Most 19-year-old women racing in their first-ever 30 k would be satisfied just to finish. But on Sunday in Sun Valley, Jessie Diggins (CXC) did much more: she came away with a podium at the U.S. National Championships.
After 91 minutes of classic skiing—three-quarters of it with the leaders—Diggins ended up in third place, with just enough gas left in her tank to hold off Morgan Arritola (USST) on her last trip up the course’s biggest hill, above the stadium.
She finished a mere 28 seconds adrift of Kikkan Randall’s winning time, but with a Swedish woman in second place, Diggins was elevated one step higher on the U.S. podium, to the silver medal.
For any other teenager, the result would have been a dream come true. But for Diggins, it was simply the next step in a season that has brought breakout race, after breakout race.
“That last time up that hill, I might have been, like, almost crying. I was in a lot of pain, and pretty vocal about it. It was kind of embarrassing,” she said afterward. “But it was really good—and the coaches gave us ridiculously good skis.”
Diggins said that she approached her first long-distance race as a kind of “experiment,” and it was one that ended up being more painful than she anticipated.
For Jason Cork, her coach at CXC, the main concern was to keep Diggins from bonking.
“We didn’t want her to go out and just blow up, and have a terrible rest of the week,” he said.
As a result, Diggins was instructed not make any kind of a move or attack, at least not until the race entered its closing stages—and she didn’t. She also made a concerted effort to do a good job of taking feeds, a maneuver she said she had never executed successfully. (An abortive attempt at the World Championships in Oslo resulted in a “Gatorade face-wash,” Diggins said.)
Through three of four seven-kilometer laps, Diggins skied with poise and patience in the pack, which dwindled from 30, down to 20, 10, and then, finally, four. She was one of the last two women dropped by Randall and Maria Graefnings (Utah), as Randall pushed the pace up the big climb.
The last portion of Diggins’ race looked excruciating, as she dug deep to keep from being reeled in by a resurgent Arritola.
Her skis had started slipping, which she attributed to deteriorating technique, and after a number of feeds, her stomach was starting to do some “curious flip-flops,” as she wrote on her blog. (On one of her final trips through the feed zone, she
was overheard saying something along the lines of “flat coke, not bubbly—I’m going to puke!” according to the website Johnny Klister.)
“[Feeding] is something I need to figure out, now, for distance races—like, what is going to work, and what I want, when,” she said.
But as Arritola put it, Diggins is a “tough little thing,” and she suffered through the upset stomach to hold onto her position by just 15 seconds, before collapsing as she crossed the line. She still looked dazed a few minutes later, as she left the finish pen.
Diggins’ result on Sunday was an indication that she hasn’t lost much since her return from Europe, where she raced impressively at the World Championships in Oslo earlier this month, and at the World Junior Championships in Estonia in January.
She’s been flying since some strong domestic races in Canada in December, and her results really haven’t taken much of a dip since then—a fact that’s not lost on Cork.
“That was a big thing for us,” he said. “She hasn’t really had a terrible race at any point this year. It’s just been really good, consistent racing—some really good, and some pretty good, but never one where you were like, ‘oh, that wasn’t worth starting.’”
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.