CRAFTSBURY, Vt. – Shaking out the legs, clicking into their skis and moving their bodies just before the Friday’s 30-kilometer mass start at U.S. Distance Nationals, about 50 women looked straight ahead, all likely thinking the same thing.
This is it. One more and we’re done.
Some prepared for 20 times around a 1.5 k loop thinking each was a victory lap. Afterward, they’d be finished for the season. Four to five months of racing would end and they could kick back, at least until the next training session.
The immediate leaders out of the start, U.S. Ski Team veterans Liz Stephen and Kikkan Randall took the motivation to heart and set a fast pace on the first lap.
If this was the finale, they might as well go all-out.
With Central Cross Country (CXC) skiers Jennie Bender and Jessie Diggins (USST) close behind, the leaders completed their first lap with Holly Brooks (Alaska Pacific University) and a string of others in tow.
One down, 19 to go. They kept pushing.
Next time around, the true contenders emerged as a pack of five broke away. Stephen was up front, followed by Diggins, Randall, Brooks and Bender. Chelsea Holmes worked her way into the mix by lap four and Bender dropped off.
Brooks and Holmes later found they could no longer hang on, and Stephen, Diggins and Randall skied away for the win.
Teammates that spent most of 2012 together on the World Cup circuit, Randall was the proven veteran, but down a quart because of travel. Stephen was the gutsy racer who won Wednesday’s hill climb, and 20-year-old Diggins was the young buck.
With competition of that caliber, it seemed like anyone’s race. Switching leads throughout, they remained as a single unit throughout the entire race, lapping the chase pack on their final loop.
In the end, all spectators could see from beyond the finish was a bright red suit streaming toward them; Diggins, they thought.
Cresting over the last hill with her, Randall in the black national team suit came into sight. The World Cup sprint champion, Randall beat Diggins in the final stretch to win in 1:19.30.7.
Diggins was 1.1 seconds back in second, and Stephen (Burke Mountain Academy) finished 14.3 seconds after Randall in third.
All three women picked themselves up to congratulate one another at the finish, and Diggins embraced Stephen.
“Liz, you are the toughest person I know,” Diggins said.
After leading for nearly half of the 20 laps, Stephen upped the tempo once more on a climb on the 19th lap. Diggins, who shared most of the load up front, took the lead into the last lap, and Randall held on.
“My quads were really starting to cramp, just had to lean on the upper body and just keep the legs moving,” Randall said after securing her third-straight 30 k national title.
“It was just like, ‘Man, get to the finish line!’ ” she added. “I think I made it just in time.”
Hovering in the top four throughout the race, Randall moved to the front with about five laps to go and continued to trade off with Stephen and Diggins. Randall said she probably did the least amount of work, but the other two were doing a good job setting the pace.
After sitting out Wednesday’s hill climb because of a cold, Randall was on the edge in terms of health, but said her voice was coming back. She flew in from Europe less than a week ago following five months of racing overseas.
“I’m really happy to finish the season on a good note,” Randall said. “It feels so good to be done.”
Friday morning, Randall said her USST and APU teammate, Sadie Bjornsen, talked about doing 20 victory laps to cap the season.
“I got to race with my teammates today and really celebrate a fantastic year for the team,” Randall said. “Now that the last race is officially done, now we can really look back and celebrate what we achieved this year.”
Diggins said it was an experience in itself sprinting with Randall and she considered Stephen her “hero of the day.”
The softening conditions later into the sunny morning, with temperatures rising above 30 degrees, made for some slush, especially at the top of the last hill before the stadium.
“It was just all-out sprinting that last part, and it was so hard because that slush is so deep you try to sprint and you’re just spinning your wheels and going nowhere,” Diggins said. “But it was really fun and especially exciting for me to be sprinting it out at the end with Kikkan, so fun to try.”
She said the spectators, the support and the trailside music helped motivate them. Most of the top racers also had coaches counting their laps.
Afterward, Stephen found it hard to believe they raced that many times around. She said she tried to break away on every lap, but conditions made it hard to get anywhere faster than they were already going.
“I am so proud of the work and the commitment our team has put together, the culmination of it all coming together all year,” Stephen said. “Everyone had a result that was a best-ever at some point this season, and to be part of a team like that is outstanding.”
Brooks, who finished fourth after falling behind around 20 k, held that position right behind the leaders for most of the first half of the race, but said it wasn’t easy.
“Liz Stephen has kind of one pace whether it’s 10 k or 30 and she just took it out really, really hard from the gun,” said Brooks, who spent the season racing with the U.S. Ski Team at World Cups and the Tour de Ski. “I just felt like we were jump skating up every single hill.”
By about 18 k, Brooks started to drop off the back.
“I was skiing with them but I wasn’t quite able to tap into that draft,” she said. “I just knew that if I tried to hang on I would probably totally explode, so I decided that I needed to slow it down a little bit, just hang onto fourth.”
She finished 2:19.5 after Randall, and Holmes was another minute and a half back (+3:52.6). Wearing a bib decked out with duct tape and birthday wishes for her husband, Rob Whitney, Brooks smiled when she talked about the end of the season.
“It’s been a really, really long five months with some big peaks and valleys and I’m ready for a break,” she said. “Ready to recharge the batteries for next year and take a little bit of time to reflect on everything that’s happened this season.”
Holmes, who placed third in the hill climb, was also happy to end the season on a high note considering how hard the leaders went out.
“I just tried to hang on and failed a little bit, but it was great to start with them,” Holmes said. “I figured if anything they’d give me a good head start, and they did a little bit.”
She caught the frontrunners around 6 k and remained in fifth until about the halfway point.
“I definitely knew that if I could stay with them at all it was gonna be a struggle fest,” Holmes said. “It’s just pretty inspiring to be going as hard as you can, basically, and not be able to hang on at all.”
Chasing the Runaways
Susan Dunklee of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project and US Biathlon placed sixth after skiing on her own for most of the second half of the race. She led the chase group with Rebecca Dussault and Chandra Crawford (Canadian National Ski Team) early on, but broke away when she decided the pace wasn’t fast enough.
“I was hoping somebody in the front pack would start to get tired and fall off,” Dunklee said. “I wanted to try to close that gap so I went after it, but then I ended up skiing the rest of it by myself.”
After placing fifth at Biathlon World Championships in early March, an all-time best for an American woman, Dunklee went twice the distance of her record-setting 15 k on Friday and notched her first career-top 30 at cross-country nationals.
She was 10th overall in the SuperTour Finals and felt good going into the distance mass start, she said. A biathlete with plenty of starts, Dunklee sensed she could hold her own.
“I think it’s important for us to keep pushing each other and working together,” she said, referring to competitions between biathletes and nordic skiers. “The [U.S.] Ski Team girls had such a crazy, awesome year, and I think that we can build off of each other by spending more time together, racing and training together.”
Bjornsen, who placed ninth behind Crawford and Dussault in seventh and eighth, respectively, said the whole race was a “mini celebration.”
“A hard celebration,” Bjornsen added.
For most of it, she skied with about six others in a large pack closest to the leaders. Crawford accelerated on the last lap and Dussault edged Bjornsen by 0.9 seconds.
“I thought a 20-lap loop would be kind of boring, but it was fun because you got more in a groove,” Bjornsen said. “It was a bunch of girls with all sort of different strengths, and it kept us pushing over the top of hills hard, which is hard to do in a 30 k.”
Alexa Turzian (Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation) took 10th, and Ida Sargent (CGRP/USST) placed 11th. Sargent moved to the front of the large group with Turzian and Chisa Obayashi (Madshus Japan) with about 10 laps to go and pushed to catch Dunklee. They never caught her and Sargent found she had little left on the last lap.
“Chandra really took off with this amazing V2 and I couldn’t accelerate at that point,” Sargent said.
Before then, she felt a surge of energy when her USST teammates passed her on the group’s second to last lap.
“That was really fun because I stayed with them for a while,” Sargent said. “But then they were really sprinting into the finish and I was like, ‘I gotta go ski for one more lap.’ ”
While Sargent expected the multi-lap race to be somewhat monotonous, she said it went by fast because of the amount of people she was racing with.
“I wasn’t thinking about 20 laps to go, I was trying focus on the moment and skiing well on that lap,” she said.
After cheering on the men in Saturday’s 50 k, which officially concludes U.S. Distance Nationals and the domestic racing season, Sargent said she’ll attend a Fast and Female session on Sunday then head down to Dartmouth College to hit the books.
In Europe for most of the winter, the 24-year-old said she had two weekends off from racing, one of which included Christmas. On Monday, she’ll resume classes.
“I’m ready to take a break,” Sargent said. “It will be good to use my brain.”
Audrey Mangan contributed reporting.
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) 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.