Liz Stephen yet again showed how strong and gutsy she is, coming back from a slow start in the women’s 30K to overtake a charging Morgan Arritola for the National Title. The lead pack of Kikkan Randall, Morgan Arritola, Kristina Strandberg, and Rebecca Dussault broke early from the rest of the field with no remorse from a blasting lead by Arritola. Arritola skied a phenomenal race pushing the pace several times in an attempt to tire out her competitors early. Each time she pushed she would open a gap between her and second-place Randall, and each time the gap would close and the women would ski together.
Strandberg and Dussault of the Saab/Solomon Factory Team raced fairly conservatively, but between Arritola and Randall exchanging leads and periodically pushing the pace, the Factory Team skiers never got a chance to make a move and held tight as safely as they could behind.
All the while, Liz Stephen tried to make contact with the leading women, and it appeared that the challenge would be too much, as she just could not close that gap. She managed to stay just far enough behind through the third of fourth laps to lose the draft but to stay in the hunt 15 meters back.
Around mid way through lap 3, Arritola started pushing the pace again, and the pack stretched out a bit. Randall, skiing in second place behind Arritola, was suffering cramps and starting to fall behind, while a still trailing Stephen was finally finding her center and made a move on Dussault and Strandberg to move into third near the end of the third of four laps. It was all red suits pulling away from the Factory Team skiers, Arritola in front, Randall hanging on in second, and Stephen newly in third place. The race for the top three American podium spots were held by three Americans.
A few turns later, and Stephen finally started to show exactly what momentum she carried through this late surge and moved on Randall and into second place behind Arritola.
There were 17 seconds between the USST leaders and the Factory Team skiers, and Stephen and Arritola showed no signs of slowing the pace. As the two came into the stadium for the fourth and final lap, Stephen made an amazing push on Arritola and took the lead of the race for the first time since standing in the Chevron with bib number 1.
Heading up the climb on the Tower Loop for the last time, Arritola took the lead again. It was clear now that this race was not going to be won by one person making a bold move, but there would be a fight to the end between the strongest skiers.
Coming into the lengthy downhill on the back side of the course it appeared that Stephen’s skis could have been a little faster, but whether it was good equipment or good fitness, she took the lead and pushed the pace for the remainder of the race, putting five seconds on Arritola before returning to the stadium for the win.
Stephen, on her third title in five days: “I was tired going into the race for sure, but you gotta know that everyone’s tired, it’s the end of the season. We had good skis today for sure, fast skis and good kick, it couldn’t really have been any better. I actually thought our [Stephen and Morgan’s] skis were pretty comparable. Early in the race it seemed like she had really fast skis, she was leading everyone and no one was really catching her on the downhills.”
Kikkan Randall pulled a strong chase for Stephen and Arritola, but was forced to settle for third place to finish off the best season of her career.
With sprint-specific training and cramping problems on such a hilly course, Randall’s fight was a tough one. “Every muscle in my upper body started cramping on the last lap. It would be like triceps and then it would be lats – every downhill was almost the worst because I’d stop [tuck] and start striding again and they would lock up. But I made it and it’s a good way to end the season. I didn’t think I was out of it going into the last lap – actually energy wise I felt pretty good. I think for me I wanted to focus on sprints for World Championships, the my aerobic capacity isn’t quite where it needs to be for a race like this but overall my fitness is really good. It was impressive to see those guys ski so well.”
When asked about her post-season plans, Stephen’s response was simple. “I’m going to Vermont and I’m going to enjoy mud season for a while.”
The men’s race was dominated by long, gutsy pushes from the lead skiers to the chase pack. James Southam banked early on his strength in classic technique and his love of marathons to lead an early pack of 13 skiers including Stefan Kuhn, Ivan Babikov, and Noah Hoffman for the first two laps of the 50K race.
Hoffman and Dartmouth’s Glenn Randall also made gutsy moves to lead the pack early, but the heavily favored Babikov and teammate Kuhn bided their time and took the lead late on the third lap to push the pace and drop a few skiers to bring the lead group down to 7 and forming a chase pack of 4. Garrott Kuzzy, Brian Gregg, and Brayton Osgood, breaking the lead pack into 7 skiers with a chasing 4.
For the next three laps, Hoffman would push the two Canadians alone until finally losing steam on the final climb up the Tower Loop. It was there that a hanging James Southam finally caught a glimpse of his challenge, and started to make his move up the hill.
“I managed to see Noah on the final climb up the tower loop and saw that he was struggling so I hammered it to the finish. I passed him about 3/4 of the way up and we were both hurting but it worked out. My goal was to win the race and it was a lot of work leading alone,” said Southam about the beginning of his attack on Hoffman.
Southam spent a period of time in the area of 40 seconds back while Hoffman was charging the Canadians through the marathon, and still sat 30 seconds back at the bottom of the climb where he was able to see Hoffman. Coming out of the Tower loop he was 15 seconds ahead and holding a terrific shot at the title of fastest American.
The rest of the race held just so, and Southam skied consistent and strong to hold of Hoffman for the win while Kuhn managed to hold off distance and hill-climb goliath Ivan Babikov for first place over all. The Canadians were not available for comment.
Southam was very happy with his performance and with the crowd’s enthusiasm. “I wanted to keep the pressure on. I was struggling a little in the middle and would lose them on the downhill, but I managed to keep them in sight. But you do enough of these and you start to get pretty good at it. I think this is the best race in cross country skiing, and it really helps to have so many friends and family out there.”
“It was really cool to have so many people out there and get so many splits from them. I’d constantly hear, you’re 30 seconds down on so and so and your 20 down on this other guy.”
Hoffman, earning the second American podium spot, learned a lot from his strong effort in this race. At age 19 he is taking feeds well and has a bright future in endurance races. “I was trying to stay smooth because it was a long race. The Canadians didn’t want to lead and I wanted to stay clear of guys like James…”
“A little before the last lap I let them take the lead, and then it was tough to stay with them. But, this is my best race ever and definitely my best at Nationals. I learned quite a bit at this one, since it’s my this is my third marathon and second classic marathon. They’re hard, and I felt pretty tired. I took a month off after World Juniors, which helped. I took a lot of feeds and never got shaky except for with lactic acid.”
While the dramatic fight for the title was being decided up course, an amazing performance from an eastern collegiate skier was brewing for the fight for the third American podium spot.
After defying the advice of his coaches by taking a premature chance at pushing the pack, Dartmouth’s Glenn Randall fell weakly out of the spotlight and seemed down for the count. But, following a recluse lap well behind Brian Cook, Randall began a steamrolling charge that held for two grueling laps on one of the toughest red courses in the country. Every now and again there comes a performance that offers an opportunity to see straight into someone’s soul, and Glenn’s Soul said GO.
Randall eventually caught and passed Brian Cook in the fight for third American finisher and found himself on the podium. His amazing performance of endurance, possibly fueled by the same youthful defiance that pushed him to lead the pack early on, can hardly be discounted as one of the strongest of the day.
This week we saw some extremely competitive skiing, where the winners put their two cents into the mix, made a bold move or two, and may or may not have come out on top. This is the kind of racing that we like to see, as not only does it make for an exciting event, but competitors are forced to put their training and mentality on the line to find out who is the best.
Today Southam skied hard early to adhere to his strengths, and when they fell short, he fell back. When he saw his opportunity he picked up his bags and moved up as best he could and won another national distance title with a long, tough, and gutsy charge. Liz Stephen also showed us that she has what it takes to win, and deserves her highest podium spot. While looking like she was struggling and falling behind the pack, she kept her head strong, and moved when she thought there might be a chance. She and Morgan skied a grueling 30K and both moved, pushed to the best of their abilities, and a winner was decided. This is what you call real racing.
This was a terrific week in Fairbanks. All of the coaches and athletes continually thanked the organizers and volunteers for all of their hard work. The races were held in an extremely professional manner, and the tracks and corduroy were no less than immaculate over the entirety of every course. John Estle and the Nordic Ski Club of Fairbanks deserve to be applauded for their excellent work in putting on these National Championships.
Topped off with the best year this country has seen at a World Championships, we’ve got plenty of hope for the future. Now go have a great spring time, and let’s all look forward to an even better year at the Olympics in 2010!