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 — At the end of the day, sprint races can come down to any number of things. Raw speed. Positioning. Cunning. Inspiration. For the Bend Endurance Academy’s Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess it was probably some combination of factors that spurred him on to win the freestyle sprint at U.S. Nationals on Tuesday, his first career national title.
“This is really cool,” Blackhorse-von Jess said after he’d had a chance to catch his breath. “Everything is the same as it’s been [this year], I’ve just been smarter and more confident.”
The Soldier Hollow sprint course has ensured repeatedly this week that the field would compress on the final downhill for a closely-contested race into the stadium, and the men’s A-final was no exception. As six men rounded the final corner in almost a dead heat, Blackhorse-von Jess pulled off an unparalleled finishing kick in the final straightaway to edge Erik Bjornsen (Alaska Pacific University/U.S. Ski Team) and Alex Howe (Craftsbury Green Racing Project).
Logan Hanneman (University of Alaska, Fairbanks) finished fourth, Sylvan Ellefson (Ski & Snowboard Club Vail Team HomeGrown) fifth and Tad Elliott (SSCV/USST) sixth.
There’s no doubt that Blackhorse-von Jess demonstrated superior tactical intelligence on the way to victory. He also has some of the fastest pure speed to draw on of anyone in the field. But in addition to the physical factors required to put together a successful sprint, Blackhorse-von Jess had inspiration on his side throughout the day. Charlie Smith, a close friend and teammate, passed away over the holidays, and for this entire week at nationals Blackhorse-von Jess has had Smith in his thoughts. Many in the men’s field did as well; someone told the stadium announcer to say they were all racing in Smith’s memory as the A-final lined up to start.
“They were very close,” BEA coach Ben Husaby said of Smith and Blackhorse-von Jess. “They mentioned Charlie right in front of Dakota’s race… I had no idea that was coming. I didn’t know if it would be a motivator for Dakota or not.”
It must have been, for Blackhorse-von Jess skied the perfect race.
“We were racing for Big Charlie today,” he said. “There’s so many of us left and we’re such a tight group, and we’ve been such a tight group since I started racing here as a kid, so everybody’s been thinking about him all week. It’s cool, man.”
Blackhorse-von Jess certainly looked inspired as he entered the final few meters. And prior to returning to the stadium for the last time, he played the course perfectly for the field he was up against, putting himself in the exact position he needed to be in order take the win.
The downhill draft on the backside of the course was much discussed after the classic sprint, but the skate course featured a few new challenges. It was longer than it was for the classic event, and at 1.7 k that was long enough to almost feel like a prologue. It added about 200 m of climbing up the hollow out of the start and resulted in finishing times at least 40 seconds longer than the fastest splits from the classic day.
“I know from talking to some of those other guys that were out here that some people skied really hard and really fast over the first minute and a half of this race and that was the end of it,” Blackhorse-von Jess said.
The very people in A-final also made the race an unusual one. Elliott, who is normally a distance-specialist, made it in much to his own bewilderment. Pre-race favorite Torin Koos (Bridger Ski Foundation/Rossignol), who got tangled in the quarterfinals and lost his ski, did not. As a result, the race began hot and fast from the gun, the exact opposite manner in which men’s heats normally begin.
Elliott directed a quicker opening pace — it was the only thing he could think of to give himself a shot against the likes of Bjornsen and Blackhorse-von Jess. The rest of the field had no choice but to keep up to stay in the race.
“In the final Sylvan and I talked, I tried to help him but he was just like ‘Nah, just go for it from the gun,’” Elliott said. “I definitely could have played it a little differently in the final but I feel like, you know, my day is already done when I hit the final. I was just really excited.”
Bjornsen, who has had a strong week of both sprinting and distance skiing, was the first one in pursuit of Elliott up the hollow, followed by Blackhorse-von Jess and the rest.
“What I needed was for [Elliott] to just go from the gun to tire out those big guys at the finish,” Bjornsen said.
Elliott did exactly that, and he and Bjornsen began to string out the field over the plateau, with Blackhorse-von Jess in hot pursuit. Down under the bridge they went, and by the time they reached the top of the horseshoe Blackhorse-von Jess had closed the distance and was in perfect position to draft off the leaders, gather momentum and overtake Elliott.
But Bjornsen and Howe — the entire rest of the field, in fact — were able to benefit from the same draft effect, and the group that had strung out in the first part of the race scrunched back together for a dramatic finish.
“It came together at the end, for sure,” Howe said. “I knew it was going to come down to this straightaway.”
As Elliott shot out the back, Blackhorse-von Jess and Bjornsen began to inch ahead with distinctly more ‘pop’ in their V2 in the last stretch. Bjornsen took a few strokes to relax a little before his kick, and he lost precious momentum. Blackhorse-von Jess blocked out the noise surrounding him, kept up his tempo and narrowed in on each movement he made towards the line.
“I’ve been working on my hundred-meter focus,” Blackhorse-von Jess said. “Because everybody says, ‘Oh, you’ve got the speed, you’ve got the power, you’re the fastest guy out there,’ whatever. But I’ve had a hard time finishing racing and I think it’s because I’ve been focusing on people that are around me and I lose sight of what’s really important. And that’s having your technical mantras and that kind of thing.”
With his coaches screaming at him and skiers creeping into his peripheral view, Blackhorse-von Jess took a moment to remember his technique.
“As soon as we got down to the straits I said, ‘OK. I have 20 seconds left, I just need to relax for a minute and get it figured out.’ And I got behind Erik and two strides later and I was pshht, gone. That’s what I took to the finish line. And honestly, landing on a bent ankle was all I was thinking about, until about two meters from the line and I was like, ‘Holy… Yes, that happened.”
Husaby, who began coaching Blackhorse-von Jess when he first picked up skiing in high school, was on tenterhooks as he watched his athlete race.
“I have a hard time watching him race; I get very nervous,” Husaby said. “When they went by I could see him tightening up less than Erik was, but I didn’t celebrate until I saw his arms go up. I was glad he could race someone head-to-head down the line, he’s very hard to beat in that situation.”
Bjornsen, just missing the top of the podium, was still happy with second. “It’s a learning experience, for sure,” he said. “It’s a great day and I’m still really happy with second.”
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Howe, who was also not far off moving up another place, far exceeded his expectations in finishing third.
“I’ve been skiing better in skate for the last couple years, so I was definitely looking forward to it, but I did not think I would podium. I mean, not a chance,” Howe said. “A top-twelve would have been really cool. So to get on the podium is definitely an awesome feeling.”
Hanneman, coming on strong in the final race of the week to finish fourth, was simply excited to have made the final.
“I definitely wanted to make it out of the quarters but the qualifier was so hard… I was just like, ‘Oh, gosh, this is not going to happen,’” he said.
But he felt better and better through each round, will carry the confidence he gained from this sprint with him to Junior World Championships later this month. “It’s a good way to go across the pond after this race, to get that momentum. I’m excited,” Hanneman said.
In fifth place, Ellefson turned in his best result of the winter and hopes that his season will soon be back on track.
“It feels like things have finally been coming together,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for today for a while… Every round just felt better and better and the last one actually felt really good, I just got a little bit boxed-slash-pinched out at the end.”
And that distance specialist, who broke the sprint-strategy mold and boldly led at the start? He was pretty psyched, too.
“I can’t believe I outkicked some of those people!” Elliot said, referring to the earlier heats that brought him to the final. “I’m a tiny guy!”
Though longer races are still his forte, Elliott will always remember the time he made it to the final at U.S. Nationals. “I’d say I’m a distance guy, but there was that one day in January…”
— 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.