“Comfy,” was how American Sadie Bjornsen described the leader’s chair, the seat occupied by the finishers with the best times after they cross the line in individual start races.
The young American continued a strong World Championships showing, notching her second top-30 in two starts in the 10 k classic in Oslo. Starting at bib 36, Bjornsen was not unseated as race leader for nearly five minutes, when Sweden’s Sara Lindborg took over.
Bjornsen, who started before most of the top skiers, ultimately ended the day in 29th place. She was joined in the top-30 by teammate Holly Brooks, who led the U.S. squad in 27th, while Kikkan Randall struggled to 32nd.
Like Bjornsen, Brooks’s finish was also her second top-30 of the Championships, and both women agreed that the course was one of the hardest they have experienced.
“Definitely the hilliest course I have skied,” Bjornsen said after the race, with Brooks adding, “there are some seriously big hills out here.”
They may have had the same opinion on the terrain, but each tackled the 10-kilometer loop with a different strategy.
“I knew if I took it out at a quick pace that I couldn’t sustain, it was really going to be miserable for the last 3.75 k, and the sprint hill [the last climb on the course],” Brooks said.
She tried to ski within herself and stay smooth, working into the race—an approach she described as a “completely different tactic.”
Bjornsen, on the other hand, took the opposite approach. “I kind of just went hard from the start, because I have been doing that for the last couple of races,” she said. “If I blow up, I blow up, but it is worth it to try and go out like a bat out of hell.”
Brooks categorizes middle-distance classic skiing, including the 10 k, as her weakest events. She noted that she blew up in the other two 10 k classic races she skied this year – at U.S. Nationals, and the World Cup in Drammen.
The more conservative strategy was an attempt to change that trend.
“It made a huge difference,” Brooks said.
The Canadians were led by Dasha Gaiazova in 37th, three minutes behind winner Marit Bjoergen (NOR).
Gaiazova also described the course as “really hard,” and said that pacing was critical.
“I felt like I paced the first half well, and then the second half is just fighting the pain threshold,” she said.
With the big climbs, kick was critical. Gaiazova spent all morning dialing her skis in, and the effort was worth it, as the Canadian techs eventually redid her wax job and her skis were “perfect.”
Brooks also had great skis. She said she had to get out of the track just once, but felt okay doing so after seeing silver medalist Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) do the same thing on the stadium video board.
Brooks was a last-minute addition to the start list, not getting the call to race until Sunday afternoon.
“I guess I got added to the start list late yesterday afternoon, with like 45 minutes to go until the starts were supposed to be turned in,” she said.
That meant she didn’t get to preview the course until this morning, but that clearly did not hurt her.
Gaiazova entered the race with few expectations. She said she has been focusing on sprinting, and hasn’t tailored her training to the longer events. While she was happy with her performance, she said she would like to work on improving her distance skiing next season.
Despite the race falling on a weekday, and the less spectator-friendly individual start format, the Norwegian fans were out in force.
Gaiazova found herself out on her own for much of the race—not an ideal situation.
“I’m a sucker. I love skiing with other people,” she said. “But there were lots of fans to help me along.”
She described one tough climb where a group of children were chanting, “kick in the track!”
“So I stayed in the track all the way up the hill,” Gaiazova said.
Brooks had a similar experience. She met a group of kids at the opening ceremony, who then appeared out for the race, along with their entire class. They recognized the American skier, and exhorted her on with the classic Norwegian “heia heia!”
Canadian sprinter Chandra Crawford, who placed 52nd, said there was plenty of cheering, even without fans on certain parts of the course.
“Where there weren’t people, the volunteers would pitch in,” she said.
Ida Sargent (USA), who bested Crawford by just three seconds on her way to 51st, summed up the scene: “Way more cheering than I’ve ever heard. Some parts were crazy!”
At the end of the day, though, neither Crawford nor Sargent was thrilled with her performance.
Crawford characterized her race as “not that good,” noting she waxed her skis like a surf board – thick.
“It helped me on the climbs,” she said—but she added that it was not enough.
Like Gaiazova, Sargent had few expectations.
“I haven’t been skiing that great,” she said. “It is just great to get this experience skiing here, at my first World Championships.”
Due to a problem with the athletes’ shuttle system, Sargent said she was unable to ski the course until the morning of the race.
Perianne Jones and Brooke Gosling rounded out the Canadian racers. Jones was caught by Bjornsen from 30 seconds down, and the two skied together for a bit.
“I had really good kick,” Jones said—pleased with her skis, like her Canadian teammates. “I was able to climb up everything. I didn’t have to herringbone, which I was really happy about.”
Gosling was 56th.
Randall Struggles with Conditions
Randall, in her first start since crashing out of the quarterfinals in the sprint event – a race she entered as one of the favorites – skied to 32nd place.
“I had a hard time getting really solid kick,” Randall said. “The skis were great. I haven’t quite figured it out for these conditions yet.”
She described the track as “greasy,” and washed out in places.
“I tried to get up on my toes, but I could just feel it slipping, and I kind of felt like I was hanging on by my toenails to grip in there,” she said.
Coming off the emotional sprint race, she said she was glad to get a hard effort in, even if her body wasn’t in top form, and feels that the race set her up well for the upcoming events at the Championships.
Over the last several days, she has been working on moving on from the sprint.
“I could never have anticipated the physical and mental letdown I have been going through the last couple of days,” Randall said. She has been “feeling a little more positive every day,” and was glad to “have another race to focus on and move forward.”
She started 30 seconds behind Sweden’s Ida Ingemarsdotter, the woman with whom Randall tangled with in the sprint.
“I would have liked to catch her from 30 seconds and just blow by her,” she said. “If it was there, it would have been fun today, but it wasn’t there.”
Randall kept the Swedish skier in sight on the long open hills on the Oslo courses, but eventually, Ingemarsdotter pulled away.
Randall’s next start is likely on Wednesday in the team sprint, though the U.S. has not officially announced who will race.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.