When some athletes go to U23 World Championships, they come in with an enormous amount of pressure on themselves to perform well in the biggest race of the year. The mentality can work for some, but Caitlin Patterson (Crafstbury Green Racing Project) prefers the opposite approach. The 23-year-old has been to these championships a few times before and is careful not to place more importance on them over any other race. On Thursday in Liberec, Czech Republic, the even-keeled perspective helped Patterson towards 14th place tie in the women’s 10 k individual freestyle event for her best finish in three appearances at these championships.
“I’m happy with the result today,” Patterson said. “My main goal today was to ski my own race and push myself to the limit, to ski as fast as possible… I’m happy to have skied well today in a strong international field while representing the US, and I know the race experience will improve my confidence for future races and help me learn to ski faster.”
Patterson skied a conservative 20th-ranked first lap to come on strong in the second half to finish in 29:31.9, 1:41.5 behind Ragnhild Haga’s (NOR) winning mark. She says her opening pace wasn’t by design, exactly, she just took a few kilometers to warm into the race.
“I definitely skied my own race, starting off slowly and building momentum from there,” she said. “Actually I felt a bit disconcertingly weak on the first lap, and so while the coaches said it looked like I was skiing relaxed or maybe starting (very) conservatively, I was actually trying to wake up and feel more energetic. Luckily I worked my way into the race and felt much better on the second and third laps.”
Pepa Miloucheva, Patterson’s coach at Craftsbury, was on course giving splits and said as much of her athlete’s race. “I was able to see most of the race,” Miloucheva said. “Caitlin had a little slow start, but looked great on the second and third lap, so was able to make time and finish strong.”
As the 37th starter in a field of 49, Patterson started just in front a few of the fastest-seeded women in the field. She planned to work the positioning to her advantage and work with people around her, but she wound up skiing much of the course alone. She briefly skied with teammate Liz Guiney in the stadium before the latter turned into the finish lanes, but for the most part had to set her own pace.
“My third lap was particularly lonely, with no one ahead or behind for what seemed at least a few minutes each direction (the course twists and turns enough to be able to see people, and I know no one finished for several minutes after I crossed the line),” she said. “Luckily at that point I was comfortable with my own pace and enjoying the race.”
Many have commented this week on how difficult the Liberec trails are, and on Thursday they were made even more difficult by a fresh layer of new snow that slowed ski speed. In such conditions, Patterson focused on transitions and riding a ski well.
“It was also important not to let yourself think that the few flat areas were parts of the course where you could rest; there was very little rest available, especially with new falling snow slowing everything down,” she said. “It was at least as important to push along the flats as it was to work hard on the hills.”
Looking ahead to the 15 k skiathlon on Saturday and beyond to the rest of the season, Patterson is more excited than ever.
“The pursuit will certainly be a different race, with classic technique, longer distance, and mass start thrown into the mix, but I think I can build off the strengths of today’s race and I should be able to do well in the pursuit too,” she said. “I’m very excited! It’s easier to look forward to future races when current races are going well, and my experience today will help me progress towards racing faster during the rest of the season.”
Finishing just three places and 23 seconds behind Patterson, Sophie Caldwell (SMS T2) was very nearly the second of two American women in the top 15 on Thursday. She finished 17th after crashing on a major downhill on her final lap, but until that point had skied comfortably in the top 15 and within a few seconds of a top 10.
“She was definitely in the hunt for a top-10 and unfortunately lost a fair amount of time but still ended up 17th, which is a solid result,” said U.S. Ski Team development coach Bryan Fish.
In light of managing a top-20 even with the fall, Caldwell is looking forward to the skiathlon on Saturday.
“Overall I was happy with it,” she said. “I felt good today and am excited to do some more distance races in the next couple weeks. My fitness feels like it’s still improving and I’m definitely learning more each time I race over here against such strong competition.”
Annie Pokorny (Middlebury College) came through in 29th to put three Americans in the top-30. Considering this is her first international event and she was sick with the flu in the week leading up to the championships, Pokorny was “very happy” with the result.
“I went into the first lap challenging myself to ski as smoothly as possible,” she said. “I think I did that. From there I planned to catch as many rides as possible, which I managed to do from [Anastasia] Slonova and [Ragnhild] Haga — short, very speedy rides! I think the coolest moment for me was going up the last climb behind Haga. It was sobering to see how a U23 world champion skis—to be in the same race as that person. It was exciting… Racing today was the coolest thing I’ve ever done.”
Liz Guiney (University of New Hampshire) finished fourth for the U.S. in 42nd.
In the men’s race Erik Bjornsen (Alaska Pacific University/U.S. Ski Team) led the way for the U.S. once again with a 15th-place finish in the 15 k freestyle. The result was another personal best — he was 10th in the sprint on Tuesday, and this is his new high mark in a distance race at U23s — but for someone with ambitions like Bjornsen, it ranked somewhere between a “decent” and “pretty good” day.
There were aspects to his race he was happy with and others that didn’t sit well. His finish time for the four-lap event was 37:44.4, exactly two minutes behind Sergey Ustiugov’s (RUS) winning time.
“Fifteenth isn’t bad but being two minutes out is not awesome,” Bjornsen said. “I think it was a decent day for me, but I think I could have been in the top 10 if I’d had a good day. That’s kind of how it goes sometimes.”
Ustiugov actually caught Bjornsen from two minutes back with two kilometers to go, which for some could have been a disheartening development, but Bjornsen took the opportunity to catch a ride with the fastest guy in the field and pick up a few places with a strong finishing kick.
“That was really impressive to watch, because this kid was flying out there,” Fish said of Ustiugov. “I was out in the field and was basically able to watch the last kilometer and they were absolutely flying up the last climbs. It was really impressive to watch both those guys come in and the powering speed that they were carrying.”
Bjornsen didn’t let Ustiugov put any more time on him, and even moved up alongside him at certain points. The Russian only pulled slightly ahead of him as they came into the finishing lanes.
“I like to finish strong, usually I’m able to kick up the pace with a kilometer or two to go, so it was really nice to have him there,” Bjornsen said. “He pulled me for a k or so and then … we kind of duked it out to the finish line. He had a better lane so he actually beat me to the finish but it was sweet to ski with the leader for a k or two.”
The fact that he could ski with Ustiugov, who won every single U23 event in Turkey last winter, left Bjornsen wondering what could have been if he had started closer to the Russian.
“It would have been nice though if he started 30 seconds closer to me,” he said. “I think that it would have been sweet to have someone to ski with or try to hold onto. So that was too bad, with it being a four-lap course a lot of guys got to ski with people and I felt like I was just working on my own for 13 of the 15 k.”
Bjornsen also feels his top-end gear for low-altitude skiing is still coming around. He spend his entire November, December and early January skiing at high-altitude venues in Montana and Utah, and this was his first distance race close to sea level. Bjornsen thought of several places where he should have skied more quickly.
“It’s definitely a different feeling,” Bjornsen said. “I want to keep working on that and I think I’ll get some more chances this year, but its hard because when you’re at low altitude like this you have to be hammering the whole time, you can’t let up for 10 seconds or anything just because you lose time so quickly.”
On the positive side, though, Bjornsen now knows with even greater certainty than he did after his classic sprint that he can ski with the fastest of his peers in the world.
“I’m starting to know a lot of the guys and I follow their results and stuff,” he said. “It’s cool to know these guys and start feeling like I’m kind of in it, to race with a lot of these guys. So I’m feeling a lot more confident. The top ten dudes all have World Cup experience, which is the same as where I’m at, starting to race some World Cups. I still have one more year [at U23s] so it’s always been my goal to get a medal or at least a top 5 at these championships. Hopefully in the pursuit or next year.”
The new snow that fell in Liberec on Thursday morning created tricky waxing conditions. Bjornsen felt he had the best skis he possibly could have, but some of the American men were frustrated with slow equipment.
Sam Tarling (Dartmouth College), in his first race of the week, placed 39th with a time of 38:47.4, three minutes off the winning time.
“I felt pretty good about it,” Tarling said. “I was hoping for better, but you can’t have everything go perfectly in every race. I felt fit in the race, but my skis could have been better… I’m super stoked to be with such a talented group though, and I’m looking forward to making a better impression in the skiathlon.”
David Norris (Montana State University) was 50th, 33 seconds behind Tarling.
“The result is very disappointing,” he said. “I wanted to be top 20 at the very least. Based on fitness and how hard I pushed the race I am confident this is my best race yet this season, but with such awful skis you just cant compete in such a strong field and wish to look good on paper.
Norris noted that he was able to ski with most of the men who started around him and that it was important to stay positive about it.
“I out climbed those around me and was very pleased with my fitness, and it is important for me to remember that I was skiing well when the result looks so bad,” he said.
“Our techs are working super hard and today was just a tough one, the coaches are super generous and offer advice and help us out any chance they can. Looking towards the 30 k now!”
Eric Packer (SMS T2) finished fourth for the Americans in 54th.
“I’ve struggled with distance racing this year, and today was probably my best race so far this season,” Packer said. “I’m obviously not happy with the end result, but at least things seem to be moving in the right direction.”
Special thanks to Caitlin Patterson and Gus Kaeding for their photos.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.