Going into the 15 k classic race in Rumford, APU’s Lars Flora had a total of four national championships to his name. But to say that he had endured a dry spell would be an understatement: it had been 1098 days since his last title, which came in Houghton, MI in 2008.
After two tough seasons, and a demoralizing defeat in Sunday’s sprint, the 32-year-old Flora finally broke through on Thursday to collect his fifth crown, besting his teammate James Southam by 18 seconds.
“It’s good to see him skiing well again,” Southam said.
Two skiers from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks (UAF) rounded out the top four, with David Norris completing the podium, 41 seconds back, and Lex Treinen in fourth.
The men ran six laps of the same course used by the women in the morning race. While organizers were limited to a 2.5-kilometer loop due to poor snow conditions, many athletes said that the race didn’t lack for challenging terrain.
Flora, however, said he still would have preferred more hills—and he opted for slick skis, which he used to stake himself to an early lead over Southam.
“The first two laps, I think I blazed it. I was really worried I was going to blow up out there,” he said.
Both Noah Hoffman (USST) and Torin Koos (Methow ODT) were within 10 seconds of Flora through five kilometers, but both lost significant time over the latter portion of the race.
For Koos, it was just the second distance competition of the year, and while he tried to ease into the race, the course’s two big climbs began to take the punch out of his legs towards the end.
“I thought I started conservative—I was really going to try to bring it home [in] the last two laps. But more, I think I just kind of skied it kind of consistent,” he said. “It was a tough course…I [could] hardly see the tracks the last two laps.”
Hoffman had nearly cracked the top-30 on the World Cup earlier this season, and he said he was skiing to win on Wednesday, in hopes of securing a spot on the U.S. team for World Championships. He looked sharp and quick on the first few laps, but couldn’t hold on.
“I just didn’t quite have what I was looking for,” he said.
Southam ultimately overtook both men by the finish, though he didn’t have quite enough to match Flora. The two are good friends, and entering Thursday’s race, they owned the same number of national titles.
“If I’m going to get beat by someone, it might as well be Lars. Although I hate to get beat by Lars,” Southam said.
Meanwhile, the 20-year-old Norris put in a strong closing lap to pick off several places and move up to third.
It was an impressive performance, though not altogether unexpected—Norris was fourth in the national championships 30 k last year in Anchorage.
Norris was actually sitting in third for most of that event, before bonking and missing out on the podium; he said that it was “awesome” to finally finish a race in the top three.
Treinen, Norris’s roommate at UAF, was another nine seconds back in fourth, and their teammate Tyler Kornfield was ninth, marking the second time in as many years that the school has turned in strong results at nationals. In last year’s classic sprint in Anchorage, UAF put three of their skiers in the top five.
According to Head Coach Scott Jerome, his team is a straightforward bunch. (Jerome included—informed of his athletes’ finishes over a walkie-talkie, the strongest language he could muster was a “holy smokes!”)
“We don’t do any super crazy peaking thing—we don’t have any secrets,” he said. “I think it’s just a good, solid training plan.”
Ultimately, though, not even UAF could touch Flora on Thursday.
While the win was his first in Rumford, it was the third captured by APU this week; between men and women, they’ve captured 75 percent of the titles awarded.
For Flora, the performance was especially gratifying after his struggles in Sunday’s classic sprint. In that race, he set the fastest time in qualification and blazed through two heats, only to collapse in the finals and watch Koos take the victory.
“I haven’t been that disappointed after a race in a long time…It wasn’t that I didn’t win or anything. It was just that I wanted a chance to go against Torin, because I was feeling so good, and I haven’t beat Torin in a sprint in forever,” he said. “I just wanted a head-to-head battle.”
The result was disappointing for Flora, but he showed Thursday that he’s still at the same level he’s been all year—a step above the form he’s found in the last two seasons.
An Olympian in 2002 and 2006, Flora missed the U.S. team for Vancouver last year, and was forced to skip a big chunk of the domestic calendar when he came down sick. But according to Koos, his occasional training partner, Flora still had the potential.
“He hasn’t raced that well the last two years, but besides for [Kris] Freeman, I think he’s the most talented distance skier we’ve got in the U.S.,” said Koos.
This year, Flora said, more rest and a few changes to his training plan left him in better shape for early-season races in West Yellowstone, where he captured three podium finishes.
Since then, he said, “it’s just confidence.”
“It’s a big difference once you start doing well—you get to relax a little bit, not second-guessing yourself,” he said. “The past few years, I’ve done so much of that.”
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.