In her first time racing the SuperTour opener in a number of years, Morgan Arritola (Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation) seemed to feel right at home in West Yellowstone, MT, taking victory on Thursday in the women’s 10 k freestyle by 14.7 seconds over runner-up Jessie Diggins (Central Cross Country) and Caitlin Gregg (CXC, +27.9).
“It was tough,” said Arritola after finishing. “[I planned] to go out and ski as well and controlled as I could, and make every motion count.”
In a two-lap, individual-start event, hearing and responding to splits can play a significant psychological role in an athlete’s race. Arritola said she heard at one point on the course that she was down to Gregg by a few seconds, and “I focused on all I could do.”
She clearly put the hammer down, as she made up significant ground in the last quarter of the race. “She must have skied a heck of a second lap,” said Gregg, who started 90 seconds behind Arritola.
The top six in both the men’s and women’s races on Thursday came away prize money, and the winners went home with $750.
On an unforgiving course with plenty of transitions and few opportunities for recovery, many skiers said their plan was to ski controlled and conservatively enough to have something left at the end. Perhaps due to pre-race jitters, some were able to stick to their strategy better than others.
“I definitely took the first half pretty fast and the second lap I could taste blood in the back of my throat,” said Diggins. “The wheels started to come off quite a bit, but I kind of got a second wind.”
Despite training to peak later in the season for World Cups after U.S. Nationals, the fact that Diggins has already been on the podium three times in West Yellowstone indicates that she’s in fine form. Many of her competitors are going all-out in these early season races in the fight for SuperTour leadership and World Cup start rights.
“[Now] is kind of like, get your race legs back,” said Diggins of her approach to this point in her winter. “I’m still working on how to pace longer races. I’m not so far out of high school, where we just did 5 k’s. This is good for me; it is a good learning experience every time.”
A spectator can never truly get inside a skier’s head, which is where the majority of racing goes on in an individual-start event. From athletes’ remarks after the finish, however, the focal point of such a race becomes the course—skiing it efficiently and crossing the line at the exact moment of sheer exhaustion.
“I’ve definitely raced too hot here before [before]…at this altitude and blown up,” said Gregg. “I knew I had some speed in there, it was more a matter of reeling it in and not letting it go too soon. That said, three-quarters of the way through I found myself saying, ‘OK, now it’s time to go.’”
Alexa Turzian of the University of Colorado, who finished 32 seconds behind Gregg in fourth, thought that the course required agility as well as endurance.
“There were a lot of corners on the course, so it was about working them. It’s not just about stamina,” she said.
Turzian surprised even herself with her fourth-place finish, +59.9 back from Arritola. As a collegiate athlete, Turzian said she’s been sleep deprived managing schoolwork recently, and before looking at the results would have thought she’d landed in the top-10. She knew she was in the running for a top result out on the course, but didn’t want to get too excited at the risk of getting sloppy with her form.
“When I get excited like that I…forget about technique,” said Turzian, who is not unused to hearing good split reads on the course. “I had to calm myself down and ski effectively…I usually make gains in the end anyway, and have better splits in the second lap.”
Thursday’s 10 k required competitors to have their aerobic engines running strong, and acclimation to 6,000 + feet certainly didn’t hurt either. Arritola, Turzian, and fifth-place finisher Nicole DeYong (SVSEF) all live and train at higher altitudes for the majority of the year. That said, DeYong said she definitely “felt the lungs burning at the end.”
The women gear up for a 5 k classic individual start on Friday at 10:00 am. For her recovery, Gregg said she planned to “pound some chocolate milk, cool down with teammates…and get fired up for tomorrow.”
Topher Sabot contributed reporting.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.