RUMFORD, Maine — The stadium at Black Mountain held its collective breath as spectators waited for the lead pack of the women’s 20 k classic mass start to come through for the last time at the U.S. Cross Country Championships. The question in everyone’s mind was, could Jessie Diggins (CXC/USST) pull off yet another win?
The race came down to tactics — the top five women stayed in a tight group for the first five laps, exchanging the lead on and off. But for Diggins, that was all part of the plan, and as she came up the gradual hill for the final 200 meters, she was charging hard with a considerable gap on runner-up Ida Sargent (CGRP/USST). Diggins’ teammate Jennie Bender (CXC) took third.
The lead pack of women for the latter part of the race consisted of Diggins, Bender, Sargent, Kate Fitzgerald (APU), Caitlin Gregg (CXC) and Dasha Gaiazova (RMR/CNST). They weren’t so much of a breakaway as simply the only women fit enough to hold the fast pace they were setting. A few college skiers hung in the top group for as long as they could, but one by one fell off the pace.
The lead group was skiing so close to one other that those who found themselves in the back row of the pack at any point had to stand up out of their tucks to avoid skiing on the tails of the women in front.
“There was a little bit of frantic stuff,” said Diggins after her win. “I think we did a good job taking turns … I wanted to stay near the front to avoid tangles, but didn’t want to be the one leading the entire race.”
She made her wishes known, too. There was quite a bit of chatter going on between skiers in the front group, as the women jockeyed to avoid doing the lead work for any significant stretch of time.
“I’d turn to someone and say, ‘OK, go, your turn,’ ” Diggins said. “I think it worked out really well, and on that last lap I was like, ‘All right, I don’t want it to come down to a five-way sprint,’ so I decided to just push it and I thought, ‘If I can make it come down to who’s willing to hurt the most, I might have a shot.”
She gave herself more than just a shot. Though it was less of a margin than she won by on Thursday, Diggins ended up crossing the finish line 11.6 seconds ahead of Sargent, who had stayed up front for much of the race, sometimes taking the lead.
Sargent got off to a frustrating start at nationals this week, breaking a pole in the A-final of the skate sprint and was happy to have finally cracked the podium.
“This was my longest race this year, so it was a good experience,” she said as she caught her breath in the finish pen. “I was trying to catch [Diggins], but she’s pretty quick!”
Sargent said she had good kick, but her glide was less than perfect, which had her worried about getting caught on the downhills.
“I was really scared they were going to come blowing by me to the finish, so I was psyched to be able to hold them off,” she said.
Diggins and Sargent may ski for separate clubs teams, but their 1-2 performance had Matt Whitcomb, their U.S. Ski team coach, pretty happy. Both women are headed to Milan, Italy, after racing concludes this week to ski in the World Cup city sprints there next weekend.
“Jessie’s been playing around with some strategy this week and has been clearly skiing on fire,” he said. “She kept things under control … when she wins, there’s no stopping her.”
He also noted that second place was a great result for Sargent.
“She was mingling in the top 30 in Rogla,” he said. “So I was expecting something like this.”
Bender, who prefers classic races, took her second third-place finish of the week just two seconds behind Sargent (+13.6), contributing to a stellar week for CXC so far at nationals. Like the two women ahead of her, Bender skied in the lead pack for the majority of the 20 k, which made for a fun race, she said.
As for the shuffling back and forth that went on, she said it’s just a natural part of mass-start racing.
“It’s all part of the game,” she said. “You have to … take your time leading, and get back in the pack and relax. It makes it fun.”
Coaches were in a bit of a panic early Friday morning, as an unexpected inch or two of fresh, dry snow was enough to throw a wrench in what was expected to kick well. Sargent’s skis ended up dragging, but Diggins said her boards were running fairly well in both the kick and glide department.
“By the end, obviously, [the kick] was wearing off and you had to be very focused to make them kick,” Diggins said. “You know as you get tired, your technique starts to disintegrate, but I thought they were great.”
Gaiazova, who finished in fourth behind Bender at +16.7, felt lukewarm about her race, but is excited to get ready for her favorite event, the classic sprint on Sunday. Kate Fitzgerald (APU) was fifth at 28.2 seconds back, and besides Diggins.
U.S. Nationals competition resumes on Sunday with the classic sprints.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.