FAIRBANKS, Alaska — Logan Hanneman has been skiing the Birch Hill Recreation Area trails as long as he can remember. On a chilly Thursday night at the U.S. Cross Country Junior Nationals, he and Ben Saxton gave spectators a race they’ll also remember for a long time.
Hanneman, representing Team Alaska, came from behind in the homestretch of the Older Junior 1-kilometer freestyle sprint final and outlunged Midwest’s Saxton by the narrowest of margins.
A photo finish sealed Hanneman’s third gold of the championships and tough-luck Saxton’s third silver.
“We could see this much daylight between the line and your toe,” JN chief of competition John Estle told Saxton, holding his fingers a couple centimeters apart. “It couldn’t be closer.”
Hanneman chased Saxton around the course and trailed slightly until the very end.
“I think he actually was a foot ahead or so,” Hanneman said, who along with Saxton crashed and lay horizontal after the last-gasp effort. “When I lunged I shot it out pretty good.”
The result took several minutes to determine as race officials blew up the finish-line image on a computer. The FinishLynx phototimer photo can be viewed on the Junior Nationals home page. Saxton and Hanneman were each given copies of the image and smiled as they posed for a photo holding them.
“I never want to lose, ever, but if I’m going to lose to somebody, what a guy to lose to on his home course,” a gracious Saxton said. “I’m just so happy for him. Racing like that is so much fun … but at the time I’m getting awful tired of second place.”
The sixth and last sprint final of the day was rife with drama. Saxton, who won the qualifying round while Hanneman was second, avoided disaster on an early uphill corner when Tucker McCrerey of Rocky Mountain crashed near him on an icy corner.
“I just punched it and I barely made it around him,” Saxton said.
Saxton’s acceleration gave him a lead that Hanneman worked hard to contain. Saxton said he faltered briefly at the bottom of the final East Ramp hill but still reached the top ahead of Hanneman. So he went first on the ensuing downhill, despite the dreaded possibility of a slingshot effect for Hanneman at the bottom.
“I led down the hill and that was the right decision. Whoever led (at the top) should have led (going down),” Saxton said.
Hanneman was in comfortable territory for the football-length charge to the finish into a steady headwind. He pulled around to Saxton’s left at the bottom of the hill and the two friends had an old-fashioned drag race to the end.
“We always do practice sprints here,” said Hanneman, a Fairbanks native who now skis for the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “I know that 100 meters here pretty good.”
To his surprise, Hanneman now has a chance to pull off a junior nationals rarity: four gold medals. Three years ago, he accomplished the feat as a 16-year-old J2 in Truckee, Calif. Whether anybody has done so twice was not immediately known.
The 15-kilometer mass-start classic race concludes the OJ competition on Sunday.
“(Sweeping four golds) was a thought a long time ago, but then after how tired I was after NCAAs, I was just going to shoot for some podiums,” Hanneman said. “The 15K classic mass-start, that’s more and more my favorite event, so we’ll wait and see but i’m looking forward to it.”
Saxton, meanwhile, is still seeking that elusive gold. “One more chance,” he said.
For more photos from 2013 Junior Nationals, visit bertboyer.zenfolio.com. Proceeds go to the National Nordic Foundation (NNF).