Today: Rain. Patchy fog. High near 44. South wind between 10 and 13 mph. Wind gusts as high as 34 mph.
The forecast for Friday’s 15 and 20k mass start classic races read like a bad joke to the coaches and athletes of this year’s second – and final – nordic race at the NCAA championships. Thankfully, the wind never did pick up. But after it started, the rain barely let up. It rained so hard that the waxing tents flooded, and race volunteers scrambled to dig drainage channels through the ice with limited success.
Rain gear made of plastic bags were sported by coaches and spectators alike. Klister combinations were applied with frenetic concentration, only to be abandoned by some for no-wax skis. The track was firm enough, but slow, and for many the choice of skis became a last minute decision; choosing between less-than perfect glide or less-than perfect kick as the temperatures stayed steady but the tracks became more saturated with water.
In these conditions one might think it would become very important to have a set of skis that were perfectly flexed for the individual.
But today the two winners – both from the University of Colorado – raced on a single pair of no-wax skis.
Eliska Hajkova and Reid Pletcher were the champions of today’s races: one a clear favorite, the other a gambler’s jackpot.
Hajkova , a junior from the Czech Republic, had been second many times in the western qualifying races to Utah’s Maria Graefnings (this year points winner of the RMISA region and the winner of Wednesday’s NCAA skate race). The first time Hajkova beat Graefnings was at Regionals, in the same race format as today. Hajkova had not been satisfied by that win, however, as Graefnings had fallen close to the finish. So today Hajkova wanted to win outright, and she envisioned a battle to the finish line. But after skiing with her rival for most of the race, the two trading leads back and forth but well in front of the rest of the field, Hajkova pulled away from Graefnings in the final hundred meters without a strong answer and was able to cross the finish line 4.2 seconds ahead of Graefnings, in a time of 53:33.3.
“I asked Maria why she didn’t go with me in the finish and she said, ‘I didn’t have the kick to go with you’,” Hajkova recounted.
Hajkova’s no-wax skis weren’t perfect, but she was happy that she picked them.
“They weren’t that fast on the downhills, but they had awesome kick. I really wanted to kick, because the finish was all about kicking, and I was looking for the sprint.”
Though Graefnings wasn’t able to give Hajkova the satisfaction of a photo-finish, Hajkova felt that in this race she won a fair fight.
“I didn’t feel bad because I was leading for two laps, so I was doing a lot of work out there.”
In third place strode Jamie Bronga from the University of Alaska Anchorage. Bronga was not racing in the lead pack for the first lap but she steadily moved up in the chase pack behind Graefnings and Hajkova, and her patience paid off; though she finished 32 seconds behind the leader, she was in the clear for third, 8 seconds ahead of 4th place finisher Zoe Roy of Utah and another 18 seconds up on Joanne Reid of Utah, who rounded out the top five in a time of 54:35.
The men’s 20k was a more tightly contested race, as a large pack of nearly a dozen racers stuck tight through three of the four laps. The crowded stadium held its breath in anticipation of a pack sprint to the finish, but it was a lone Colorado skier who emerged from the woods for an uncontested and broad-smile finish. Reid Pletcher, a junior from Sun Valley, Idaho, had always been a solid skier for CU but had never before traveled to the NCAA’s. After a great racing season on the west where he finished fifth on the points list, he was disappointed to finish 23rd in Wednesday’s skate race. But he entered Friday’s classic race with a clean mental slate, hopped on his teammates skis (because he didn’t have a pair of no-wax skis of his own) and ended up taking even his coach off-guard.
“I was surprised as anybody to see him leading into the stadium with a gap,” said CU coach, Bruce Cranmer. “I was totally amazed.”
Cranmer explains that Pletcher was fully capable of the race, and that Wednesday’s result may have been “a case of nerves”.
“I think he had that behind him, and was more relaxed, “ explained Cranmer, “and I said ‘look, just focus on the details, and not on the big win or how good you can do, just take care of all the little stuff , ski relaxed, and you’ll be there.”
Pletcher was there, all right. He knew he was feeling pretty good, he liked the loaner skis, and after the pack settled into pace after a frantic mass start, Pletcher bided his time.
“I had great skis, I was just sitting in the pack, trying to conserve energy, sitting in about 7th place for most the race,” said Pletcher.
Then, midway through the race UNM’s Tor-hakon Hellebostad made a move.
“Tor-hakon put the hammer down right at the bottom of the last hill, and then he moved over to the other lane and I had open sailing so I figured I would see what would happen if I went for it,” Pletcher recalled.
With a kilometer to go, Pletcher made his final move and sailed – even without a tailwind to help him – into the finish line for victory.
“I usually don’t ski very well at sea level,” explained Pletcher of his turn-around NCAA results. “I have a hard time coming down from altitude, because in the past I haven’t really figured out how to pace it, so I’m not sure what happened Wednesday but it wasn’t what I was looking for. I think I just needed another hard effort, and it worked out today.”
And how did he make Hajkova’s softer skis work for him?
“I’ve been on a diet: croutons and water,” Reid joked.
Meanwhile, Eric Bjornsen of UAA was having his own determined race. Missing many of the western qualifiers while competing at World Juniors (after placiing 4th in the sprint at US nationals he placed 14th at the Otepaa sprint), Bjornsen proved that he was not just a sprint specialist with a second place finish, 4.3 seconds behind Pletcher and just 1.3 seconds up on CU’s Vegar Kjoelhamar. One of the strongest Western skiers, Kjoelhamar wasrunner-up in in in Wednesday’s skate race, and for much of the classic Kjoelhamar looked in calm control. But when Pletcher made his final move, Kjoelhamar did not have the same finishing kick, and instead battled for second with Bjornsen, Hellebostad, and Utah’s Didrik Smith. In the end it was Kjoelhamar in third, leaving the week with two podiums under his belt. Hellebsostad crossed the line in fourth, just .4 seconds up on Smith in fifth who marked a time of 1:05:39.7
The NCAA Skiing championship combines both nordic and alpine scores to determine the overall winner, and the CU team – headed by today’s top results by Pletcher, Kjoelhamar, and Hajkova – definitely handed over the baton to their alpine teammates in great standings. With the final slalom even slated for today, the CU Buffs sit in a commanding 85 point lead over Utah and another 62 points ahead of Dartmouth.
The combination of pure nordic scores from Wednesday’s individual 5 and 10 k skate races combined with today’s 15 and 20k mass start classic races shows the top 5 final team scores:
1. Colorado: 451
2. Utah: 400
3. Dartmouth: 378
4. New Mexico: 304
5. Vermont: 283
Men’s All-American Podium, 20k mass start classic:
1 15 PLETCHER, Reid CU 1:05:31.4
2 25 BJORNSEN, Erik UAA 1:05:35.7
3 4 KJOELHAMAR, Vegard CU 1:05:37.0
4 9 HELLEBOSTAD, Tor–hakon UNM 1:05:39.3
5 18 SMITH, Didrik UU 1:05:39.7
6 1 HAVLICK, Miles UU 1:05:53.6
7 13 KOONS, Nils DAR 1:06:04.4
8 6 LIEBNER, Andy NMU 1:06:11.2
9 7 KAAS, Martin UNM 1:06:14.8
10 11 OSTENSEN, Jesper CU 1:06:21.9
Women’s All-American Podium,15k mass start classic:
1 4 HAJKOVA, Eliska CU 53:33.3
2 1 GRAEFNINGS, Maria UU 53:37.5
3 32 BRONGA, Jaime UAA 54:09.6
4 11 ROY, Zoe UU 54:17.5
5 9 REID, Joanne CU 54:35.8
6 10 GLEN, Amy UVM 54:39.1
7 5 BRENNAN, Rosie DAR 54:50.2
8 20 JONSSON, Sofie UNM 54:58.0
9 25 ROMBACH, Laura UAA 55:00.6
10 12 WENG, Martine Udnes UNM 55:09.7