U.S. nationals podium performances, FasterSkier’s unofficial calculations put Logan first on the 2018 Olympic Winter Games domestic sprint qualifying list, with 80 points (45 for first at U.S. nationals and 35 for second), and Reese second, with 71 points (45 for first and 26 for third).
In Monday’s classic sprint, Benjamin Ogden (SMS) was fourth in qualifying, 5.12 seconds back. Blackhorse-von Jess was fifth (+5.16), Zak Ketterson of Northern Michigan University sixth (+7.56), Cole Morgan (SVSEF) seventh (+7.61), David Norris of APU eighth (+7.85), Saxton ninth (+7.88), and Bolger tenth (+9.09).
Just like the skate sprint, Brian Gregg, of Central Cross Country (CXC), Loppet Nordic Racing (LNR) and Team Gregg, was the final athlete to make the heats, 16.53 seconds back in 30th.
“I would say all the top sprinting guys, everyone’s focusing kind of on the qualifier, more so than normal,” Reese said on Friday after he had qualified third in the skate sprint. “There’s no margin for error, and you just have to ski it absolutely as fast as possible. It’s definitely different tactics than in the heats… but if you’re fast, you’re fast.”
Reese Hanneman Wins Everything En Route to Final
On Monday, Reese was pretty darn fast. He won his quarterfinal, the first of the day, as well as his semifinal, the first of the day, to make the final with the maximum amount of rest possible. And then, of course, he won the final as well for his fourth national title — and second of 2018 nationals.
In the day’s first quarterfinal, Reese was in the lead by the first turn at 200 meters, followed closely by Bolger. The two of them had a big lead by the time they were coming off Gong Hill. The rest of the field caught up to them somewhat by the finish, but Reese and Bolger still took the top two spots with relative ease.
In the second quarterfinal, U18 skier Ogden led the field into the first turn, with Morgan and Bill Harmeyer, of the University of Vermont, right behind. Ogden was still into the lead coming back into the stadium, but Kris Freeman (Caldwell Sport) had caught up into third. Coming into the finish, Freeman won a four-way lunge for second over Thomas O’Harra (APU), Ben Lustgarten (CGRP), and Harmeyer. O’Harra’s third place in a fast heat was good enough to send him on to the semifinals with the day’s first lucky loser spot.
In the third quarterfinal, Andrew Egger (Colby College) took the lead out of the stadium, but it was Blackhorse-von Jess in the top spot by the time they came back. Blackhorse-von Jess entered the finishing stretch with a 10-meter lead. Ketterson took second, 1.2 seconds back, with Egger another second back by the finish.
In the fourth quarterfinal, Saxton and Logan Hanneman left the stadium with the early lead, alongside a quick-starting Luke Jager (APU), one of three U18 skiers who made the senior heats. It was Saxton in the lead coming back to the stadium two minutes later, with Logan leading Jager. Saxton came into the finishing stretch with a healthy lead, but Logan made a powerful move to pull around him and come alongside. Saxton won the heat by 0.37 seconds over Logan. Yesterday’s medalist, Eric Packer (APU), was out in third.
The fifth quarterfinal was heavy on local pride, with three APU skiers and a fourth from University of Alaska Anchorage. Erik Axelsson (Montana State University) led Kornfield and Logan Diekmann (University of Utah) into the first uphill. But two minutes later it was all APU, with Kornfield, David Norris and Forrest Mahlen with a sizeable lead on the rest of the field. Kornfield took the win; Mahlen came around Norris for second, but Norris moved on with the day’s other lucky loser spot. Axelsson was nearly five seconds back of Norris in fourth.
In the first semifinal, Blackhorse-von Jess flashed his ski speed and momentum by dropping into a tuck within the first 200-meter straightaway in the stadium, then still led the field over the top of the first, smaller climb. Ogden and Reese Hanneman were nearby. When they returned to the stadium, Reese had a 20-meter lead over Ogden on the downhill. As happened throughout the day, though, that lead shrank to half that size by the time the skiers entered the finishing stretch. But Reese still had the lead, which he held to the finish. Bolger was second, 0.32 seconds back. Ogden was relegated for obstruction.
The second semifinal featured a predominantly blue color scheme, between four suits from APU and the blue accents on Saxton’s SMS suit. Saxton again led out of the stadium, with Ketterson and Kornfield close by. By the time they came off Gong Hill two minutes later, it was Kornfield in the lead, with Ketterson close behind him. Kornfield led into the finishing stretch, but Ketterson overtook him to place first in the heat.
Behind them, Logan Hanneman made a strong push for third. He closed down Saxton, edging him by 0.04 seconds for third behind Ketterson and Kornfield. In practice, both Logan and Saxton advanced to the final as lucky losers; Norris’s fifth place in this heat would have won the day’s first semifinal by nearly a second.
Reese Hanneman Wins Final, Again
Slightly after 2 p.m., six men lined up in the south end of the Kincaid Stadium. From racer’s left to right, it was Logan, Kornfield, Ketterson, Reese, Bolger, and Saxton in the starting blocks. The sun was out, the temperature was in the high teens, and the course was firm and fast. There was no wind. Conditions were once more basically perfect.
The field had a clean start at the sound of the starter’s pistol, double poling in six separate lanes over the first 200 meters slightly downhill through the stadium. As the racers turned right to go up the first hill it was the Hanneman brothers in the lead, with Kornfield immediately behind them and Ketterson to Kornfield’s right. The pack double poled up the first part of the climb, then strode up and over the top of the hill.
A quick descent followed, then a high-speed, double-pole section leading to the start of the course’s main hill. Reese pushed the pace going up the hill, and not everyone was able to respond.
“I basically started at the base of the big climb,” Reese recalled of the 24-meter vertical gain B-climb in the middle of the sprint course. “I just kind of led in the climb and then just threw down the hammer and just tried to drop everyone going up that thing, and just continue to pound it over the top and take it all the way home.”
The largest climb on the course is “tough for classic skiing,” Bolger explained. “That hill definitely adds a different dynamic to your whole approach to every heat you do. To be able to ski up that hill four times, strong, it’s a challenge.” (Bolger added that he didn’t think anyone would have attempted to double pole a hill of that size, saying that “it’s a challenging enough hill to where it’s going to rule out double poling for anyone.” But just to be sure, race organizers placed a no-double-pole technique zone up the entire length of the climb for both the qualifier and the heats.)
By the time the field descended the waterfall downhill back into the stadium, Reese had a substantial gap over Kornfield, who in turn had a sizeable lead over Ketterson.
Kornfield made up some of this gap going down and around the final 180-degree turn, but Reese still entered the final straightaway with a sizeable lead. Saxton had moved into third, ahead of Ketterson, by the time they reached the 100 meters to go mark.
Kornfield barreled down the slight uphill of the finishing straight with grace and fury, closing in on Reese with each extension of his lanky frame. But he was still in the same finishing lane as his APU teammate, getting closer to Reese, but still immediately behind him. With roughly 20 meters to go, Kornfield moved one lane to his left, then lunged as he approached the finish. But Reese’s lead was still too much, and he crossed the finish with his second sprint national title of the week.
Reese’s time for the final was 3:20.62. Kornfield was 0.2 seconds back in second.
Some distance behind them, Saxton crossed the finish line in third, 4.78 seconds back of Reese, with a slight lead over Logan and Bolger. Ketterson finished sixth, 6.83 seconds back, in his second sprint final of the week.
“I can’t let off at all,” Reese said, when asked what he was thinking when coming down the final stretch of a national championship classic sprint with a narrow lead over Kornfield, who won the men’s 30 k classic mass start in an all-out effort to the line the day before.
“He is obviously on super-good form right now,” Reese continued. “I just have to know that I have a little more speed than he does. … But he’s really cranking right now. He is skiing great, but it definitely motivated me to know to just drive that thing so hard in the final.”
The second national title in as many races was “an answer to a lot of prayers from this morning and in the heats,” Reese said. “I just feel really lucky and stoked that I could put it together and be in such good form right now in January. It was a great day, an amazing day.”
Although Kornfield was second today, he “probably got the all-around performance of the week for the men,” Reese said of his teammate. Kornfield reached the podium in every race this week save the opening 15 k freestyle individual start, where he was 14th.
Kornfield’s race series was “a dream come true a little bit,” Kornfield told FasterSkier, “a little unexpected, but I knew I had it in me. The start of the season didn’t go as planned, I got sick for a month before it started, I also sprained my wrist for another month and so I was pretty frustrated with the lack of performances, but I knew there was something there and it was just a matter of time.”
“In this sport there are a lot of ups and downs,” he continued, “and it’s really easy to get caught up in the downs and not realize that just because you have a few bad races doesn’t mean you lose your ability to succeed, so just have to keep your head up and keep trying and hoping for the doors to open.”
When it comes to possibilities for potential Olympic selection, “I don’t know anything,” Kornfield said. “I can let you know in a couple weeks.”
Mathematically speaking, Kornfield currently ranks second to APU teammate Scott Patterson on the most recent version of the Olympic selection distance points list, which reflects both distance races from U.S. nationals.
For now, Kornfield plans to leave Alaska on Tuesday (that is, today) for a previously planned trip to Austria. He plans to work out precisely what races he will contest soon; he had planned on racing a Ski Classics marathon, but is currently uncertain where he will be racing next.
While Kornfield’s week at U.S. nationals exceeded his expectations, Monday’s third-place finisher, Saxton, didn’t have the week he was hoping for.
“I came here, like many people, with goals of heading to Korea and representing the country racing in the Games,” Saxton said after the final. “I fell short of that this week and that’s nothing to be ashamed of, but I was really disappointed I wasn’t in the mix as much as I would have hoped to be. This week was difficult because I don’t feel like I put forth a representative effort.”
Saxton was quick to offer sincere congratulations to the skiers who had had more success this week.
“I am incredibly proud to know and am happy for Logan and Scott and Reese and all of the other champions from this week,” he said, “and incredibly happy that those are going to be the skiers going to over to represent us. I think it’s just, from a personal standpoint, people can understand I was disappointed not to feel like I had my absolutely best days out there, but I am really proud to end the day on a podium, representing the hard work that all my teammates and my coach and the program at Stratton have done all year, and to reward them for that work and that effort is a great feeling.”
Saxton also enjoyed the “playground mentality” of the sprint day.
“I think a lot of the times racing we can get lost in the technical aspects of it,” he mused, “but one of the reasons I love racing heats so much is, it just kind of reminds me of being back in elementary school and pointing to something in the far end of the playground, basketball hoop, or whatever it is, and just saying, ‘Let me race you there.’ And there’s no rules, there’s no anything, it’s just the feeling of you and the other person just going all out, and that’s a beautiful way to live and that’s a beautiful way to compete, and sprints are a wonderful thing like that.”
Strong Alaska Performances Throughout the Week
What a difference a year makes. One year ago this week, in the classic sprint at Soldier Hollow, APU didn’t put any athletes into the heats for the first time in at least a decade, done in by a combination of illness, seeding, weather conditions, and wax choice. This time around, head coach Erik Flora’s squad sent eight men through to the heats, six to the semifinal, three to the final, and two to the podium.*
The classic sprint capped a successful week for APU, and for Alaskan skiers more generally. Caitlin Patterson, who skis for CGRP, took all four gold medals for the women. Then APU skiers took all four golds on the men’s side, between Scott Patterson on Wednesday, Reese on Friday and Monday, and Kornfield on Sunday. Chelsea Holmes, Kornfield again, Hannah Halvorsen, Rosie Frankowski, Eric Packer, Becca Rorabaugh, and Kornfield again also stepped on the domestic podium for APU. All told, that’s 15 out of a possible 24 medals going to athletes who hail from or ski in Alaska.
(Although if you slice the data another way, there were also seven out of 12 possible medals in women’s races won by CGRP, between Patterson’s quadfecta and Kaitlynn Miller’s trifecta.)
This week’s results “just show the depth” of the team, Reese told FasterSkier after his race. “It speaks to the hard work of our coaches, especially Erik Flora. That guy will not be outworked, he just puts so much into us. I’m just really happy that we can have a week like this and go four for four in the men’s with APU, just to show that what he is doing works and how hard he works for us. … To get to this point that we can do that and crush all week and just give them a good show is really rewarding.”
“We’re all Alaska born-and-raised,” Reese added of the APU men. “Can’t beat that.”
*(Full disclosure, this reporter skis on the APU Masters team, and receives direct coaching from Flora roughly once a year at Masters Camp.)
— Gabby Naranja and Ian Tovell contributed
Replay on U.S. Ski & Snowboard live feed (start at roughly 1:21:00 into the video for the men’s final)