If any of the NorAm regulars felt like they were in a scene of the movie “Groundhog Day” on Saturday, you can’t blame them.
For one, the second of the three-day Eastern Canadian Championships took place on the actual holiday, if you can call it that. There were no furry rodents, but Day 2 of racing involved an event that seems to be on repeat. In fact, the 10- and 15-kilometer freestyle has been in every NorAm this season.
More often than not, like in three out of the four NorAms before Easterns, the race was an interval start. That’s exactly what was on tap Saturday in at Nakkertok Ski Club in Cantley, Quebec. What a surprise.
Why so many interval-start skate races? Partly because it’s the opening event at Senior World Championships on Feb. 20, and as we all know, practice makes perfect.
But racing is also unpredictable, and as it turned out, resulted in a few different faces atop the podium Saturday.
In the men’s 15 k freestyle, Michael Somppi of the Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA) came out on top after winning the same race two NorAms ago in Thunder Bay, Ontario. He was third in the most recent 15 k skate in Duntroon, Ont., which was qualifier for Canada’s World Championships team.
Just short of a distance spot on the team, Somppi refocused for Easterns. Sixteenth in Friday’s classic sprint, he wasn’t exactly satisfied and came into the 15 k – his bread and butter – with added motivation.
“I wanted to push myself hard from the start until I started to feel the lactate in my legs,” Somppi wrote in an email. “Then I focused on holding that effort level until the final km when I could give anything I had left in the tank.”
As a result, Somppi led throughout the three-lap race, finishing the first loop 2.2 seconds faster than teammate Jess Cockney. By the end of lap two, he was 5.4 seconds up on Cockney and 7.1 seconds ahead of Graham Nishikawa (AWCA), who swept the most recent NorAm distance races/World Championships trials.
“I was getting splits that I was the race leader, but Jesse and Graham were close,” Somppi wrote. “I know what both those guys are capable of so I was giving it my all in the final kms to try to secure the win.”
Somppi captured it in 35:11.5 for his second NorAm victory of the season and his career. Nishikawa placed second, 9 seconds back, and Cockney was third (+18.9).
Aside from Raphaël Couturier of the Pierre-Harvey Training Centre (CNEPH) in fourth (+35.3), the AWCA took six of the top-seven places with Chris Hamilton in fifth, Brent McMurtry in sixth and Kevin Sandau in seventh. David Greer of the Yukon Elite Squad was eighth, Graeme Killick (AWCA) ninth and Andy Shields (NDC-Thunder Bay) 10th.
Through two races, Somppi, a 24-year-old Thunder Bay native, is currently fourth in the Eastern Championships standings and will start Sunday’s 30 k pursuit 12 seconds behind Cockney as the leader. Nishikawa will start second (+2.0) and Brent McMurtry ranks third (+6.0).
“Tomorrow will be a real battle for the mini-Tour victory,” Somppi wrote. “I’m hoping I feel as good as I did today. My focus for the rest of the season is to continue to fight for the NorAm leader spot. There are potential opportunities for World Cup starts this spring and next fall for the NorAm leader so that is my motivation.”
After starting last, a minute behind Somppi, Nishikawa finished the first lap ranked fifth and 7.6 seconds back. He reined in Somppi and Cockney slightly on the second lap, but lost some ground on the third.
“Today was challenging,” Nishikawa wrote in an email. “It was been a difficult last few weeks with sickness leading into the trial races. I will try my best this weekend in the mini tour, then get ready for [World Championships]. … I am really optimistic about my upcoming opportunities.”
Cockney started 1 ½ minutes ahead of Somppi and skied the first lap and half without splits. Even so, he knew things were going well.
“I felt great so I knew I was in a spot for a good result,” he wrote. “Last week I skied a pretty disappointing 15km and I really wanted to pace this fast from the gun and try to hold on and see what would happen.”
Last weekend in Duntroon, Cockney was eighth in the 15 k and second in the classic sprint.
“I’m really happy with today’s race,” he added. “My distance skiing has been inconsistent over the last few years so I’m really hoping I can string together two good days in a row.”
Brennan Pushes the Pace
In the women’s 10 k, Kate Brennan (AWCA) notched her first NorAm victory of the season in 27:09.1 after placing third in Friday’s classic sprint. Almost exactly a year ago at Mont Orford in Quebec, Brennan captured her first NorAm win in the 5 k classic on what she considered home turf.
While Brennan couldn’t be reached for comment, it seemed that racing not far from her hometown outside Ottawa once again didn’t hurt. However, in other NorAm distance races this year, Brennan’s been close: she was fourth in the Thunder Bay 10 k and fifth in the 10 k classic in Canmore, Alberta.
Saturday’s runner-up by exactly 5 seconds, Brittany Webster (Highlands Trailblazers) was happy with her result after a whirlwind week in which she was named to the World Championships team along with Emily Nishikawa (AWCA) and Andrea Dupont of Rocky Mountain Racers (RMR).
Last weekend, Webster won the 10 k skate ahead of Zoe Roy (RMR), Dupont and Amanda Ammar (Canmore), respectively. On Saturday, Roy was sixth, Dupont did not race while training in Canmore, and Ammar was once again fourth (after Nishikawa in third).
“Today was tough, my legs were shot, but my shape is good,” Webster wrote in an email. “So I was able, with great skis and a wicked fast course, to ski to second even though my legs felt like bricks.”
After starting two minutes behind Brennan, Webster knew she had some time to make up on the second and final lap: 9.7 seconds to be exact. Through the first lap, Brennan built a 7.2-second lead on Cendrine Browne (CNEPH), and while Browne finished 14.2 seconds back in sixth, Webster came within five seconds of the win.
“I thought I could perhaps close the gap on the second lap so that motivated me to push hard,” Webster wrote. “Then the legs really started to blow so I think the first part of that lap was good, but the second part was tough.”
Nishikawa wrote that she didn’t hear many specific splits, just that she was “really close.” Slower on the first lap than she’d hoped, she rebounded from trailing by 16.5 seconds to finish 5.8 seconds behind Brennan and just 0.8 seconds off Webster’s time.
“I went as hard as I could because I knew it was going to be tight,” Nishikawa wrote.
Still recovering from a cold that kept her from last weekend’s 10 k, Nishikawa was pleased with her result and looking forward to Sunday. She will start 14 seconds after Brennan as the mini-tour leader in the 15 k classic pursuit. Ammar ranks third (+23.0) and Webster will start fourth (+33.0).
Ammar, for one, is excited to get through yet another skate race and move onto a classic distance event. At the same time, she was also encouraged by her recent results after placing fourth in Duntroon and sixth in the Thunder Bay skiathlon.
“I’m super pumped about my skating the past couple of races,” Ammar wrote. “I’m feeling stronger in this technique. Skating is kind of my enemy, and we’ve unfortunately had 3 weekends in a row of the same races- classic sprints, skate distance.”
However, she felt Nakkertok’s course suited freestyle. “There’s a lot of flat, which makes for tons of double pole in tomorrow’s classic,” Ammar wrote. “I love striding, so I’m a fan of big hills.”
Looking forward, she’s hoping to ski more consistently after what she called “a tough start to the season.”
“I feel like I’m getting my energy back, and I’m feeling stronger with each race,” Ammar explained. “I’m looking forward to this half of the season, and I’m trying to end my career with fun and hopefully a trip to the podium.”
Rounding out the top 10, Alana Thomas (Nakkertok) was seventh, Frédérique Vézina (CNEPH) eighth, Andrea Lee (NDC-Thunder Bay) ninth, and Friday’s sprint runner-up, Rebecca Reid (AWCA) 10th.
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.