FAIRBANKS, Alaska — Often relay races come down to a drag race on the homestretch.
Not on Tuesday, however, at the U.S. Cross Country Junior Nationals at Birch Hill Recreation Area.
Of the six 3 x 3-kilometer classic relays contested for national championships — two each in the Junior 1, J2 and Older Junior divisions — only two were decided by less than 30 seconds and only one was up for grabs on the final straightaway. That race was the girls Junior 1 event, in which Intermountain edged Midwest by 3.7 seconds and Alaska by 4 seconds.
IM anchor Annika Miller, of McCall, Idaho, passed Nicole Bathe of Midwest shortly after reaching the top of the grueling Sidewinder climb with just over a kilometer remaining.
“That hurt,” Miller said of the long, gradual climb.
Then she held off Bathe and a hard-charging Marion Woods of Alaska. Miller hung on after looking back to check on her pursuers’ whereabouts.
“The uphill finish was just a killer,” Miller said.
Intermountain won gold in 34:11.5 while Midwest edged Alaska by 0.3 seconds in 34:15.2. Alaska rallied to reach the podium after finishing the first of three legs in 14th place.
Despite their younger age, the J1 girls proved much more competitive than their OJ counterparts, as remarkably eight of the top nine teams came from the J1 division. Both groups raced at the same time but results were then separated by division.
Topping all squads was the Norwegian J1 trio of Lotta Weng, Tiril Weng and Lisa Kvamme with a superlative time of 33:07.8. Norway, however, is entered in the guest class and not eligible for placement on the U.S. podium. But the Norwegian girls again showed they are in a class of their own by almost immediately leaving the rest of the field behind.
The boys J1 race featured a similar situation in that the top American team, Rocky Mountain, was chasing squads from Norway and the Older Junior division.
Rocky Mountain — with Keegan Swirbul, Evan Weinman and Cal Deline — handled the domestic J1 competition for gold in 28:42.
“My teammates crushed it. I couldn’t have been handed off in a better spot,” said Deline, who was tagged having a huge lead on New England and just a half-second deficit to Norway’s J1 guest team.
Deline, wearing a hat with a Swedish flag that he traded for recently in Europe, attempted to catch a ride with Norway’s anchor Mattis Stenshagen.
“It was an opportunity to try and hang on, but he was going too fast for me,” Deline said.
Norway was the first J1 team across the line in 28:13. New England placed second among U.S. teams in 29:21 and Alaska earned bronze in 29:35.
Wednesday is a day reserved for training and rest. The championships resume Thursday at 11:45 a.m. with 1.25-kilometer freestyle sprints.