Standing at the starting gate in bib No. 107 on Sunday, Brent McMurtry of the Pierre-Harvey National Training Centre (CNEPH) looked out and saw only space in front of him.
Numbers 106 and 105 weren’t present, leaving empty race spots and more time waiting for the countdown.
While some would view not having someone to chase in an interval start as a disadvantage, McMurtry liked it. On the last day of NorAm competition in Whistler, British Columbia, he used the openness in front of him to set his own pace.
“I was really out there skiing my own race and going off feel,” McMurtry said. “I started fairly hard.”
The effort worked as planned as McMurtry secured his first NorAm victory of the season after placing second in five of the last six races. He won Sunday’s 15 k classic individual start at Whistler Olympic Park in 41:31.1.
The man who beat him in every previous distance race this season, Kevin Sandau of the Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA) was second, 7.2 seconds behind. David Greer (CNEPH) was the top U23 male on Sunday, placing a third at the 2012 World Junior/U23 Trials.
Throughout the race, McMurtry said he heard Greer’s splits, and knowing that his teammate and roommate was doing so well motivated him. He also knew Sandau started a minute behind him, and McMurtry wanted to stay out of his sight.
After taking a narrow lead in the first of four laps and extending it the second time around, McMurtry heard he was losing ground to Sandau and AWCA teammate, Graham Nishikawa, on the third lap. Nishikawa had passed Sandau, pushed the tempo and ultimately placed fourth.
“I heard that I had an 18-second gap [and] tried to hang on for dear life,” McMurtry said.
With about 3 kilometers remaining, McMurtry was confident he had the win. However, after narrowly missing first several times and crashing near the finish of Saturday’s freestyle sprint final, McMurtry knew he had to stay alert.
In three losses to Sandau, his fellow Canadian Senior Development Team member, McMurtry said their time difference amounted to about 20 seconds.
“I have had lots of close calls and lots of good opportunities,” McMurtry said. “I know it’s going to be tight … it feels good to know I’m on the right side of that.”
After losing his first NorAm distance race of the season, Sandau said he probably wouldn’t have changed much about his race, except shave 8 seconds from his time to beat McMurtry.
“It wasn’t a matter of not knowing where I stood. I thought I skied pretty comfortably,” Sandau said, adding that Nishikawa gave him a second-half boost when he needed it.
Sandau started 30 seconds behind Nishikawa and said he passed him at about 4 k. The man affectionately known as “Nish” pushed back.
“That’s definitely one of the reasons why we closed [on McMurtry],” Sandau said. “If I didn’t catch Nish, I think I would’ve still been 20 seconds behind Brent.
“I knew it was going to be a tight day today and I knew Brent was going to be hungry. I would have liked to have been eight seconds better and put him in his spot,” Sandau said with a laugh. “I know what it feels like to be second now.”
The two will have an opportunity to go at it again on Friday when the NorAm circuit moves to Canmore, Alberta.
According to Cross Country Canada, World Junior and U23 national team selections will be announced within 48 hours of Sunday’s race.
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) 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.