ROSSLAND, British Columbia — Some 2,500 kilometers or 1,550 miles away from Wisconsin, the Central Cross Country (CXC) ski team was feeling a little travel-weary as it rolled into Rossland on Monday.
After almost five weeks on the road, some of its members decided to remedy their bodies and minds with a distance ski on the Rossland-Paulson classic-only trail. A little confusion led Jessie Diggins and Jennie Bender to the wrong trail, Seven Summits, where they climbed a snowshoe-packed path for more than an hour.
In a blog post, Bender wrote how it was “the most action the inside edge of (her) classic skis had ever seen.” Eventually, the two turned around and began the hairy descent. One of their coaches, Gus Kaeding, made a point to follow them up and jumped out from some bushes to scare them on the way down.
The lighthearted workout was exactly what some of them needed, with plenty of wipeouts to go around. Even CXC Head Coach Jason Cork joined them.
“It was actually really good, especially after you’ve been on the road so much and it’s just like, go to ski trail, go to ski trail,” Cork said. “This was definitely a different challenge and everybody fell multiple times, which usually doesn’t happen so that was kind of funny. And nothing got broke, so that was great.”
Four days later, the four CXC athletes in Rossland proved they were ready to race as each of them qualified for the heats in the NorAm Teck Sprints on Saturday.
Diggins won the women’s 1.4 k freestyle sprint qualifier by more than five seconds in 3:06.92. Andrea Dupont of the Rocky Mountain Racers was the second fastest qualifier in 3:12.25, and Marlis Kromm (Alberta World Cup Academy) ranked third.
After fourth- and fifth-place AWCA qualifiers Alysson Marshall and Heidi Widmer, Bender notched her best freestyle qualifier of the season, finishing sixth. Teammate Sara Hewitt made it through in 12th.
By the time the heats rolled around, it appeared all of the CXC women were skiing particularly strong. Diggins dominated the quarters and semifinals — skating out ahead of the group in order to avoid any crashes on the tight and winding course at Black Jack Ski Club.
In the ‘A’ final, the 20-year-old Diggins won by a clear-cut margin for her seventh straight victory this season. Bender finished close behind in third after Marshall edged her at the line.
“Two people on the podium and one that close to being second is pretty good,” Cork said. “Anytime you either keep or improve your position that’s good.”
While Diggins held steady at No. 1 and Bender picked off several competitors along the way, Hewitt notched her best performance of the season, making the ‘B’ final and placing 12th overall.
“(Hewitt) looked good in the heats,” Cork said. “She was probably a little tired by the time we got to the last one, but I mean, it’s December. It’s not even Christmas yet.”
Yet somehow, the CXC athletes had already managed 10 starts. While consistently good results justified the packed schedule, these races were most important for preparation, Cork said.
“At this point, it’s nice because nobody has those pre-race jitters anymore,” he said. “The difference between the first night at West Yellowstone and last night, it’s a big difference.”
Diggins used the race to try some new things, such as course-specific tactics and a jogging warm-up. She resolved to attack the first hill early, pushing through a smaller incline just beyond the top.
“I knew there wasn’t going to be a whole lot of places to get around (racers),” she said. “The strategy was just kind of work on that fast, ‘Boom!’ on the gun and try to work on getting out real quick.”
The plan worked, but even Diggins experienced some close encounters on the short loop.
“I got my pole stepped on, I’m sure I probably stepped on someone else’s,” she said. “It was good practice. It makes it more exciting right from the start, learning how to maneuver your way around people.”
For Bender, it was more of the same. In her last two sprints, she lost a pole basket in race tangles. On Saturday, Bender said she was cut off twice — first in the semifinal and then the ‘A’ final.
“I realized I respond well to that,” Bender said. “That’s one of those really beneficial things in sprinting, the fact that if I get cut off or something crappy happens with my equipment, that fires me up.”
That was the case in the final women’s race of the day, in which Bender forged ahead to second to lead the Diggins chase pack. Coming into the stadium, she caught a glimpse of one of her late challengers, and found herself competing with two others — Marshall and Dupont — for second place.
Marshall beat her by a leg, and Dupont was fourth.
“I’m trying to work on being powerful and getting my skis not to be squirrelly,” Bender said. “I think it was a really good sprint. The other girls are really good sprinters as well. I obviously wish I had that extra foot to get me in second, but I’m happy.”
For the second straight weekend, Marshall was second in a sprint final. Like the CXC athletes, she fought some fatigue throughout the week, but recovered in time for the heats. In the final, she called upon some recent memories from racing overseas to pull her through.
“I was kind of motivated by the World Cup girls just free skating around after the downhill, using my momentum to get to the finish,” Marshall said.
The final stretch of Rossland’s sprint course was similar to that.
“So it seemed to work out today,” she said.
After placing third in last weekend’s classic sprint, Dupont said she didn’t have anything left at the end of the freestyle ‘A’ final on Saturday.
“I was happy with it overall,” Dupont said of her fourth-place finish. “I just kind of lactated out I guess and didn’t have it on the finishing stretch.”
Widmer was fifth overall and said she was pleased to escape the day without any major incidents. Her older brother, Phil, was seeded second in the men’s race and crashed out of contention in the first round of heats. Heidi Widmer’s quarterfinal was held up as a result.
“I was holding my breath … all these volunteers were saying, ‘Stop the race, stop the race,’ “ she said. “I knew Phil’s race was on course and he had shoulder surgery last spring. I was crossing my fingers. I didn’t want his shoulder to be thrown out.”
He was physically OK, but disappointed about not advancing.
Last year, Heidi Widmer said teammate Kate Brennan injured her shoulder on the same corner where her brother and another academy racer, Matt Wylie, fell in Rossland on Saturday.
Brennan won the ‘B’ final this year and was seventh overall after passing another AWCA athlete, Emily Nishikawa, on the last downhill.
Kromm achieved a career-best of sixth in a sprint after making her first open ‘A’ final.
“It’s always nice to be at the front of the group, but you’ve got to start somewhere, so I’m happy,” Kromm said. “The girls were pretty tough today.”
Nishikawa was eighth, Annika Hicks (AWCA) was ninth and Alana Thomas (Nakkertok) made the top 10. Erin Tribe (NDC) was 11th after making the ‘B’ final.
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Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.