RUMFORD, Maine — On a comfortably cold day at Black Mountain, Jessie Diggins (Central Cross Country/USST) extended her winning streak to 11 this season—her second national title of the week at the 2012 U.S. Cross Country Championships. Dasha Gaiazova (Canadian National Ski Team/Rocky Mountain Racers) finished second, while Diggins’ teammate Caitlin Gregg (CXC) landed on the podium for the second time this week in third.
Despite her dominance of the domestic circuit so far this year, Diggins took to the line with something to prove.
“I wanted to prove I could win a race without anyone tripping or breaking a pole or falling—I wanted to prove that to myself more than anything,” she said afterward.
Diggins certainly made a statement with her 73.6-second victory over Gaiazova. On the focal point of the course, the intimidating High School Hill, her pace was noticeably quicker than the pack she was skiing in.
After the first of three laps, Diggins was about 30 seconds ahead of Gregg, who skied in second for the early part of the race. But some of the feedback she got from coaches left out how much of a lead she had, so she never let herself start coasting.
“A lot of splits just read ‘race leader,’ but I was like, ‘By how much?’” Diggins said. “It occurred to me that maybe I should pace it somewhat to save a bunch for tomorrow, but then I thought, well, what if there was something wrong with the timing system? I better just leave it all out there.”
When she did find out how much she was leading by, Diggins decided to keep her tempo high and go hard through the finish. Her significant winning margin over Gaiazova, who is a solid distance skater, is a good indicator of her fitness as she looks to racing in Europe next weekend.
Gaiazova, who is coming off World Cup racing earlier this season, entered the race with a similar plan—stay light on the feet and ski well on the uphills. She described the unique challenge of skiing an individual race on such fast snow.
“It’s a bit tricky to race—everyone is moving so fast, you always have to go in this over-speed mode where you’re pushing even harder to go faster,” she said. “Normally in the race when you’re moving fast on slow snow, it means you’re racing really well, but here it was important to keep pushing and pushing even though you … have so much speed.”
The snow was sugary in spots, and on High School Hill athletes said it was important to stay light and quick to avoid fishtailing on the icier surface just below.
“My strategy was to ride a flat ski as much as possible,” said Gaiazova. “I also tried to look for icy spots on the downhill to get more speed.”
Gregg, who finished 12.8 seconds behind Gaiazova, who came off a second-place sprint finish on Tuesday, was especially looking forward to the skate distance, her strongest discipline. But the course was relentless, the rolling terrain and big featured climb never giving skiers a break.
“You’ve just gotta keep moving the whole time,” Gregg said.
Her game plan involved trying to ski with someone lapping through, in the hopes that the timing would work out and put her with another strong skier.
“Last night I looked at the start list and guessed who I’d come through the lap lanes with, and I hoped it would be Alexa Turzian (University of Colorado),” she said. “I was pretty stoked coming through and she was there; she looked pretty peppy.”
With Turzian and Becca Rorabaugh (APU), Gregg was able to ski in a group for her remaining laps, which she said definitely helped her race through the finish.
Of the two races completed at U.S. Nationals so far, CXC has taken five out of six women’s podium spots, which head coach Jason Cork is happy with.
As for Diggins’ winning streak, he thinks the notable upside is her level of confidence going into Friday’s mass start.
“She kind of gets to dictate the pace tomorrow,” he said. “I could be totally wrong on that, but I know if I was racing her, I wouldn’t be [attacking] her.”
U.S. Ski Team women’s head coach Matt Whitcomb had a similar take with Diggins’ departure for the Milan World Cup coming up next week.
“She set a goal of placing in the top 30 in a distance race [on the World Cup], so she tried to go out there and have a performance on par for that,” he said. “She’s really excited; this is good for her confidence heading over to Milan.”
Alaska Pacific University’s Kate Fitzgerald skied to a strong fourth place less than a second behind Gregg (+1:27.2), and echoed her competitors’ comments on the difficulty of skiing this course.
“It’s an always-working course,” Fitzgerald said. “It seems like there’s a lot of places to rest but there’s really not at all.”
Fitzgerald said she focused on the transitions and flats rather than think too much about High School Hill.
USST development coach Bryan Fish, who observed the races from the high point of the course, was complimentary of the 3.26 k loop.
“It’s a legit course, and there conditions were really good today,” he said. “Even though there were laps, it’s a pretty long lap, so it was a good championship course.”
All Flying Point Road photo proceeds will be donated to the National Nordic Foundation (NNF).
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.