FasterSkier’s coverage of the 2013 U.S. Cross Country Championships is brought to you through the generous support of The Memory Clinic in Bennington, Vt.
MIDWAY, Utah — Skis cleaned, bags packed, flights boarded. The hundreds of athletes, coaches, parents and fans that camped out at Soldier Hollow for the past week have all either gone home to recuperate or are on their way to the next race. As usual, athletes were so verbose in describing their races we couldn’t fit it all into our race reports. The final edition of notes and quotes from U.S. Nationals: skate sprint style. Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess (Bend Endurance Academy), the men’s victor, had particularly interesting things to say about the unusual dynamics of Tuesday’s race.
On the beginning of a ski career:
“I was living in Pocatello, Idaho, and I chased a girl into [skiing]. And when I left Pocatello I kept doing it and I liked it, I don’t know why. I wasn’t especially good at it. I was already a two-sport athlete, I ran cross-country and track, and it just fit really nicely in the winter. It was better than wrestling; I didn’t like wrestling all that much.”
— Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess (Bend Endurance Academy), 1st.
“[Dakota] came to skiing very late. He basically decided his junior year of high school that he wanted to be a ski racer, and I continued to work with him a little when he was at Dartmouth.
“Just in the last few years we decided to make a run at it. We’re a pretty small team on the high-end level; we don’t have a lot of athletes or a ton of resources, but we work well together. Dakota’s unique in the way he approaches racing and training… It’s just been really fun to watch him move from fifth place few years ago to first place this year. He was always fast at qualifying. Most amazing to me was he showed he can ski consistently all the way through heats today on very challenging sprint course. It was obvious the distance skiers fared well and the sprinters had a harder time. This is a testament to his preparation and his commitment.”
— Ben Husaby, Bend Endurance Academy head coach
On the longer men’s course:
“Today was a much different sprint than we’re used to. It was longer course and it starts with a long climb. That’s a lot longer than you can ski maximally… Watching others race and also from my experience out there [I learned] this course is suited towards the distance skiers, especially based on the qualifying results. I knew that the pure distance guys were going to go for it and they did in the semifinal, and I knew if I just went for it and stuck with them everything would be OK.
“But it also changed the race dynamics because if you’re not a, quote, sprinter, you have to take it there [at the start] as we saw with Tad and with Erik to a certain extent — although Erik’s, you know, a good sprinter. But Tad is certainly not known for that, and in the classic race as you probably saw it was very slow, very tactical, because the guys with strong double-pole finishes were just waiting. That’s what it wound up being. But today it was very, very different because no matter how good your V2 is, if you’re not in the race you’re not in the race… And that’s what those guys without — and it’s really not fair to say they don’t have V2s, because Tad is a good skier. But it’s not the same.”
— Blackhorse-von Jess
“Erik told me right before the start, ‘You have to kick extra hard right at the end of the bridge,’ so I tried to think about that.
“It’s not necessarily the slingshot so much as just being in the right place. You need to find a place to ski and if you’re behind then it’s hard to move around, so it’s more just positioning coming into the final line. But there’s a lot of time between that final corner and there so there’s places to make it up if you were in the wrong place.”
— Sadie Bjornsen (Alaska Pacific University/U.S. Ski Team), 1st
“I worked on some tactics … I was right behind Tad and then over the top hill I kind of let him get a couple feet and just slowed up to kind of get Dakota to bunch up a little bit. I just hammered over the top, and I’ll be interested to see some pictures and see if that kind of worked. And then he had some momentum in the finish, but I think I had three or four strokes where I just relaxed and that’s where I lost it. As soon as I got out of my tuck I needed to just hammer with all I had left.”
— Erik Bjornsen (APU/USST), 2nd
“Caitlin Gregg took it out pretty fast. I talked to her after and she said she wasn’t as confident in her final sprint. She thought her chance was kind of taking it out from the start and dropping some people, but we stuck with her. I tried — I wanted to be in second or third coming into the downhill because I knew there was a draft. It wasn’t the end of the world if you were in that position but I was just getting really flustered on the downhill and the heats before then because it was harder to pass.”
— Sophie Caldwell (SMS T2), 2nd
“I really just wanted to hang in and get a good position in the downhill. It really came down to whoever was in 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and if you got enough of a draft you could just slingshot around the corner. So I was just looking for that spot. It worked out pretty well in the quarters and semis and in the finals it was a little rougher because we had to make up a little bit of a gap that they built on us, with Tad hammering off the front.”
— Alex Howe (Craftsbury Green Racing Project), 3rd
“I think I may have been fourth and then I wanted to take the inside of this corner because it’s been working for me so far. I think as long as you assert yourself you usually get it so I kind of made a point of getting in there and tried to hit it really hard going over the top [before the finish].”
— Becca Rorabaugh (APU), 4th
“Every heat it just waited ’til the hill underneath the bridge — the steep one — and I seemed to be able to close some people on that. So I just kinda waited until the end, passed a few and then it was just a drag race to the finish. A little tight in the finishing chute, but that’s racing.”
— Logan Hanneman (University of Alaska, Fairbanks), 4th
“Like this course always does, we all ended up down there again together… All the quarter and semi I was just trying to play it easy in the back here and then really go and make sure I had a good slingshot. Our skis were so fast today, and it was advantageous to be in the back and move slowly through the pack. So that’s what I did every quarter and semi, until the final. For the final I just found myself a little bit further back.”
— Sylvan Ellefson (Ski & Snowboard Club Vail/Team HomeGrown), 5th
“I think it was really key, at least in the qualifier, to just ski so smooth. Especially when you’re at altitude or whatever, the higher tempo, the harder you work and the gains aren’t that significant. So in the qualifier I just tried to stay super smooth and then in the heats just not leading on that downhill was pretty clutch.
“It’s funny, because no one wants to lead on the downhill and I’d just start gaining and I think the further and further into the heats, when everyone starts realizing that’s a really bad idea, it gets kind of funny because everyone’s got the same game plan. So it’s more of a mental battle. Just like, all right, who’s gonna go? Because someone has to. You can’t just like stand on the top of the hill for five minutes and be like, ‘After you.’ ‘No, after you (laughs). I was just so glad and everyone’s awesome and I love Sophie and she did great.”
— Annie Hart (Dartmouth College), 5th
On the final lunge:
“I wanted to be in a good position to take the inside corner, but then Sadie and Jennie came by me and I got even more flustered. I ended up going way outside on the corner but the finish stretch is so long that there is still time to make up. Sadie and Jennie came around, then I think I was in third going into the final stretch. I think I was slowly gaining and tried to do a big lunge.”
“I didn’t feel as good as I did in the classic, so I’m definitely a little disappointed in myself for not lunging. I think I’m going back and realizing I don’t think I lunged at the finish, but that’s going to be a good finishing picture at least.”
— Jennie Bender (Central Cross Country), 3rd
“I got lucky in the lunge in the semi and then I got kinda the other end of the lunge in the final. But yeah, it was pretty sweet.”
On that distance guy in the A-final:
“I feel like I was skiing super relaxed all day, and I knew in our quarterfinal I’d have to outkick some of those guys. And it happened! I can’t believe I out-kicked some of those people! It was partly that our skis were really good. It was sweet — I’m a tiny guy, so…
“In the semis, like, those guys are such good sprinters. Like Skyler, Mikey, Tim, Dakota. So I was like, ‘Oh man, I can’t out-kick any of these guys,’ so I just tried to go from the gun and it ended up working good.”
— Tad Elliott (SSCV Team HomeGrown/USST), 6th
“I was really hoping Tad was just going to gun it from the start. I pulled up beside him, which I don’t know if it was kinda like, ‘You go for it Erik,’ type thing. Maybe I just should have sat in from the start.”
— Bjornsen, 2nd
“Tad went really hard up the hollow. He was telling me, ‘That’s my only chance!’ So yeah, he went hard and then I was kinda out the back.”
“It was good, fast racing. It was awesome having Tad pushing the pace today; it totally different. In my quarter and semi we weren’t going the fastest sprint pace I’ve gone. So in the final he was doing a good job of pushing that pace. Which I think, if he wanted to win today, was what he needed to do. So it was a great tactic by him.”
“It makes it more — it makes it more like bigger races, more like the World Cup. Because these races here are — they don’t feel the same because everyone’s just siting there waiting for the next guy to do something, because nobody’s gonna, quote, get away. Whereas at a higher level, absolutely they will. And it’s easy for the top five of us or so, over the course of the day, to sit in and do very little and then kick it down at the end. Whereas on the bigger stage I would have to guess that that’s not the case, based on our results. So it actually made it a lot more fun in some ways.”
— Blackhorse-von Jess
On making improvements:
“I think it’s just the stress-free way of life. I might have done a bit too much socializing in college, lets call it that. So I think the laid-back life in Craftsbury is much more suiting to my personality and everything. I grew up on a farm, so Craftsbury is right at home for me out in the backwoods, no cell phones — it’s perfect. So with less distractiosn and a quieter lifestyle I think I do a lot better, apparently.
“For this season, I mean, I’d like to continue. Just use this as a builder and keep racing fast and try to race the whole sason as fast as I can. I’ve had seasons in the past where I race fast at certain points and I’d like to just stay consistent and keep building up. Hopefully that’ll happen.”
“Two podiums: I don’t know what that means. It means I’m starting to get better so that’s a plus. It’s better than last year, which surprises … me, that that happened.
“My whole kind of approach is trying to keep a neutral mentality and to leave the option open for anything positive to happen. I definitely was going into this clueless of how things would go, especially after I was disappointed in November about how I was racing. But everyone was like, just — patience. I’m really happy that I’m sprinting well. Distance is my next measure of health comeback so I’ve been kind of saying that if I — when there was a lot of negative possibility or negative mentality, that I would not let that creep in and kind of stay neutral and that’s worked out OK.”
“The quarter went pretty well and people relaxed a little on that first turn. So then that went well and then just an avalnche from there. You get feeling better.”
“It’s funny because in my qualifier, I felt so terrible. But I honestly think it was like a jump start for the day, probably for the rest of the season, who knows.”
“This is my best finish ever at U.S. nationals. It’s super exciting. I think it helps to be so relaxed.”
“I’m really excited. I really worked on my turnover and hopefully it’ll get working in distance races. I think it was a good step forward.”