LAHTI, Finland — Moments before the women’s 10-kilometer classic individual start at the 2017 Nordic World Championships on Tuesday, temperatures read 35 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity hovered around 97 percent — the air nearly saturated. Earlier in the day, a near-ground fog lapped the tops of the three iconic ski jumps looming above the ski stadium.
In contrast to earlier classic events at these championships — a 15 k skiathlon, and classic team sprint — the tracks glazed with a mirror-like sheen.
For her 16th World Championship title, neither Norway’s Marit Bjørgen nor her wax techs were befuddled by the tricky tracks. Whether herringboning headwalls, firing like the nordic powerhouse she is on the flats and climbs, or streamlining the glide outs, Bjørgen remained peerless in her win over her 10 k classic competition. She finished in 25:24.9 minutes for the gold; the closest competitor Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla was 41 seconds behind.
With silver going to the Swede, the final podium spot went to another Norwegian, Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen, who finished 55.5 seconds back from her teammate Bjørgen’s time.
Considering their collective medal count, it was a championship-pedigreed podium: it was Kalla’s 12th career championship medal — and her second in the last week. Jacobsen earned her third-individual championship medal of seven overall. (For the 2016/2017 World Cup season, it’s Jacobsen’s first podium.
It’s also been a decade since Jacobsen’s first World Championship medal, a classic-sprint gold in 2007 in Sapporo, Japan.
“A lot of things have happened in those ten years,” Jacobsen, 30, said after the race. “The medal today feels better than the gold medal in Sapporo. I fought harder for this. I’m just really happy today.”
Amongst the potential podium locks in the 10 k classic, Kalla noted she chose an earlier start as part of her race strategy; she started in bib 34.
“I decided to go early because of the warming up opportunities” Kalla explained during the post-race press conference. “I wanted to go on the competition track as long as possible. And then I also had a better opportunity to do my own race and not focus on the times against the others, just focus on my performance in every stage on the track.”
Despite her race-time dominance, Bjørgen spoke of her jittery nerves before the start.
“This 10 k has been one of the distances I really wanted to win,” the 36 year old said during the press conference. “I think I have two before the start of the world championships, so this was the one I wanted the gold medal. I think that’s the reason I was nervous and also I understand I was in good shape and it was really possible to take the gold, so that’s the reason.”
A 41-second winning margin for Bjørgen isn’t definitive. And unlike every other race at these championships, where high drama like Norwegian-Finn tangles, broken poles and Diggins-grit dictated the narrative, Tuesday’s 10 k classic was clinical.
At 1.5 k, 5 k, 6.3 k, and 7.8 k splits, Bjørgen was the fastest. Already at 6.3 k, Bjørgen had a 22-second gap on Kalla. Barring an equipment failure or tumble, by that point the win was a bygone conclusion and Bjørgen the author of this 10 k novella.
“Today I had very good skis and I feel very strong, and the first 5 [k] I feel that my speed was very high,” Bjørgen added. “It was only a second from 1 kilometer to 4, and I feel that I am racing very fast and I not taking more seconds so I wonder how will I do it on the last 5 k. But then I heard it was from 6 [seconds] and then to 10 then to 20 and then understand they were opening a bit too hard.”
Bjørgen explained the news of time-gain inroads served as a propellant.
“I think when you heard you have second[s] on your side you just get some more power and you just want to ski more faster,” Bjørgen said. “You understand it’s well for you. You are getting so happy, it is no problem to speed up and go.”
Many adjectives come to mind when describing Bjørgen’s career. Yet the numbers are most impressive. When mining her career-win data, there’s always something new to learn. Of all her gold medals — now 22 between World Championships and the Olympics — prior to Tuesday’s win, 20 of those had come in non-individual-start races. (Her other individual-start win came in 2011 World Championships 10 k classic in Oslo, Norway.)
Bjornsen Leads Americans in 23rd, Randall 26th
Starting four minutes ahead of Bjørgen, the last starter for the U.S. Ski Team (USST) on Tuesday was Sadie Bjornsen. After covering the course in a time of 27:46.1, the American eventually finished as the top North American in 23rd (+2:21.2). The 10 k classic event was Bjornsen’s first individual event at these World Championships.
She also raced Sunday’s classic team sprint with her USST teammate Jessie Diggins, where the two captured bronze. Diggins did not race Tuesday’s 10 k classic.
“It definitely gave me a lot of confidence the other day,” Bjornsen, 27, said on Tuesday, referring to her bronze-medal performance on Sunday. “So I went into today probably a bit nervous because I had more expectations.”
Looking back on the effort, Bjornsen explained that she may have paced the initial part of her race too slowly. With her 10 k classic performance from Otepää in the back of her mind, Bjornsen intended to take the first few kilometers of Tuesday’s world champs 10 k event to work into the race.
“I definitely wanted to keep things under control at the beginning, because I felt last week I started really hard and struggled to keep the pace up,” Bjornsen said. “I tend to do better when I do a more gradual start and then try to pin it after that. I haven’t seen the splits at all, but based on the way that I felt, maybe I started a little too easy.”
With glazed tracks making for difficult steady striding, Bjornsen indicated that she might not have gotten out of the track as often as she should have to stay fresh.
“You know, today was a day that you had to get out of the track and grind it in order to make your skis work,” Bjornsen said. “I was really trying to force it, and really tried to stay in the track. Then at 4 k, [USST Head Coach Chris] Grover was like, ‘Get out of the track. It’s much faster to run,’ and I feel like from there on I got to skiing a bit better.”
Finishing 10.7 seconds behind Bjornsen was her teammate Kikkan Randall, the second American in the top 30 in 26th (+2:31.7). Randall had already earned an individual bronze at these championships and competed in last weekend’s 15 k skiathlon, where she finished as the top American in 17th.
As Randall explained, her performances in these races, as well as those of other Americans competing, may influence who will start the women’s 4 x 5 k relay on Thursday.
“I think there’s a couple of us who know we’re trying to prove we’re worthy of the relay spot,” Randall said on Tuesday. “I think for Rosie and I, we were trying to ski our first 5 k pretty hard and really use this as a test.”
Despite working the pushing the pace for the first half of her race, Randall found herself able to adapt and finish strong.
“It’s certainly the best opening 5 k I’ve had all year,” Randall said. “I felt my body wanted to turn on and go on the first couple hills. That’s kind of an exciting new feeling for me.”
“The first couple climbs on the second lap I was like ‘OK, woah’,” she added. “[But] I found my groove the last two and half k, so overall a pretty solidly paced race.”
The two other Americans to compete in Tuesday’s 10 k, Rosie Brennan placed 32nd (+2:55.4) and Ida Sargent finished 43rd (+3:55.2).
Skiing alone for the entirety of her race, Brennan was more satisfied with her 10 k race than she was her skiathlon performance. Tuesday’s race, however, still left her hungry for more.
“I don’t know if I was so much looking for a result as much as a feeling,” Brennan explained after. “I think I was close but not quite there.”
All four Canadian women who traveled to Lahti competed in the 10 k event, with Katherine Stewart-Jones leading the team in 36th (+3:09.6). This season marks Stewart-Jones’s second year on the Canadian national team and it was her first World Championships.
The 21-year-old Stewart-Jones, of the National Team Development Centre (NTDC) Thunder Bay and national U25 Team, also competed at this year’s U23 World Championships in Park City, Utah. After Tuesday’s race, she said she’s excited about where the Canadian women are headed, particularly with regards to their results thus far at world champs.
“We’re all excited to be the next generation. Just to have four girls here at world champs is super amazing,” Stewart-Jones said after her first top 40 in her third World Championships race. “I think we’re really bringing up the energy as a group and getting each other pumped up and having confidence in each other.”
Explaining that she was able to stride for most that the race, Stewart-Jones was pleased with her result, but also the way she felt physically while skiing on course.
“In the last lap when I was getting a little tired, I jumped out of the tracks, but I had enough energy in my legs to run,” she said. “Overall, I was able to find that extra gear on that second lap and was able to relax on the first lap, which is super important on this kind of a course. I’m just really happy with how I skied.”
Finishing 4.6 seconds behind Stewart-Jones was Canadian World Cup Team skier Emily Nishikawa in 37th (+3:14.9). Two more members of Canada’s U25 Team, Dahria Beatty placed 39th (+3:24.9), and Cendrine Browne finished 47th (+4:05.2).
Despite having a limited number of classic races under her belt this season, Beatty had a positive review of her performance on Tuesday.
“I haven’t done a ton of classic races this year and doing the races last weekend in Otepää it was a really positive race for me and I was trying to build on that,” Beatty said. “That’s definitely the most fun I’ve had this week.”
— Harald Zimmer and Gerry Fersuth contributed