A World Championship 50k, let alone one at Holmenkollen, is not usually a race that one just jumps into, but US Nordic Combined star Billy Demong is doing just that. Not literally, of course—though he certainly has the chops to pull off such a feat.
With Kris Freeman opting to sit out the freestyle event scheduled for 1:00PM in Oslo, Norway, a spot on the US squad opened up.
The 50 k is second only to the 4x10km relay in the hearts and minds of the Norwegian people, and the race on home soil will make this a race for the ages.
Demong had been talking about the idea, “laughingly” as he put it, with Freeman and US Nordic Combined coach Dave Jarrett over the last few weeks, but knew that if the opportunity arose he would seize it.
Freeman approached Demong on Friday night at dinner, with the news: after a tough 15k and relay, Freeman wanted to turn his focus to the post World Championships World Cups in Lahti, and the subsequent World Cup finals.
“I went to Farra [USSA Nordic Director John Farra] and was like ‘all right man, can I do it?’” Demong said.
One conversation with the International Ski Federation (FIS) later, and it was a go.
“He feels his fitness is good right now,” US Ski Team Cross-Country Head Coach Chris Grover said. “He was able to demonstrate that several times during the championships.”
Demong showed good speed throughout the Championships in the Nordic Combined events, including posting the fastest ski time in the first individual race.
Jarrett notes that he and Demong have discussed the possibility of starting some cross-country races in the past,
though the conversation has usually revolved around a shorter distance – 10 or 15 kilometers.
Nordic combined races are currently five and 10 kilometers in length.
“[This] was an opportunity to do something fun…and a good chance to something like this,” Jarrett told FasterSkier. “And what better stage to go out and do it?”
While Demong is excited for the overall experience, this is not just about experiencing one of the biggest ski competitions in the world. Demong is going to be out racing, and looking for the best result possible.
Demong has competed in the 50k distance in the past, including the American Birkebeiner and the Yellowstone Rendezvous.
“My strengths as a skier from experience is that longer distance races, I’m pretty good at,” Demong said. “My pace for 15k and my pace for a domestic 50k are pretty similar. I really like that distance and I feel good.”
While Demong is confident in his endurance, the start is another matter.
“I’m scared a little bit. I think that first 5 k is going to be really tough,” he said.
“The nerve wracking part is ‘is it going to start at my 5 k pace and go for 5 k like that?’”
Mass starts are challenging – lose contact with the field early, coming back is next to impossible, but go out too hard on the unforgiving Oslo courses and you will be off the back anyway, and suffering mightily to boot.
Demong is aware of that but is not in a position to have a clear strategy given his lack of experience in this caliber 50k.
“I just want to get the first five to 10 k out of the way,” he said. The plan then is to settle in to a good rhythm, hopefully in a group with other strong skiers.
“I think it is going to have to be decisions on the fly,” Demong said of his tactics. “It is important to stay in contact, but at the same time it is important to not be fried at 10, 15, 20 k into the race.”
When asked for a specific goal, he said he couldn’t give a number as he has no real point of reference.
“If I had to have a goal, it would be to have a solid race, and to be strong in the last half,” Demong said. “If you are skiing strong in the last 25 k tomorrow, you will have had a good race and you will finish decently.”
The course on Sunday is also different from what Demong has experienced at the championships thus far. The nordic combined races have been held on the “blue” 2.5k lap that winds up above the stadium, always close.
A good chunk of the 50k is on the long red loop that heads further up hill, and includes a sustained two-kilometer climb to the top at Frognerseteren. Demong is looking at this hill as a place of consistent effort, as opposed to the “hammerfest” on the shorter hills further down.
The terrain should allow for “more of a rhythm,” or so Demong hopes.
“It’s a hard course—lots of climbing,” Jarrett said. “I don’t think he’s ever been in this depth of a field for a cross-country race before.”
Grover also doesn’t have a guess at where the Olympic gold medalist will end up. He doesn’t see Demong competing at the front, but says “I don’t know where he will stack up with the rest of the field.”
And while the distance may be longer than an average day at the races for a Nordic Combined skier, Grover points out that Demong has extensive cycling racing experience, so he is familiar with extended efforts and how to manage them.
“I think realistically most people, even cross-country skiers who race a decent amount of marathons, don’t ski 50k all the time,” Demong added. “When I started thinking about it I was like ‘man, I haven’t skied over two hours in a couple of weeks.’ Well, that is pretty typical for having basically peaked and tapered into Worlds.”
But because he does not have much of a cross-country points profile, Demong is starting at the back of the field, seeded ahead of only Bernardo Baena, a 20-year-old from Venezuela. Eighty-three skiers are in front of him, so not only will he have to contend with a potentially high pace out of the start, he will need to work his way through traffic.
“The first five k, if not ten, will be the really challenging part for him—he’s starting at the very back of the mass start, too,” Jarrett said.
Grover may not have any specific results expectations, but Demong is hoping for a strong performance, whatever that may mean, and he is feeling pressure.
“I’m nervous because this is a really neat opportunity,” Demong explained. “For sure there is pressure not only to do well because I’m skiing for my country, but also to do well because it could mean in the future there could be another opportunity like this for me or one of the other Nordic Combined guys.”
He was referring to potential starts in cross-country World Cup relays and shorter distance races. Several times during the season, the FIS Nordic Combined World Cup overlaps with the cross-country version. The US cross-country team does not always travel with enough men to field a relay team, or fill all start spots, a potential opening for the Nordic Combined skiers in Demong’s mind.
While biathletes have crossed over on occasion, most notably Lars Berger of Norway, who has several Championship medals to his name as part of the Norwegian cross-country relay team, there is not much history of Nordic Combined athletes doing the same.
The notable exception is the great Hannu Manninen, the Finn who won four consecutive overall Nordic Combined World Cup titles between 2004 and 2007, and has finished on the World Cup podium in a ridiculous 48% of his starts.
Demong describes him as “the exact opposite of me,” namely a sprinter. The speedy Manninen raced the first cross-country Olympic sprint for Finland – at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City. He placed eighth in that race, and in three other World Cup starts, twice cracked the top-15.
Other than that, however, Demong couldn’t think of any other Nordic Combined skiers who have raced cross-country at such a high level, at least not in the past two decades.
In the US, how the medal winning Nordic Combined skiers would stack up against the world’s best in straight cross-country has been a topic of much debate. The 50k is not the last word, but will certainly provide some perspective.
“I just hope I have a good race and maybe down the road I can do it again,” Demong says.
“I can’t think of a harder race to just go for the first time,” he concluded. “At the same time it is a pretty historic race. There is going to be probably one of the biggest crowds ever assembled for a cross-country race, on what looks like a pretty beautiful day in a historic place of Nordic skiing.”
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.