HOUGHTON, Mich. – Marius Korthauer knew America’s best distance Nordic skier started just 30 seconds after him on New Year’s Day – and the Alaska Nanook was determined to not let Kris Freeman catch up.
Korthauer accomplished that mission, and it helped skate him to fifth place Tuesday in a 10-kilometer freestyle race on the opening day of the U.S. Cross Country Ski Championships.
â€œI didn’t look back on purpose, but when I got the chance to look back I saw that he wasn’t coming,â€ said Korthauer, who due to the interval start still finished two spots behind Freeman of the U.S. Ski Team but nevertheless recorded the top time for a collegian by a whopping 47 seconds.
Korthauer skied the challenging course on a snowy day at the Michigan Tech University Nordic Ski Center in 24 minutes, 58 seconds and even led the race for about the first three kilometers.
â€œWhen you hear that you’re leading and you maybe expect top 20, that’s pretty good,â€ Korthauer said. â€œIt gives you a boost and nothing can go wrong from then on.â€
In the women’s 5K, the Coulter twins also excelled for the Nanooks, as Julia (who is redshirting) took 15th in 14:46 while Anna placed 22nd.
Claiming the men’s race in 24:24 was Ivan Babikov, a Russian who therefore could not win the U.S. Championship, though that fact did not faze him.
â€œIt’s just good competition here, a really high level,â€ said Babikov, who skis for the Factory Team, lives in Canada and is seeking Canadian citizenship. â€œAs soon as I get the money for first place, I don’t care (about the U.S. title).â€
Finishing 15 seconds behind Babikov – and winning the U.S. title – was Leif Zimmerman, a member of the U.S. Ski Team’s B squad who proved he’s back from a bout with mononucleosis that derailed his 2006-07 season.
â€œI didn’t actually feel that fresh at the beginning but I skied really hard at the end,â€ said Zimmerman, a 24-year-old from Bozeman, Mont.
Zimmerman, who won a sprint at nationals in 2004, finished before most of the other contenders, then observed a giant scoreboard to see whether his time would hold up.
â€œIt’s cool to watch people coming in and hope they’re still behind you when they cross the line,â€ Zimmerman said.
Caitlin Compton handily won the women’s race, showing that joining the U.S. Biathlon Team – with limited success so far – hasn’t slowed down her skiing.
â€œI kind of figured I need to do half (Nordic skiing) and half (biathlon). I’m a little too new to biathlon to jump in 100 percent,â€ said Compton, who is shooting to make the 2010 U.S. Olympic biathlon team.
Tazlina Mannix of Alaska Pacific University took fourth overall but won the U.S. bronze medal by one-tenth of a second over Lindsey (Weier) Dehlin. Anchorage’s Kikkan Randall, winner of a World Cup sprint in Russia last month, placed 10th.
â€œThere were three of us tied for third,â€ Mannix said of an in-race update received from coaches. â€œEvery time I got a split it was just like every second counts.â€
The result was encouraging for Mannix, a distance specialist.
â€œThe longer the better for me. I’m looking forward to Fairbanks, actually. Those are my distances,â€ the Trapper Creek native said, referring to the U.S. Distance Nationals at Birch Hill Recreation Area, which feature a 15K skiathlon March 28 and a 30K freestyle race March 30.
Today will be a rest/training day before the championships resume Thursday with classic races of 10K
for women and 15K for men. Freeman and Dehlin are the defending champions.
Matias Saari writes for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.