As the saying goes, you can’t win them all and some races downright hurt. Maybe that’s not the adage, but it’s the truth.
Several Americans felt an unfamiliar burn associated with disappointment on Saturday after finishing outside the top 30 in their respective World Cup mass starts in Nové Město na Moravě, Czech Republic.
U.S. Ski Team rookie Jessie Diggins led the women’s squad, placing 33rd in the 15 k classic race. Kris Freeman was also 33rd on Saturday, the top American in the men’s 30 k. He was coming off some of his best results of the season, placing 30th or better in the last three World Cup races.
For Diggins, it was the second time in eight consecutive World Cup starts this season that she placed outside the top 20. She was 6.5 seconds out of scoring points in 30th on Saturday; a position which Canadian Perianne Jones nabbed.
In an email, Diggins wrote that she had no idea she was gunning for 30th or better, but even if she had, it wouldn’t have mattered. She skied hard regardless, finishing 3:48.9 behind Norway’s Marit Bjørgen, who won in 39:20.3.
With more than 50 women to contend with from the start, Diggins wrote that she tried to stay on her feet and navigate the tricky descents throughout the three laps.
“The start went well for me but I think I’m just a little raced-out at the moment,” Diggins wrote. “I was having some issues kicking my skis later on and my technique started to fall apart as I got tired. It just wasn’t a day for me, but that’s totally ok!”
Starting near Diggins, Liz Stephen stayed close to her teammate for much of the race and finished 42.1 seconds behind her in 42nd (+4:31.0). Ida Sargent followed in 43rd (4:45.4). Holly Brooks did not finish because of a digestive issue, which she has been trying to kick since last weekend.
It was the first time Brooks dropped out of a ski race since 2003, according to the International Ski Federation (FIS) database. Brooks finished the Tour de Ski earlier this year with a broken wrist.
“My body felt like an under-powered Fiat,” Brooks wrote in an email. “And 15k in Nove Mesto is a long way to go if you aren’t feeling good.”
She also had Sunday’s relay in the back of her mind. Knowing before the race that Kikkan Randall planned to sit out the relay to rest for next week’s World Cup in Poland, Brooks didn’t want to jeopardize her spot, and in turn, the team’s prospects in the 4×5 k relay.
“I was certain that finishing the race would dig a huge hole – one that I might not be able to pull out of,” Brooks wrote.
Looking ahead to Sunday, she hoped to put her teammates – Diggins, Stephen and Sargent – “within contact” of their competitors so “they can work their magic,” Brooks wrote.
After what Stephen described as a tough day, she was particularly excited for the relay. On Saturday, she wrote that she felt tired and “super weak” skiing. She took two feeds, which were unplanned but necessary. On a 15 k course, Stephen typically doesn’t take any.
“The real problem was the body today, and then the head followed,” Stephen wrote. “I was charging really hard the whole race, but after the first lap and a half I lost a lot of my confidence out there and went in and out of being discouraged and pulling myself back into the race.”
For her, a race of that length was usually fun. She described Saturday as “really grueling.”
Sargent liked the course and wrote in an email that it was “super fun … with some hard climbs and a lot of fast twisty downhills.”
She said the race felt like an individual start, just a little more crowded, with a fast pace from the start.
“Nove Mesto is an awesome venue and there were a lot of spectators and cheering on the course, which helped especially when I was hurting at the end,” Sargent wrote.
From the start of the men’s 30 k, Freeman wrote in an email that he skied relaxed and moved up in the field as others petered out. About a third of the way into the race, he found himself hovering outside of 20th and fewer than 20 seconds behind the leaders. At the time, Petter Northug (NOR) was just behind Freeman, 21 seconds out of first.
Northug went on to place 14th, 26.6 seconds after Johan Olsson of Sweden, who won in 1:13.42. Freeman ended up 33rd (+2:28.9).
“I blew up at 18 k and limped in with the chase group,” Freeman wrote. “The whole team was a step off today. Not sure why.”
U.S. head coach Chris Grover wrote in an email that everyone’s skis were OK, but “nobody had the race they wanted.”
“Perhaps [they are] still recovering from the trip to Russia and some illness going around the past 2+ weeks,” Grover wrote.
Hoffman was a victim of the flu last weekend, but reported he was healthy and recovered for Saturday’s 30 k. There, he finished 47th (+4:03.2) after following a fast pace from the start. He hung on for 10 kilometers, but worked hard to do so.
“I struggled for a couple of laps in the middle of the race and lost a lot of time,” Hoffman wrote. “I actually felt OK for the last 5k, but overall it was a disappointing day.”
Simi Hamilton and Sylvan Ellefson finished 55th and 56th, respectively, and while Ellefson wasn’t satisfied with his performance, Hamilton was. In the second 30 k of his career, Hamilton didn’t have many expectations and wanted to learn how to better ski a World Cup distance race.
“I struggled a bit with the cold air today even though temperatures weren’t too extreme, but I think Moscow did a number on my lungs,” he wrote, referring to his history of bronchitis and asthma.
“Hard and fast conditions definitely suit me better than slow and soft, so I was happy that the course held up really well … and it was a beautiful day,” Hamilton wrote.
Ellefson wrote that his body wasn’t feeling 100 percent “and it showed today.” He was looking forward to racing in Poland next Friday and getting some good training in.
Andy Newell did not finish Saturday because of a back injury he has been dealing with since last Friday’s sprints in Moscow.
“Today’s race started fine and I felt OK for the first two laps then the wheels started to come off and the back seized up,” Newell wrote in an email.
He finished four out of six laps and stopped at 20 k.
“I was out of the points and I didn’t really want to push it and do further damage,” Newell wrote.
While his back pain was not as bad as last weekend, Newell opted to sit out Sunday’s relay to prepare for Friday’s sprints. Freeman, Hoffman, Elliott and Hamilton would fill in for the 4×10 k.
Reflecting on an all-around tough day, Diggins acknowledged its importance.
“It’s good to get some ‘mental toughness’ races in there,” she wrote. “I’m proud of our team for battling through it.”
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.