FasterSkier’s coverage of the 2013 US Cross Country Championships is brought to you through the generous support of The Memory Clinic in Bennington, Vt.
MIDWAY, Utah —Torin Koos (Bridger Ski Foundation/Rossignol) knew he had a pretty good shot at winning another national title on Sunday. Carrying momentum from a classic sprint victory and a distance skate result that made him optimistic for the mass start, he was pretty confident he would have a good 30 k classic.
“I just had a feeling that I’d have the capacity and the moxie to make it happen,” Koos said.
Make it happen he did, skiing patiently tucked into the lead pack for most of the race to make a move at the base of the final climb up Hermod’s Hill. When he came off the top, he had put enough distance on the field to give himself a margin of a few seconds over Erik Bjornsen (Alaska Pacific University/U.S. Ski Team), and when they entered the final stretch it was a practically insurmountable distance. Koos won the 30 k in 1:26:04, 3.1 seconds ahead of Bjornsen and 8.1 seconds over bronze-medalist David Norris (Montana State University).
“I was optimistic going into it,” Koos said as he awaited to step onto the podium. “I won’t say it was a surprise to me.”
For someone who had completed his first distance race of the season only two days prior, the race played out perfectly: tactically and not too fast. The lead pack, instead of gradually thinning, remained 20 men strong as far along as the 20 k mark. Koos began the race in bib 39 towards the middle of the chevron and had time to work his way up a train that refused to dissipate.
“I just said [to myself], ‘If I made it to the top of the hollow, nobody was going to drop me,’” Koos said of his final lap. “I thought I was going to have real good energy at the end.”
He made it to that point and was still with the leaders. Perhaps if anyone had known the prolific sprinter still had energy to burn they would have made a point of dropping him earlier. But they didn’t, or couldn’t, which enabled Koos to hold on, make a move and employ his notorious closing speed in the straightaway.
“I was on the bottom of Hermod’s right when he went and he looked unbelievable,” said BSF coach Tim Baucom. “Just really good skiing on his part and I think he was happy to have it come down to the last lap… If those guys had decided to go out early it would have been a bit tougher for him.”
With a main group as big as it was, a handful of skiers had opportunities to control at various points in the race. Miles Halvick (University of Utah), the 2012 NCAA classic champion, took the first move to the front and directed the race for the most of the first lap.
“I was just trying to keep the pack as thin as possible,” Havlick said. “I don’t know, I was just feeling good and relaxed.”
Havlick’s opening pace a bit faster than expected to the rest of the pack. When the group came through the first feed zone at 4 k, he pushed through without stopping while those behind took swigs of Gatorade. Sylvan Ellefson (SSCV Team HomeGrown), Matt Gelso (Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation), Tad Elliott (SSCV/USST), Bjornsen and Norris clustered behind Havlick as he briefly put space between himself and the others.
“The pace was hard the first lap with Miles leading,” Elliott said.
By the time they climbed Hermod’s Hill for the first time, the focal point of the course profile, and descended back into the stadium, the pack had reabsorbed Havlick. Gelso, Ellefson, Norris and Bjornsen moved to the front, and the pace slowed. At that point, it was still anyone’s race. The pack was still over 20 skiers deep on lap two of six.
One athlete, however, began to set himself apart. Gelso, with ambitions for his second podium of the week, was the workhorse of the day, consistently pushing the pace from the front.
He said afterwards that he decided to lead just to stay out of trouble, not because he was feeling particularly good.
“I skied towards the front to keep the pace down and do what I could,” Gelso said. “I was just kind of skiing my own race. Lots of times it’s easier to ski at the front of the pace you want to ski instead of in someone else’s stride, screwing around. With some of the turns around here and where people were feeding, it made sense to be in front in a lot of places.”
Gelso’s competitors were impressed with his effort. “He was skiing awesome all day, Gelso,” Elliott said.
Elliot and Ellefson also took turns pulling at the front, and would move into the front for the same reasons everyone else seemed to: the pace was still under control and it was best to steer clear of traffic if possible.
“I feel like every time I led I just happened to be in there,” Elliott said. “I would lead on the downhills to stay out of trouble and I had fast skis. On the steep uphills I got my own track a lot of the time; I would try to take it easy on the uphills.”
Ellefson, meanwhile, was having the race of his season. Plagued by illness and fatigue this winter as he raced on the World Cup in Europe, on Sunday he felt things finally coming back around.
“I was feeling really good,” Ellefson said. “The whole time I was really just skiing my own race, and when I was out in front I was skiing at just a pedestrian level, as the Eurosport announcers would say.”
Just as he was relaxing into the pace, however, disaster struck. With the lead group still quite crowded, someone stepped on Ellefson’s skis right before they began to climb Hermod’s for the third time.
“I lost my balance and couldn’t lift my skis out of the track, because he was on top of them, so I went down and the whole pack just blew past me,” Ellefson said. “It’s nice to have coaches and everyone out there telling you to relax and stay calm, you’ll catch back up. That’s kind of where it helped me out today.”
Elliott and Ellefson thought they had some of the best skis in the field. After Ellefson fell he felt the fast wax prevented an unfortunate situation from becoming worse, and he was able to mitigate the loss of time.
At the front of the pack, meanwhile, Elliott was at the front putting on a small surge. “I kind of made an attack when [Ellefson] was just getting back on,” Elliot said, adding he regretted not knowing his teammate had fallen in the moment.
Apart from Ellefson, the pack did not go away when Elliott quickened the pace; its numbers began to dwindle but the contenders remained unbroken. There was still hardly any distance at all between Bjornsen, Norris, Koos and Gelso. Havlick began to lose contact, but Sam Tarling and David Sinclair (Dartmouth) stayed in the mix, having the race of their lives.
“I was a little worried when I was out in front, but I wasn’t working all that hard,” Tarling said. “There were sections where I was feeling a little bit tired but also sections where I was feeling great.”
Lap four is where things started to get serious. Elliott, going for the win, made another surge in an attempt to break away. More skiers dropped off the back.
“Tad tried to make a move with 9.5 k to go,” Koos said. “That could have been a defining move, but I was able to cover him.”
Koos was able to regain 100 m on Elliott to reestablish contact, but he didn’t want to take over the lead.
“I wasn’t interested in pushing the pace and he wasn’t tell me, like, ‘Go, go, go,’ and we let the pack kind of come back,” Koos said.
The surge may have ultimately cost Elliott. “I felt great all day and I think I just went a little too — I was racing for the win and felt like I was really charging, but those other guys were busting it out pretty hard,” Elliott said.
In a race filled with shuffling leads, Koos and Bjornsen were particularly coy. They were almost always just behind the leaders, trying not to draw too much attention to themselves and conserve from the middle of the pack. When it was finally time to go they had more energy than anyone. On the last lap, when everyone was hanging on for dear life, they were able to attack afresh.
“At the base of Hermod’s all of us came over the sprint hill together and everyone took their own lane,” Koos said. “I just started going, not 100% at the base of it, but with a lot of snappy power.”
Koos bounded up the incline and nobody could match it.
“I tried to kind of kick it up to catch Torin, but he was moving at a really fast pace,” Bjornsen said.
Down the other side of the hill and into the stadium, Koos skied as if Bjorsen was right on his tail, not knowing if he’d managed to create a break.
“I heard quite a few people cheering for Erik in particular right behind me, so I could tell I was maybe breaking him a little bit but that it was going be tight,” Koos said.
A bunch of powerful double-poles later and the 30 k title was his. Does it get old after the eighth time at the top of the podium? Not really, he says.
“I mean, it’s awesome to win a race like that,” Koos said.
Bjornsen, having climbed his second podium in two days, was feeing pretty good about how things went.
“I practiced some tactics this time and think it paid of well,” he said. “I still felt like I had a kick at the end. I couldn’t quite match Torin’s kick, but felt pretty relaxed going up that last hill.”
His coach thought Bjornsen skied the race flawlessly.
“It’s just exceptional,” said APU head coach Erik Flora. “For Erik, for his age, for a 30 k today, it was tremendous and he played it perfectly. You watched him in the pack and where he made time.”
Norris crossed the finish line five seconds behind Bjornsen to take the bronze. Like Bjornsen and Koos, he played a smart race and let others do the work. He was second in the 30 k in Rumford, Maine, last year, and seemed satisfied with third on Sunday.
“I expected some of those bigger guys to hammer that last hill,” he said. “I didn’t feel that great during the race; I was trying to just ski along. I kind of felt sick from some of the feeds.”
Gelso, who had spent so much time working out in front, finished fourth (+11.7). In retrospect he admitted he had led “maybe too much.”
“I’m a little bummed I wasn’t in the top three. 30 k is a huge effort so when you lose out by 10 meters you’re like, ‘Aw, God,’” Gelso said. “Whatever. It was a solid day and it was fun racing, so…”
Though Gelso was disappointed with fourth, the next two finishers behind him were ecstatic with huge personal bests. Tarling and Sinclair placed fifth and sixth, respectively, to lead the Dartmouth men.
“I’m just psyched to have one of my teammates up here with me,” Tarling said, who skipped nationals last January due to illness. “I knew if I could hang on over the top of Hermod’s I’d be in a position to do pretty well.”
Tarling finished 18.1 seconds back from Koos’ time and Sinclair came through less than five seconds after Tarling.
“I was just trying to hang in the pack as long as I could,” Sinclair said. “It felt pretty good for the first four laps and then it started to get hard, and I was just hanging on for dear life.”
Elliott, meanwhile, had spent his energy on mid-race surges and slipped to seventh, 23.3 seconds behind Koos. He had hoped for more, and after the race he regretted not being able to deliver a win for his team more than anything else.
“I wanted to deliver a win for those guys,” Elliott said. “It would have been really nice; [Team HomeGrown] works really hard.”
At the end of the day the top 10 were almost all under the age of twenty-five, a demonstration of impressive depth to the up and coming field of American distance skiers. All but one, of course: the seasoned veteran who can still school them all. Koos, 32, has now won eight national titles in his career.
After the podium ceremony, someone asked Bjornsen if he remembered the first time he met Koos. Without a moment’s hesitation Bjornsen recalled asking for Koos’ autograph as a junior skier at the West Yellowstone Ski Festival.
“I went into a West Yellowstone bar to ask if I could have his signature when I was probably, like, 12 or something,” he said. “I saw him playing pool and I asked him for his signature, I had a little postcard of him.
“I’ve learned a lot from him… Every once in a while Flora is like, ‘You’re skiing like Koos!'”
— Alex Matthews contributed reporting.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.