The day after posting a career-best finish in the skate sprint in Lahti, Finland, Sadie Bjornsen maintained the momentum on Sunday and produced a personal-best distance result in the 10 k individual classic. She finished 18th, the top American result, and chopped six places off her previous high water mark from the Sochi, Russia, skiathlon. As the eighth starter in the field Bjornsen even got to sit in the leader’s chair for a few minutes as the rest of her competitors came through the finish.
“It was really fun, I’m really happy,” Bjornsen said over the phone. “When the French (Celia Aymonier) girl got up off the chair I raced over; I didn’t know how long it would last.”
The afternoon before the 10 k Bjornsen had an inkling the 10 k would go well. Her ninth place in the preceding sprint indicated her fitness was good, and she looked forward to the opportunity to ski an individual distance race and contest an event where her result “wasn’t dependent on how things work out in a mass start.”
“It’ll be so fun to do my own race, you know?” Bjornsen said on Saturday.
On the course the next day she was able to pace herself exactly as she wanted, and the result was a new career best. The Lahti venue is closer to sea level than the World Cup circuit has seen in a while, but features deceptively challenging climbs. They were the focal points of Bjornsen’s personal race plan — after observing the way the best women in the world skied over the hills in Val di Fiemme a week earlier, she decided to focus her energy on skiing hard over the tops of the hills in Lahti.
“Every climb has some form of a downhill after, so I kept trying to tell myself I’d have recovery every time I was in pain,” Bjornsen said. “My goal today was pushing over the tops of hills; that’s something I noticed the fastest girls doing when I was watching the 30 k. They hammer, but they really hammer over the top. So I tried to think about that.”
Bjornsen said her skis were “really great,” and though a few climbs were still steep enough to require the herring bone technique she welcomed the variation.
“That was nice to switch up the muscles, so I was excited the course was challenging,” she said.
On the two-lap course Bjornsen started conservatively, wary of going too hard, too soon. She posted the 22nd-fastest split at the first checkpoint, but moved into 18th by 6 k and stayed there. As such an early starter, she had no real indication as to whether she had paced the race right until she saw the results.
“I realized I hadn’t skied an individual race in so long,” Bjornsen said. “Did I go hard, how hard do I go? I had no idea if I’d started right. At one point someone told me I was in eighth, but I was bib eight, so I was like, ‘Oh, I guess I went too easy.’ I hammered from there and I was tiring at the end, but my splits were even the whole way through.”
With two strong results in Lahti, Bjornsen is now sitting 15 points away from being one of the top-50 women on the World Cup overall list that compete in World Cup Finals at the end of the season. Before coming to Finland she’d banked on not qualifying, and booked plane tickets for OPA Cup finals instead, but now that she is three places from the cutoff she’s allowing herself to consider the possibility of going to Sweden.
“Basically I’m going to need to have another great race at Drammen. It’s totally possible, but going in that’s not what I’m going to think about,” Bjornsen said. “It’ll just be in the back of my mind. Last year I qualified sixteenth there, so I have good memories and I’m going to go into it and think about those. If it goes well, it looks like I’ll have another trip!”
After Bjornsen, her American teammates Kikkan Randall and Liz Stephen tied for 28th down to the tenth of a second, each finishing the 10 k in 27:48.9. Neither thought it was a stellar result, but Randall considered it a step in the right direction for her distance skiing from where it was in Val di Fiemme for World Championships.
“I felt a lot better today than I did in Val di Fiemme in the distance races,” Randall said. “I started off a little too slow and it kind of took me until the second lap to really find a good rhythm, but I’m happy with better feelings. It was kind of fun to tie with Liz down to the tenth of a second, kind of crazy.”
In Italy, particularly after the 4×5 k relay, Randall could tell she was paying the price for the cutback in training her foot injury forced in the off-season, even though her sprinting was clearly fine. The memory gave her reason to take the 10 k in Lahti out a little slower than she might have otherwise, knowing her usual pacing might put her at a deficit.
“I knew I’d have to build into the race because the feelings in Val di Fiemme were: if I went out too hard everything got flooded and heavy too soon,” Randall said. “So I had the plan of building into it… And I did build speed as I went and felt pretty good on the last few hills. It’s close to being what I wanted to do today.”
As to how she can be the sprinter to beat while simultaneously struggling to meet her usual distance marks, Randall attributes it to the way she trained for World Championships.
“Sprinting is definitely a little unique,” Randall said after winning in Lahti on Saturday. “The course was just over 2:40, so it was a fast course and it was more like a real sprint. We were preparing for world champs and putting emphasis on the team sprint and the sprint, so we tailored my training a little bit towards that. That’s why I think the sprinting is continuing to be really strong now.”
For Stephen, 28th was “an average day.” Where Randall reached the same benchmark by holding back in the first few kilometers, Stephen’s splits were consistently in the top 30 throughout the race.
“I’m happy to have another race under my belt, and it was fun to tie with Kikkan,” she said, but “I think I’m just continuing to work on my classic.”
Stephen thought her weakest spots were on the hills, where she struggled to stride over them with good form.
“The hills are pretty steep and so I need to ski technically well to get up them or I waste a lot of energy running up out of the tracks,” she said. “It was hard to ski technically well while also going fast enough out there today. So more classic races, more time. I think it will come along for sure, but I’m psyched for next weekend.”
Randall and Stephen are ranked third and 22nd, respectively, on the overall World Cup, which essentially guarantees they will go to World Cup Finals.
Three other U.S. women competed in the Lahti 10 k. Jessie Diggins placed 43rd after Randall and Stephen (+2:45.9), and Ida Sargent was a few seconds behind her in 44th (+2:47.3). Rosie Brennan was 61st (+4:23.8).
After the city sprints in Drammen, Norway, on Wednesday, the World Cup circuit heads to Holmenkollen for the fabled 30/50 k freestyle mass start.