The end of the season draws near with more exciting racing today in the Ladies’ 15K and Men’s 30K pursuit at Birch Hill in Fairbanks. The 3.5K course included plenty of challenging terrain coiling around and through the stadium area, where spectators and coaches could view the race by walking between two points along a single corridor. The races started at 5pm and 6:15, were mass-start format, and covered nearly entirely different loops for the classic and freestyle portions while retaining the spectator-friendly atmosphere.
Liz Stephen, coming off an exceptional 15th place in the same pursuit event at World Championships this year in in Liberec, put down another amazing skate attack on Kristina Strandberg for the win and national title. Kikkan Randall took a surprisingly dominant early lead in front of a fairly congealed field up the first climb, but was caught by Swede Strandberg and elite newcomer Holly Brooks. In a true Scandinavian style, Strandberg relentlessly pushed the pace from the start with Kikkan Randall and Holly Brooks in tow. Strandberg’s effort broke the three skiers from the pack early enough to impose an intimidating lead on the rest of the field.
For the first portion of the race it appeared that Strandberg, Randall, and Brooks would be fighting throughout for the win. Following the leaders, Rebecca Dussault, Caitlin Compton, Liz Stephen, and Morgan Smyth quickly formed into a chase pack and seemed quite comfortable with their slowly growing gap in front of Tazlina Mannix, Edel Espy. Both Mannix and Dussault remained well in the hunt for their leaders throughout the race and skied strongly and consistent throughout.
But, immediately following the exchange Liz Stephen started to make the decisive move that would make the race for her, Strandberg, Randall and Brooks. In an impressively consistent threshold performance she quickly passed the leaders and continued to steadily open the gap until the finish. Brooks, in her first significant effort at a National Championships, held on as long as possible to Kikkan’s chase of Strandberg, and the duo eventually managed to make up a significant amount of the time they lost early in the race before crossing the finish line.
Brooks, a coach at APU, never considered herself in the mix until her extremely close second place behind Rebecca Dussault at this year’s Birkie. Today Brooks finished 35 seconds in front of the same Rebecca Dussault, who’s skis were stuck at the Anchorage Airport until this morning after the volcanic eruptions caused all flights to be grounded.
“I can’t believe I’m skliing with Kikkan. It was all I could do to hang on, you know?” Brooks remembers her race. “The hill over on competition loop was were it really started to hurt, because it was so soft. I couldn’t be happier about the race today.”
Meanwhile, riding on air following her performances this week, Liz Stephen lead an exciting and well-deserved competitive win. “I Tried to hang on the classic and put it to ’em in the skate since I’m not as strong on classic skis as they are right now. I was just hoping they wouldn’t get too big of a gap on the classic lap so I could catch them in the skate,” she commented during the awards ceremony after the mens’ race.
While the women’s race was run in a straight-forward guts and all-glory fashion, and it’s hard to find where to lay the spotlight for today. While Leif Zimmermann fought an outstanding battle through bonks and dropping off the lead with James Southam to take the national title, Ivan Babikov put on a performance that was simply from another dimension.
Babikov held in with the leaders including fellow Canadian teammate Graham Nishikawa through the classic portion, but was all too eager to hit the skate portion charging. He was so eager, in fact, that he went in for the equipment exchange one lap early.
“Babikov really hammered the 3rd climb to the tower and split the group. That’s when I fell off the back a few times,” remembered Zimmermann of the 3rd classic lap. “He must have thought it was his last classic leg before he went in for the exchange.” But once he realized his mistake, he jumped back in line and was only a few seconds back after 300 meters of that final classic leg.
The Russian-born Canadian citizen is known as one of the fastest exchangers on the World Cup, and he might have just made it out of the box in under a second. But, as quickly as the skate leg began for Babikov, so also ends his role in this race story. Just let your imagination take you were it will, as long as while you are out there imagining, make sure he’s in front. Way in front.
Around the time that Babikov left Southam and Zimmermann, there was no one left to challenge them for the win. “James and I skied a bit together and quickly dropped Graham, but then I slowly started to ski away on the second skate lap. When it became apparent that Babikov was gone James relegated himself to a fight for the title. I can definitely say that there were some bonks going on out there,” described Zimmermann.
With an opposing race strategy and charging lead through the classic portion, Southam had his work cut out for him after the exchange to skate equipment. The veteran skier obviously knows that when you make a move to lead a pack, you don’t let them hang on you, you go.
“I tried to push the classic part, and Leif caught up on the flats in the skate,” Southam added for his strategic performance. “I definitely had a feed go down the wrong tube at one point. It was also nice to have Ivan there to help break us from the pack, and Graham could hang on there a bit too. It was really tough out there.”
While the fight for the title panned out in solitude, the battle for the third national podium spot was started, led, and ended by Brent Knight. If these races were won by caloric output, Brent would have a been given medal. Unfortunately for the Soldotna Native endurance athlete, this race was decided by the first skier across the finish line. Nevertheless, Knight came from a slow classic leg to catch the first major chase pack including Lars Flora, Colin Rogers, Chris Cook and Bryan Cook, and then proceded to lead and pull them for the next three laps.
Knight pushed through cramps and difficult bindings on his transitions to catch the pack he’d lost. “I had a bad transition and a problem with a binding and that cost me a lot of time. I also started cramping bad during the classic, but felt comfy sitting behind the pack once I caught them. About 1.5K later I started to felt good again and started to move. [Once he made his move,] Kuzzy had really good skate legs. I have no regrets, this was old fashioned ski racing, man!”
Lars Flora skied right behind Knight’s pressing lead and eventually overtook him near the end of the final lap with Garrott Kuzzy, both of whom are known for their sprinting abilities. After the race, Flora had plenty to add about Knight’s performance. “Brent skied the best. I was working to stay with him. I just kept telling myself that if I could stay with him then I was pretty positive that I could out sprint him.”
“Everything went well and it was a big pack. It’s fun to see so many people. Everyone was skiing pretty much the same, but of course Ivan was in a league of his own. He’s the best climber in the world. This course was great for his climbing ability because of all the hills, and in that respect the course was really beautiful.”
Until last season’s Canmore World Cup, Garrot Kuzzy considered himself a distance racer. But, these days he’s continued to show that he’s just as much one to avoid in a finishing sprint. Also starting the classic portion a few positions back, Kuzzy skated right up to Knight’s pack and caught a comfy ride before making a powerful move with Flora for the bronze.
When asked about Kuzzy’s move, Flora answered that “Kuzzy is a good sprinter and it was totally unknown. I didn’t really want to go on the back stretch, so I just tucked in behind Kuzzy did everything I could to stay on him.”
Kuzzy added, “It felt good to get a ride and take a lap to rest. Lars deserved that finish. I felt like I didn’t have enough speed. He had a really amazing sprint.” While both skiers hit the sprint for the finish line hard, Flora visibly had the extra pop to out-kick everything that Kuzzy had for the medal.
After the World Cup Final and Today’s pursuit races, all that remains for the 2008/2009 season is the 30K and 50K races on Sunday. Start times are in the morning, and the bittersweet feelings of another season coming to a close are well apparent in the air around the races. Just like last year, Cheif of Competition John Estle has put together some extremely busy courses with plenty of elevation gain and lively transitions for the cardio-savvy at Birch Hill.
All of us here in Fairbanks are looking forward to a great time filming, timing, cooking, eating, drinking, reporting, and of course, racing in the end of the season on Sunday.
All of the following outstanding photos are credited to Lance and Danny Parrish of Fairbanks, Alaska.