WEST YELLOWSTONE, Mont. – The distance course on the South Plateau wasn’t too bad if you didn’t think about it too much. The 9-kilometer freestyle race – the first of the 2012/2013 U.S. SuperTour series – netted a slight elevation gain of about 300 feet from start to finish. A course profile indicated that the terrain was rolling. No problem.
Try racing it.
The individual start began around 7,260 feet above sea level, which is enough to make breathing difficult for lower-altitude dwellers. After gradual downhill out of the start – a teaser for what was to come – racers endured several kilometers of working hills with little rest and a grand finale at the final multi-tiered climb.
If anything was going to test one’s fitness in the first race of the season, this was it.
The eventual winner, Rosie Brennan of Alaska Pacific University, didn’t feel that great right off the bat – and she’s originally from altitude in Park City, Utah.
“When you race at altitude, within the first k, I feel like as bad as I do the whole race,” she said after winning in 24:36.3, beating runner-up Chelsea Holmes (Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation) by 5.3 seconds. “It’s figuring out how to deal with the taste of blood in your mouth for 9 k or whatever. It’s sort of part of racing at altitude, but I really like it.”
She laughed. That was the kind of grit it took to win Friday’s race on a course that was the same for both men and women. Many said they felt similarly on the final hill, arguably the toughest one of all: horrible.
“I think I V2ed everything but the last steep hill,” Brennan said. “I sort of struggled up that thing, but I made it.”
A staple on APU’s female squad with the likes of U.S. Ski Team members Kikkan Randall and Sadie Bjornsen, the 24-year-old earned some more attention with Friday’s performance. It was her first SuperTour win in nearly half a decade of racing at that level. She had made the podium several times before, but this confirmed her offseason training paid off.
Skating isn’t usually her forte, Brennan said. Flats aren’t great for her, either. The course was certainly rolling, but unforgiving if you let off the gas. One could lose time quick, but burn out even faster.
Brennan thought about all the work she had put into her skate technique and concentrated on making every movement count along the flats.
“I guess I must’ve figured something out this summer so it’s really great,” she said.
While her Anchorage-based team tapered its training for the West Yellowstone SuperTour, which includes a freestyle sprint prologue on Saturday, Brennan hadn’t expected to be in top form.
“We haven’t tried to peak or anything for these races so I still feel like I have race fitness to gain so I’m really encouraged by doing well today,” she said of taking one gigantic step forward toward securing a Canadian World Cup start next month.
Qualifiers for the Québec City skate sprints and Alberta World Cup (which includes a freestyle sprint, skiathlon and classic distance race) will be decided following next week’s SuperTour races in Bozeman, Mont.
Brennan’s not counting herself out of an opportunity to make the World Cup sprints as well.
“I was a really good sprinter when I was a junior and then I had a lot of injuries and lost some of my fast twitch,” she said after having knee surgery in 2010. “It’s something that I’ve been working on trying to get back.”
Not far behind Brennan, Holmes was excited to race in Montana after missing last year’s SuperTour opener to an injury of her own. About three weeks before the 2011 races, she broke her thumb and was in a cast until mid-December.
On Friday, she was raring to go. Training at altitude throughout the summer between Sun Valley, Idaho, and Canmore, Alberta, where she joined some Canadian Ski Team workouts, Holmes anticipated how racing at even higher elevations would feel. So when her breathing redlined and overpowered the splits people were giving her, she didn’t freak.
“My breathing was just about loud enough to cover anything I could hear,” Holmes said with a laugh. “I had an idea [what place I was in], but you can never really tell until you finish.”
Second at this point in the race season was great, she said. After starting 1 ½ minutes behind Brennan, Holmes gauged how she was doing off her.
“It was just a fight the whole way,” Holmes said. “I kept hearing that Rosie was kind of just in front of me. I just couldn’t get her, but I mean, she had a killer day.”
Less than a second behind Holmes, Caitlin Patterson of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project took third (+6.2). Like Holmes, Patterson wasn’t sure the course necessarily suited her. Both were hill climbers, but the mostly V2 race on the plateau didn’t include many of the hills they usually thrive on.
“For a while I was thinking I felt like I started too hard, but that might just be the altitude feeling to some extent,” Patterson said.
Throughout the race, she tried to catch Holmes, who started 30 seconds in front of her. Patterson frequently lost sight of her on the varied and twisting terrain, but didn’t give up.
“She’s a really good skier at altitude and uphill terrain so I knew she would be a good one to chase down,” Patterson said.
By the last climb, however, Patterson said she was nearly done for. From her conversations with competitors and teammates after the race, she discovered everyone suffered there. Luckily, she heard some motivating final splits that pulled her through.
“I knew it was a big hill at the end and I wanted to ski fast as possible, but its amazing how it twists and turns at the top and doesn’t crest,” she said. “Even when you get to the top it’s not even a steep downhill on the other side. It was all I could do to free-skate and not tuck.”
Also holding steady through the suffer-fest, Bjornsen finished fourth (+23.3) in her first race after a summer hindered by back and foot injuries. Sophie Caldwell (Stratton Mountain School T2 Team) was fourth, 52.7 seconds behind Brennan, Kate Fitzgerald (APU) was sixth, and one of the race favorites, Caitlin Gregg (Central Cross Country), was seventh.
Several A-seeded skiers said they used Greg as a measuring stick. One of the smoothest skaters on the circuit, she started right in front of Brennan.
“I knew when I was catching her that I was having a good race,” Brennan said.
From Gregg’s point of view, the race “hurt like hell,” she said, considering she hadn’t raced or done any sort of time trial since March.
“But I think it did for everybody. It’s at high altitude and a lot of uphill and the first race of the season so it’s just a recipe for pain out there, which felt really good for me,” she said. “This was a definitely good race for me to blow the cobwebs out and remember what that next level, that next gear, feels like.”
While she felt good about her team, sponsor and outside support, Gregg said she simply needs to log some more hard efforts.
“Obviously it’s always great to win the race, but I think the trajectory I want to head in is right on,” she said.
— Bjornsen is coming off some lingering injuries, and while the tendonitis isn’t completely gone in her foot, she’s happy to have started the race season strong after a walking warmup.
“This year will be a lot about racing myself into shape, so today was a great day to feel the burn and gain some fitness,” she wrote on Skype. “I had the goal of holding my technique together throughout the course, and remembering how to ski at altitude. I felt like I was able to keep pushing even when it felt bad, so it was nice to finally feel like an athlete and a racer again today. So all in all, I am stoked.
“I am also super happy for Rosie. I have been living with her this summer watching her train, and I know she is going to be doing nothing but turning heads this winter. It will be fun!”
Bjornsen knew how well she was doing based on splits from Gregg, who started right behind her.
“I just kept listening for how quickly people were cheering for her after me,” she wrote. “At one point I think she nearly caught me … so that was my split system.”
Asked how her foot felt Friday after the race, she explained that it was an ache and pain that fortunately took a backseat to the burning in her legs and lungs while racing.
“I didn’t feel it once in the race, and it actually doesn’t feel too bad now,” she wrote. While Bjornsen will skip Saturday’s prologue to rest her foot, she’s looking forward to the rest of the season – especially the middle.
“I want to be racing in the World Cups, but these first months are training,” she explained.
— Considering that 10 k skate races aren’t exactly her specialty, Caldwell was pleased with how she fared Friday. The sprint lover had hoped for a top 10.
“I really had no idea where I’d stack up because really the only girls I’ve skied against are the girls on my [Stratton] team,” Caldwell said. “I went to those U.S. Ski Team camps, but those girls weren’t here, either.”
To keep herself in the running, she tried not to go above Level 3 before the last hill. She paced herself pretty well, running in fifth or sixth early and as high as third mid-race, but she worried about blowing up before the end. She thought back to the classic intervals her team had done nearly a week ago on that same climb, and later remembered they didn’t reach the top.
“I kind of forgot once you get around that corner you’re only halfway up,” Caldwell said. “But once you get so close to the finish, you get an adrenaline rush and that pumps you to the finish.”
— Audrey Mangan contributed reporting
Complete results (scroll down for women’s)
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.