RUMFORD, Maine – There was no sugarcoating it. U.S. Ski Team member Noah Hoffman wasn’t happy with his performance on Thursday at the 2012 U.S. Cross Country Championships.
The 22-year-old had gone out too hard in the men’s 15 k freestyle individual start at Black Mountain. The definitive race leader for the first two laps, Hoffman dealt with the consequences of his pacing – or lack thereof – on the last two.
With the fourth-place memory still fresh in his mind, Hoffman channeled his emotions into Friday’s race, taking hold of the men’s 30 k classic mass start and refusing to let go.
“It’s relatively inexcusable, in my opinion, to make the same mistake over and over again,” Hoffman said on Friday. “I was disappointed and I felt like my energy was great so I wanted to go out there today and show what I can do.”
Hoffman won the mass start in 1 hour, 26 minutes and 49.3 seconds, nearly a minute ahead of his next closest competitor, David Norris of the Alaska Winter Stars and Montana State University (+53.6). Dartmouth skier Eric Packer was third after moving to the front of the chase group on the second to last lap. The college senior finished 1:16.7 behind Hoffman.
From the starting gun, Hoffman made a point to get out early without getting too far ahead, working with Team HomeGrown and USST teammate Tad Elliott. After pulling for the first few laps, Elliott turned to Hoffman while in a tuck after cresting the steep and winding High School Hill, and yelled, “Come on, Hoff!”
With four 3.26 k loops remaining, Elliott, who won the 30 k freestyle race at nationals last year, wanted to widen the gap they had already gained on the crowded pack of about 15 to 20 men. Hoffman wasn’t sure he was ready to go just then.
“[It] was maybe earlier than I had intended on going, but by the same token, it was a good time,” Hoffman said. “We were having fun.”
Earlier in the race, the two had kept things light – skiing fast yet relaxed and making jokes along the way. As they checked off the nine laps, Hoffman gave Elliott an occasional boost on the downhills, pushing his poles while drafting him.
By the end of the fourth lap, Norris worked his way up to Hoffman with Torin Koos (Bridger Ski Foundation/Rossignol), and Elliott fell back to fourth. Hoffman maintained his game plan – to ski the first six laps as easy as possible – while holding the lead.
With three laps to go, he went for it in the stadium.
“I decided that I wanted to go, just ski a 10 k time trial and see if I could ski people off my tail,” Hoffman said. “[I] didn’t really know if it was going to last, but it just kind of kept growing.”
Over the next lap, he widened the gap by nearly 45 seconds. With one lap to go, he was about a minute and 20 seconds ahead of Norris, who was also skiing alone.
While Hoffman said his wax techs and coaches, Dan Weiland and Eric Pepper, and Caldwell Sport made his skis the fastest out there, he couldn’t stop smiling about his performance.
“It’s not very often that a race works out just like you planned, but it did today and I felt great,” Hoffman said.
“From skiing with him the whole race, I knew the writing was on the wall,” said Elliott, who placed 13th (+1:40.3). “Noah was going to have a good day.”
Traditionally known as a distance skate specialist, Elliott said he had been working on his classic technique. He started Friday’s 30 k with the notion that he’d be helping his teammates, Hoffman and Sylvan Ellefson, who finished 17th. As the race progressed, he realized he might be a podium contender.
“I knew our skis were fast, I knew we were skiing well, so I was hoping that I’d be able to stay with Noah and take 1-2 on the day,” Elliott said. “Wasn’t able to do that, but Noah held up on his end.”
After claiming the 15 k title on Thursday, Elliott figured he wouldn’t have much left at the end of Friday’s race.
“I dug pretty hard in the middle of the race so I knew the snap was kind out my legs for the last lap,” he said. “I felt comfortable in the chase group. I just don’t have the finish like those guys do. They’re a little bigger than I am.”
When Hoffman charged with two laps to go, Norris knew he had plenty in the tank and hoped Hoffman didn’t.
“I just wanted to win so I went with Noah,” said Norris, a freshman at Montana State. “I was basically just redlining it, going as hard as I could and hoping that maybe Noah would blow up.”
But he didn’t. Unable to catch Hoffman, Norris decided to widen his gap from the others to secure second place. It was his best result at that distance since placing fourth two years ago at nationals in the same race.
The third man on the podium, Packer also set a personal best in the 30 k after initially setting his sights on Tuesday’s freestyle sprints. He fell in the qualifier and didn’t make the heats, and hoped his luck shape up for the rest of the week.
On Friday, he was still recovering from a cold, but felt strong enough to challenge the chase group’s leaders toward the end of the race. He successfully pulled away from Lars Flora (Alaska Pacific University), Matt Gelso (Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation) and Koos to place third by nearly 6 seconds.
“It was only around the eighth lap I thought I actually have a shot at this,” he said after hanging around the top 20. “And I went for it.”
Flora, who turned 36 on Friday, beat Koos and Gelso for fourth. After placing second in the 30 k skate and winning the 15 k classic at nationals last year, he was satisfied with his result.
“I cramped the last couple loops. I thought for sure I was about to fall down high school hill backwards,” Flora said. “Of course you want to win all the time, [but] there’s certain things going on that sometimes fourth is as good as first the year before.”
Koos captured fifth, Gelso was sixth, and Brian Gregg (CXC) placed seventh. Rounding out the top 10 was also Pat O’Brien (Craftsbury Green Racing Program) in eighth, Bryan Cook (CGRP) in ninth, Tyler Kornfield (University of Alaska Fairbanks) in 10th.
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.