Alysson Marshall could feel it coming, and she couldn’t believe it was happening.
Burdened with a cold the night before the Eastern Canadian Championships, she thought back to all the other times she hadn’t felt well this season. She started the season in Europe and had to sit out the first races over there because of a cold.
Upon returning back to Canada, jet lag took a major toll on the Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA) and Senior Development Team skier. Last year’s NorAm winner, Marshall couldn’t find those good vibes at the Canadian World Cups and struggled to get back on top of the NorAm podium.
Friday morning, she wasn’t even sure she was going to race the 1.6-kilometer NorAm classic sprint at Nakkertok Ski Club in Cantley, Quebec. She decided to see how she felt warming up and proceeded to try her luck in the qualifiers. There, Marshall was second to teammate Kate Brennan by 1 ½ seconds. Not bad, she thought.
Marshall, 24, went on to win her quarterfinal and semifinal, refining her tactic of dropping her competitors on the course’s two major climbs. In the final, she did more of the same, tucking behind Brennan out of the flat start then finding an open lane up the first hill. She created a gap and kept pushing, lengthening her lead for a comfortable victory – her first of the NorAm season.
“It wasn’t a full-on sprint to the finish,” Marshall said on the phone Friday. “I knew I had it a little ways out.”
Three of her AWCA teammates raced for second, with Rebecca Reid slipping by on the downhill ahead of Brennan in third and Emily Nishikawa in fourth, respectively. Amanda Ammar (Canmore) was fifth and Alannah MacLean (NDC-Thunder Bay) placed sixth in the final.
“Twenty-four hours ago I was pretty upset and not very impressed with how things were going so I was really happy to get a good result in,” Marshall said. “I’ve had some bad luck and just tired, just haven’t had a break yet this season, so today was really nice.”
Second in the Thunder Bay classic sprint and third in the same race in Duntroon, Ontario, at Canada’s World Championships trials last month, Marshall narrowly missed a trip to Val di Fiemme, Italy. Team selections were announced earlier this week, and Marshall resolved to move on and learn from her experiences.
“I don’t really have any opportunities to go to Europe now so I’m going to focus, restart, figure out what I need to do to be fast the rest of the season,” she said. “Figure out what I need to work on, what’s going on and try to have a good [Western Championships] and nationals. … I’m going to do some training, figure out my weaknesses and hopefully finish off the season better than it started.”
Thinking about ways she could improve as well, Reid, 20, placed second for her best NorAm result and second career podium, which she sought at the World Championships trials last weekend.
“I got inched out of a podium last weekend in Duntroon where I was fourth in the classic sprint and I really wanted to build on that result this weekend,” Reid wrote in an email.
After qualifying in seventh, she was happy with her position but continued to strive higher. Reid went on to win her quarterfinal and finished second to Brennan in the semifinal.
“I was ranked fourth going into the final and it went smoothly for me. I was feeling confident and I knew I had wicked fast skis on my feet so I was patient and came through in the finishing straight,” she wrote. “I was pretty excited that it wasn’t just a good day for me, having the Academy girls take the top-4 spots in the final made for a really fun day!”
AWCA racing director Mike Cavaliere was pretty impressed.
“Rebecca has been skiing stronger and stronger,” he wrote in an email. “I think she is starting to settle into life as a senior and getting more comfortable and aggressive.”
Brennan and Nishikawa sprinted to the finish for the third podium spot, which Brennan narrowly took. After sitting out last Sunday’s NorAm distance race in Duntroon, Nishikawa wrote that she was still recovering from a cold.
“I’m still not 100% but all things considering I was happy with how things went today,” she said, describing the final as fast to start with the four Academy women skiing together before Marshall gapped the field. “Feeling better everyday, so I’m looking forward to tomorrow!”
Saturday features 10 and 15 k freestyle interval starts on the second of the three-day Eastern Championships. Racing ends Sunday with 15 and 30 k classic pursuits.
AWCA Men Also Take Top 4
Friday’s 1.6 k men’s sprint results looked similar to the women’s with the AWCA sweeping the top four. Phil Widmer led the group in first with his second victory in the last three NorAm classic sprints.
Widmer crossed the line first last weekend in the Duntroon final as well, but was relegated to sixth for an infraction before the finish. Without the penalty, he would’ve swept the last three NorAm sprints. Regardless, he had won the qualifier in both sprint trials to secure a trip to the upcoming World Championships.
However on Friday, Widmer wasn’t first, at least not initially. The 29-year-old was third in the qualifier behind Academy teammates Brent McMurtry and Patrick Stewart-Jones. That didn’t sit well with Widmer, and he resolved to do better in the heats.
He did, winning his quarterfinal and placing second to Stewart-Jones in the semi. In the final, the two dueled to the finish, where Widmer outlunged Stewart-Jones in a photo finish. McMurtry was third after leading early.
“Neither Patrick or I were sure who won,” Widmer said. “After we crossed the line, the announcer thought Patrick won, but I guess after reviewing the photo, I got it.”
Widmer opted to follow McMurtry and Stewart-Jones up the herringbone climbs, conserving energy on the steeper terrain.
“I knew my strength was in the finish with the double pole,” he said. “My climbing on that steep stuff isn’t amazing. I was just trying to hang with the stronger guys like Brent and Patrick and hope that I could out-doublepole them.”
The three broke away from the pack when Jess Cockney (AWCA) and Colin Abbott (Yukon Elite Squad) fell about halfway through the final. With Abbott’s teammate, Knute Johnsgaard, the three finished behind the leaders with Cockney in fourth, Abbott in fifth and Johnsgaard in sixth.
For Abbott, it was a career-best finish in his first NorAm final just a few days after flying back from the Junior World Championships in Liberec, Czech Republic.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Abbott wrote in an email. “I was back in Canada two days ago and I only got one real ski in before racing today. I felt like today was my best day of racing all year which was a nice surprise.”
Incident-free up front, Stewart-Jones explained that he made a point to lead early and keep the pace high.
“I was leading coming into the end but ran out of juice in the last 15 meters and Phil got me on the lunge,” the Chelsea, Quebec, native and Nakkertok club member wrote. “I’m happy with second and very happy with my qualifier yet a part of me is disappointed I didn’t pull off the win on my home course.”
McMurtry, who won the qualifier by 2.7 seconds over Stewart-Jones, knew he was off to a good start in what isn’t always his signature event. “I haven’t won many qualifiers in my career so I was pretty happy with how that went,” he wrote in an email.
He went on to win both his quarterfinal and semi, and tried to lead the final as well.
“I didn’t have the energy that I was hoping to,” McMurtry wrote. “I was able to stay at the front but just didn’t have the power for the double pole sprint to the line. Climbing was definitely a strength of mine today so I think it was a bit of a disadvantage for me that it was all herringbone.”
Behind him in fourth, Cockney described his crash as a “small tangle” shortly after catching up to the three leaders.
“There was a full 180 corner and I got tangled with Colin Abbott and we both fell,” Cockney wrote. “I lost contact with Phil, Patrick and Brent and never caught them again. I felt great in the final and it was a real waste of good shape but on to the next one.”
Coming into Easterns, Cockney explained that he struggled with some disappointing news.
“I’ve been down mentally after the decision to not bring me to World Champs,” he wrote a few days after being named the sprint alternate. “I was really hoping to make today a day that I could make the selection committee regret not taking me but it was pretty far from that.”
Outlined in the decision, Cockney was granted some World Cups starts in March.
“I really can’t wait to get back to Canmore and start a small training block for the spring World Cups,” he wrote. “It’s a great opportunity to race the World again even if it’s not on the World Championship stage.”
Even for someone like Widmer, who qualified for worlds, being mindful now is more important than ever.
“My goal is always to try to win but it’s also about finding ways to improve, which for me today was in the qualifying round,” Widmer said. “Plan is for me [to race] tomorrow and not do the 30 k just because we don’t have a ton of time at home in Canmore.
“I think we’ve only got five or six days of training before I fly to Europe so I would rather, instead of doing a 30 k race, channel that energy into some good training, stay healthy and head to Europe with good energy.”
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Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.