Frode Lillefjell wanted to make his last race count before moving back to Norway after 13 years in Anchorage.
On Sunday at Birch Hill Recreation Area, he ended up winning a U.S. Distance National Championship that he didn’t even know he was eligible for.
Lillefjell, at age 39 the oldest of 43 starters in the 50-kilometer classic, took the lead right from the start and wound up third behind winner Ivan Babikov of Canada and runner-up Andrey Golovko of Kazakhstan.
Then the Norwegian native and coach for Alaska Pacific University Nordic Ski Center learned that because he holds a â€œgreen cardâ€ and is a U.S. resident alien, he qualified for U.S. national championship honors.
â€œI had no idea,â€ an exhausted Lillefjell said minutes after finishing in 2 hours, 35 minutes. â€œ(Chief of Competition) John Estle told me after the race.â€
It was Estle who scrambled midrace to research the unusual scenario by consulting a rules book and calling former U.S. Nordic director Luke Bodensteiner. Once he verified that Lillefjell indeed could be national champ, Estle passed that information on to U.S. Ski Team coaches. They then informed Torin Koos, who trailed Lillefjell by more than two minutes with 15K to go.
â€œThey were like, â€˜Yeah, he’s got his green card, so you gotta put your head down and go for it,’â€ Koos said.
What ensued was a dramatic chase for Koos that ended up 6 seconds shy of overtaking Lillefjell. Koos, known primarily as a sprinter, still claimed the U.S. silver medal.
Lillefjell was dealing with a nose bleed for the final 15K, but Koos proved to be an even bigger challenge.
â€œThe hardest part is just that Koos was coming on so strong. I really had to dig deep the last few K’s to hold him off,â€ Lillefjell said.
The race was a storybook ending for Lillefjell, who won an NCAA national 10K classic championship for the University of Alaska Anchorage in 1997. He found the time outside of his APU coaching duties to train, hoping to go out with a final hurrah before returning to Norway in May to take over his family’s farm.
Still, how did he pull off the result against the best American skiers and a handful of top foreigners?
â€œI had really, really good (fast) skis, so that helped a lot, and 50K classic has always been one of my best events,â€ said Lillefjell, who once placed in the top 30 in a World Cup race and was 16th at the Norwegian Nationals in the event. â€œWhen it’s tough, you just dig in and go.â€
Sunday’s race, with more than 6,000 feet of cumulative vertical gain, was no doubt tough.
But Babikov and Golovko, both members of the Factory Team, broke free of Lillefjell after about an hour, then worked together until the final lap.
Then on the exceptionally steep â€œBlack Funkâ€ climb, Babikov gapped Golovko and never looked back, finishing in 2:32:37. His win, along with victories in Friday’s 30K skiathlon and the 50K classic at the Canadian National Championships just a week earlier, completed a remarkable trifecta over just eight days. It also earned Babikov $1,200.
Golovko, who arrived in America in January, was 53 seconds back. Misfortune caused him to lose contact with Babikov.
â€œHe started getting some cramps in the stomach. I just kept the same pace. When I looked around he wasn’t there,â€ Babikov said. â€œI thought we were going to finish together. We worked really well together. It was unlucky for him.â€
Babikov said despite the 35-degree day and excellent ski conditions, the race wasn’t exactly enjoyable.
â€œIt’s fun the last 10 meters and after the finish if you won,â€ Babikov said. â€œBut out there it’s really hard. It’s always painful.â€
For Babikov, a Russian who obtained Canadian citizenship earlier this winter, skiing is a year-round job.
â€œThis is how I make money. This is how I made money in Russia,â€ he said. â€œThat’s how I feed my family.â€
Andy Newell, another sprint specialist with the USST, won the U.S. bronze medal and took fifth overall in his first 50K after breaking free late in the race from Colin Rodgers of Fischer-Craft.
Marius Korthauer of the Alaska Nanooks took seventh while Kris Freeman of the USST placed a disappointing eighth. Zachary Violett, a former UAA skier who was in fourth place (and solidly on the U.S. podium) after lap five, faded to 10th.
Fairbanks junior David Norris had his second exceptional outing in three days, taking 17th.
For Freeman, a two-time Olympian and typically the top American distance skier, the race culminated a frustrating season that had started with great promise (fifth place in a World Cup race in Finland). Freeman considered not coming to Fairbanks due to a recent illness, then wasn’t helped on Sunday by slow skis. He even stopped for a minute midway through to scrape some wax off because it was providing unwanted friction.
â€œWe were using klister as a binder. It was just incredibly slow,â€ Freeman said. â€œWhen you’re in a pack of four guys and you lost 10 seconds going down the hill and you have their draft, something’s wrong.â€
Freeman, who dropped out of Friday’s skiathlon, persevered on Sunday.
â€œI skied solid today. I’m not disappointed in my performance. I’m disappointed in the overall day,â€ he said.
Matias Saari writes for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. This article orignally appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. http://www.newsminer.com/