Whomever came up with the overused aphorism “no guts, no glory,” certainly was not referring to cross-country ski racing. But Saturday’s SuperTour Sprint Showdown provided plenty of images that would do just fine adorning the front of a cheap tee-shirt.
There was some measure of glory (albeit in the first race of the season), and fortunately, the guts were of the figurative sense—though given the sounds coming out of many skiers in the finish corral, it would not have been surprising to see the literal variety as well.
Caitlin Gregg (formerly Compton) (CXC) took the lions share of the glory on a brutal West Yellowstone sprint course edging out CXC teammate Jessie Diggins (CXC/USST) by 2.54 seconds in the two race event.
Gregg overcame a 2.55 second deficit after the classic portion by winning the skate race in convincing fashion, five seconds ahead of second-place Diggins.
The unique and controversial format, which consists of a single run through a point-to-point classic sprint course, immediately followed by a second pass using the skate technique, is in its second season.
Both races are scored as individual SuperTour events, but an overall winner is named based on combined time and awarded $250.
Diggins, who made a splash at last year’s World Championships with two top-30 results, held the pole position in the individual start race in West Yellowstone, and set the tone from the get-go. Win, lose or draw, there is no one who puts out more effort than the 20-year-old US Ski Team athlete.
With a 15 second gap between starters there was never any chance Diggins would see anyone coming up from behind, and as the first racer there would be no splits for a performance point of reference.
No matter, as she flew through the early gradual climbs on the 1600-meter course, before gaining a brief breather on the one significant descent. Any respite, however, was short lived as the route swung into a final climb of epic proportions.
One racer described the early part of the hill as a “good hard sprint climb.” And then the skiers hit the steep part.
Diggins, light and quick, hammered to the top, collapsing across the line, completely spent, gasping and practically yelling with pain. As the day wore on, she wasn’t alone in literally crawling out of the way of the steady stream of finishers.
Those who didn’t collapse had to be caught by volunteers so they didn’t slide down the hill and back across the finish line.
Her time of 4:36.94 was good enough to hold off teammate Jennie Bender (CXC) by a mere .76 seconds. But as well as Diggins skied, she did receive some help from Bender, or more accurately from Bender’s equipment.
“Less than a foot” out of the gate, one of Bender’s baskets detached from her pole, and she was forced to slow and get a replacement from a coach.
“I feel like I could have make up a couple seconds if I didn’t have to stop poling, take off the old one, and replace it along the whole starting stretch,” Bender told FasterSkier.
Additionally, the new pole was quite a bit longer, but it was good enough to “power through it.”
Bender, after just missing the victory, may have made the understatement of the day, describing her classic effort as “fairly strong.”
Gregg placed fourth, just behind Sun Valley’s Nicole DeYong who, supposedly “retired” is making use of those quotation marks, showing the form that had her in the running for an Olympic berth in 2010.
With the wall of a climb looming at the end, Gregg, a stronger skate sprinter, planned on striding as long as she felt she was moving well, before switching to a herring-bone once she started “muscling” her kick.
“There was definitely that point of no return,” Gregg said of the climb. She opted to switch over to the running V before she started slipping, and was able to use the skier ahead of her as a gauge of speed.
With the finish a full kilometer from the start, racers had no time to hang around—there would be no results to pore over, or proper warm down. Back to the stadium, switch to skate gear and get ready to go again.
Keeping the same running order, Diggins led the charge a second time, out in her supposedly stronger technique. But Gregg also a stronger skater, would not be denied.
The Olympic veteran executed her race plan to perfection, taking advantage of a non-traditional course that favored her strengths as a climber.
“I took a slightly conservative relaxed skiing approach,” Gregg told FasterSkier after the race.
“I talked to my coach, and we tried to focus on technical components of my skiing, and skiing a really smart race in terms of pacing and saving for the end,” she continued.
Gregg sat out the Showdown last season and described herself as “a little nervous about the format with the short break.” But with no splits and no results immediately available racers were forced to evaluate their efforts solely on how they felt.
And Gregg, still unaware of her skate and overall victory summed her day up thusly: “I executed exactly how I had hoped to – so it was a successful race.”
Diggins may not have repeated he classic performance, but she certainly didn’t slack off. She placed second behind Gregg, 5.09 seconds behind the winning time of 3:51.12. If the overall had been based on combined place as opposed to time, it would have been Diggins with $250 in her pocket.
But she seemed unconcerned afterward, and with a trip to the World Cup already planned for later in the winter, these early races are an opportunity to prepare for the long season.
“I was just focusing on process goals today, getting in a good warm up and cool down within 5 minutes after finish,” Diggins said.
She may have taken her strong results in stride, but pre-race was another story.
“This morning I was shaking so hard I could barely braid my hair,” Diggins described. “I had to lay down in the middle of breakfast. First race of the year I’m always so nervous.”
And understandably given her first and second on the day Diggins felt “good about what happened” on the track.
Jason Cork CXC Head Coach doesn’t see the races as overly important, echoing his athletes’ sentiments—the day was on opportunity to practice and learn.
“We had everyone write goals, figure out what they wanted to do today and look at them before the race,” Cork said.
Kate Fitzgerald (APU) who kicked off a breakthrough season in West Yellowstone last year, followed up a fifth in the classic with a podium in the skate. With her trademark look, a combination of fierce determination and control, she excelled in a distance that she does not view as her strong suit.
“I feel like sprinting is not quite my natural strength,” Fitzgerald said.
She planned her race accordingly, a simple strategy that consists simply of “going for it from the line.”
With the two quick races and the short turn-around time, Fitzgerald described the morning as a “blur.”
Like Gregg, Fitzgerald has a predilection for climbing, and she felt the course suited her in that respect. But despite her third place result, she was a full 12.7 seconds down—an indication of the strength of Gregg’s races.
As an interesting aside, the time differentials of the longer classic race (time-wise) were much closer than the skate edition.
Eliska Hajkova (CU) was fourth in the skate, and DeYong completed an excellent day, placing fifth.
None of the top finishers reported any issues with the wax. Both kick and glide relatively straightforward, and immaculately groomed course held up well, despite the passage of nearly 300 racers.
In a small change from last year, the classic and skate courses both finished up the same hill. Previously the classic and skate diverged just before the last ascent, with the classic taking a more circuitous and milder route to the top.
Organizers had no mercy this time around, challenging even the strongest classic skiers, and simplifying timing as only a single finish line was needed.
After a day off for Thanksgiving, racing continues on Friday with a 10km freestyle race.
Audrey Mangan contributed reporting
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.