With enthusiastic cheers of “USA all the way!” to push them onward, the American women battled through an energetic 30 k classic at the famous Holmenkollen venue in Oslo, Norway on Sunday. The throngs of happy fans stood in contrast to what the athletes experienced out on the course — the combination of a sprint-like early pace and slow snow later on made for a challenging 90-plus minutes of racing.
The U.S. women were the lone North Americans to take to the start line and were once again led by Kikkan Randall, who clocked in at 1:32:26.7 for 21st place, 6:16.9 behind Marit Bjoergen’s (NOR) winning time.
Only a few days after securing the World Cup sprint title, Randall’s goal was to finish in the top 15, which she missed by only 18.5 seconds.
“I was skiing in a good position to achieve that through about 23 k, but I struggled on the last lap,” wrote Randall in an email Sunday evening. “I felt like I had the energy reserves to fit for the top 15, but struggled with some cramping and slicker skis in the last lap.”
Overall, Randall said she was satisfied with the hard effort, which began with a quick start and never let up.
Right from the gun the eventual top three — Bjoergen, Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) and Therese Johaug (NOR) — pushed the pace from the front, and the rest of the pack followed.
“I felt like we were starting a sprint race going out of the stadium and everyone went with it,” said Randall. “I tried to go with the pace as well, but I also knew that I needed to not max out in the first 5 k.”
Randall and teammate Liz Stephen skied together for the first half of the race, helping each other stick with the main pack as long as possible.
“It was great to ski with Liz. She was skiing a quick tempo up the big climbs and it helped me to follow her,” said Randall.
Stephen ended up finishing 24th (+8:03.1), but hovered in the top 16 through the second checkpoint at 8 k. As started the 30 k starting to feel “pretty tired,” her goal had been to simply “have as good a race as I could have with the body feeling the way it did.”
Despite feeling less than optimal, Stephen described her start as one of the best she’s ever had on the World Cup.
“It was awesome! I was in a great position off the line and decided that though the pace felt like a 5 k pace I had to hang as long as possible,” said Stephen.
The experience was a breakthrough for her, as it was one of the better race starts of her career.
“It is crazy how quickly the gaps open up in the front,” she wrote. “I always wonder how the pack gets away so quickly in the beginning and the start is a very easy place to pick up or give away 30 seconds. It was really fun to be on the front end of those 30 seconds this time.”
As the tracks warmed in the sun, the snow got progressively slower. The women were allowed two ski changes to adjust to the softening snow, but even so it was “a long way to go when the conditions are so slow,” Stephen concluded.
For Sadie Bjorsen and Jessie Diggins, who have each skied only one other 30 k in their careers, Sunday was about getting experience. Bjornsen finished 40th and Diggins 45th.
Bjornsen echoed her teammates’ characterization of the quick start.
“To be honest, I felt like I was hanging on for life for the first 13 k,” she said.
After her first ski change, Bjornsen was able to consistenly ski in 34th place, which she felt was her best phase of the race. After switching equipment again for the last 8 k, however, she struggled on skis that were ill suited for the conditions.
“The course got wet and soggy really fast… The techs did an exception job of getting us what we needed, so I think it was entirely my own fault that I picked the wrong ski,” Bjornsen explained.
Despite challenging conditions, Bjornsen’s said that skiing through crowds of loud fans was “incredible,” and played no small part in motivating her.
“I don’t think anyone could deny the crowd’s ability to move you on. Especially in a 30 k, where I feel like I went out much faster than I was comfortable, it was honestly the crowd that kept me going… It makes racing so fun!”
As a post-race bonus, Bjornsen cooled down with the race winner, Bjoergen, who was treated as royalty in front of her home crowd.
“I watched as everyone was just congratulating her and holding on to her and so excited,” Bjorsen described. “It was really fun to see.”
“I asked her how she could possibly go so fast and she said she had an incredible feeling today. She even went as far as to make me feel better by telling me how much time it takes to get so fast. It was nice to hear coming from ‘the queen’!”
Diggins’ approach to the 30 k was similar to Bjornsen’s—her primary goal being to try to have fun.
“It’s the end of the season, and you can’t really change anything except race with what you’ve got left,” she said.
Diggins took a few spills after getting her skis caught in the slush, but emphasized that the crowds made the race more enjoyable, even in the face of tricky conditions.
“There were so many fans, and they knew my name and would be chanting it and ‘USA, ALL THE WAY’ up all the hard climbs, which helped a lot for sure,” wrote Diggins in an email.
The final U.S. skier across the line was Ida Sargent, who finished 51st. She described her race as “the hardest thing I have ever done in my life.”
Randall, Diggins and Stephen, who all rank within the top 50 in the overall standings, move on to the World Cup Finals in Stockholm and Falun, Sweden this week.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.