Billy Demong is not the first Nordic Combined skier to cross over to cross-country, but he is likely the only one do so in a World Championship 50k.
When American Kris Freeman opted to sit out the 50-kilometer freestyle race that brought the 2011 World Championships to a close, Demong was given the start. One of the top Nordic Combined skiers on the World Cup circuit, Demong has three World Championship Medals, as well as Olympic gold and silver.
No one, including Demong has any idea what to expect – would he be able to hang with the lead pack for a significant portion of the race, or would he be off the back quickly?
In this case, the answer ended up being the latter. Despite a slow pace out of the start, Demong blew up in the first 5k, necessitating a drastic drop in speed until he could recover, and settle into his own rhythm.
The issue was mainly tactical. Despite entering the race with concerns about the first lap, Demong, starting with the second-to-last seed in the 86-skier field, tried to take advantage of the moderate speed at the beginning to move up.
“I was just double poling up the outside and all of a sudden at 5k I was like ‘uhhh,’ Demong told FasterSkier after the race. “I think I just started like stupid.”
In hindsight, he feels the smart thing would have been to “chill out” out of the start, and not worry so much about moving up in the field.
“It just went from like ‘this is so easy’ to ‘uh-oh,’” he said.
At that point he had no choice but to slow down and refocus, and while he may have lost any chance of skiing with the lead group, there is plenty of time in a 50k to salvage a race.
“I felt like once I got my rhythm it was a really enjoyable race,” Demong said. “I felt pretty darn good the last half of that race. I was picking guys off.”
He described the event as a “learning experience,” and skied the second fastest time for the Americans in the last twenty kilometers of the race.
He continued to move up, and then he said, “at about 3k from the end I thought ‘I may have to lay down for a little bit.’”
As a Nordic Combined skier, Demong typically competes the 10-kilometer distance, though he has experienced the marathon distance many times in domestic races, and also has raced in long cycling events.
He did cramp up toward the end, rubbing his legs at the finish, and appearing to dance around as he tried to loosen up his muscles.
Cramping is often caused by dehydration, but Demong said he hit every feed. He was not alone in that department however, as numerous finishers were seen massaging their quads after they crossed the line, and several had trouble making their way out of the finish area without assistance.
The race actually clocked in at just over 52 kilometers, six times around the extremely challenging 8.6km loop at Holmenkollen, in the hills above the Norwegian capital.
Alex Harvey, the young Canadian star who placed fifth in the event, joined Demong in the mixed zone after race, and after hearing about the nordic combined skier’s experience, told him, “this is the hardest trail in the world.”
Before heading out, Demong told Harvey, “maybe some day I will get you on a jump,” to which the gold medalist in the team sprint replied laughing, “I don’t think I fly well.”
When all was said and done, Demong ended up 51st, almost twelve minutes back from winner Petter Northug (NOR).
“What I hoped for was to not do worse than that, and I hoped to do better than I got,” Demong said of his result. “I kind of hoped I would have been like a little bit higher up longer.”
“Awesome” is how he described the overall experience of racing in front of what many consider the largest crowd ever at a cross-country ski race.
“You have tens of thousands of people keeping you going,” he said. “As you get out toward Frognersetren [the high point of the course], that whole hillside between the trails was filled with people. They were like trees out there.”
When asked if he would do it again, Demong replied with an emphatic “hell yeah,” but added that he was disappointed with his performance.
“At 20k I was so pissed. I was like, I didn’t do what I wanted to do today. I didn’t ski smart in the start. I didn’t stay in this very long,” he said. But finishing stronger than he started ended the day on a positive note, and the veteran of six Nordic Combined World Championships was still proud of his accomplishment.
At the end of the day, and this is gonna sound a little bit self-serving, but there just aren’t that many nordic combined guys, or anyone else that are going to opt in on Friday night after two beers – like ‘yeah I’ll do it!’” Demong said.
“It wasn’t like a mistake,” he continued, “and I’m glad I did it and I would for sure do it again, and I hope I get the opportunity.”
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.