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NORDEN, Calif. – As the minutes ticked by in Wednesday’s 30-kilometer classic mass start, coaches paced around the start-finish area, checking their phones for updates.
More than 30 minutes had passed without any sign of the leaders at the end of the first 10 k loop. Temperatures were already soaring into the 50s around 10:30 a.m. at Royal Gorge Ski Resort, making the three-lap endurance test even more of a grind.
On the first of the two-day U.S. Distance Nationals, team-support staff readied for a surge through the exchange zone, an optional loop estimated to take about 40 seconds. Despite the penalty, most figured their skiers would want to use at least one of their two changes on a new pair.
Liz Stephen of the U.S. Ski Team (USST) and Burke Mountain Academy emerged out of the woods first, followed closely by USST teammate Kikkan Randall. Without any hesitation, the two began their second lap, skipping the exchange and setting the tone for the rest of the race.
Randall’s teammate at Alaska Pacific University (APU), Rosie Brennan skied just a few seconds behind in third. If they weren’t going to switch skis in the soft-and-slushy snow, she wasn’t going to either.
Suddenly, the race became a battle of sheer grit on average-at-best skis. Sixty degrees and sunny wasn’t going to be ideal for classic skiing no matter how you cut it. Might as well keep going.
“I didn’t think they’d be any faster,” Stephen said of her decision not to change skis. “I tend to kind of be someone who’s pigheaded and just keeps going even if it’s not the fastest way.”
Stubborn or just strong-willed, Stephen kept on plugging. The 26-year-old Vermont native led Randall by about 15 seconds through the end of the second lap at 20 k. Stephen continued with the same pair, waxed by USST serviceman Randy Gibbs and his support staff with the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, and Randall followed suit.
Accelerating on the last lap, Stephen went on to finish first uncontested in 1 hour, 41:54.8 minutes. It was her second victory in as many races after Stephen won the SuperTour Finals title on Monday. She went on to take top honors at Distance Nationals in the last race of the season.
“I’m super happy with it, and I mean, heck, I’m just excited to finish the season,” Stephen said. “As I’ve said before, this is a dream season and … as a U.S. team right now we’re really strong. It’s not just winning SuperTour Finals and U.S. championships. It’s a big deal now. We’re a very fast nation.”
Unable to match Stephen’s attack up the long A-climb on the second lap, Randall took silver, 1:05.2 behind. Brennan, who skied most of the race alone, held on to third, 2:04.4 after Stephen.
“On the second lap, last hill, [I] just kind of made a gap on Kikkan, didn’t really mean to make a move, it just kind of happened,” Stephen said. “I wasn’t sure whether I should keep going and try to make it bigger or whether I should chill out a little bit. … When she didn’t catch right back up, I thought, ‘What the heck? Let’s just see if I can hold it.’
“I knew if she caught me again, it’d be really hard for me to stay with her and then try to beat in the end,” she added. “That’s not gonna happen. She’s got a globe full of jellybeans for a reason. I was telling myself over the tops of hills, ‘Just get over the top so she can’t see you!’ ”
Cramping and tired after a long-yet-successful season, in which Randall won her second-consecutive Sprint World Cup and accompanying Crystal Globe, the world champion couldn’t respond. Her skis had been fast enough on the downhills and good on the climbs when she could find her kick, but as the race progressed (and her last feed went flying over her head with about 4 k remaining), that became harder for Randall to do.
“I felt like I had the energy to do it, I just couldn’t,” Randall said. “My arms were starting to cramp and I couldn’t quite get on top of my skis to carry my momentum. For me in these kind of things, it’s such a technique thing, and sometimes I get it and sometimes I don’t.”
Friends and housemates for the week with APU, Randall and Stephen talked about the ski exchange right before the race. Stephen wasn’t as confident in her second pair of skis. Randall felt they should see how the first lap went and make a call.
“Coming into the exchange, I just decided, ‘No, I’m not gonna change, that’s my vote,’ ” Stephen said. ‘And she said, ‘Yeah, me neither. I’m just gonna keep going.”
Forty seconds was too much time to waste, and the penalty ended up taking longer than a minute as the snow continued to soften.
“With this added distance, it really changes the race,” said Randall, an International Ski Federation (FIS) athlete representative.
“After they tested it out on the World Cup, I would say the majority of athletes didn’t like it. It’s definitely gonna be under review at the FIS meeting this spring. I was a little surprised they were gonna try it here.”
As for the men’s 50 k classic mass start on Thursday, chief of competition August Teague told coaches they would shorten the zone to make it less of a penalty.
But on Wednesday, it was an option few of the top finishers explored. After the first lap, Sadie Bjornsen (APU/USST) was the first to change her skis in sixth. She had been trailing Stratton Mountain T2 teammates Sophie Caldwell and Jessie Diggins (USST) in fourth and fifth, respectively. They nearly entered the transition until their coaches called them back, telling them to chase down the top three on the skis they were on instead.
“I wish I would’ve known that everyone in front of me was not doing it,” Bjornsen said of the exchange. She spent the rest of the race trying to catch the chase group behind Brennan and succeeded on the second lap before falling behind on the third.
“I think I just did it out of habit because I’ve done a couple ski exchanges in 30 k’s, never that you lose time on,” she added.
Diggins was one of the few top women who took a pit stop the second time around, rising from 10th to seventh toward the end of the last lap.
She overtook Swedish B-team member Linn Sömskar, who double poled the first lap on skate skis along with fellow Swedes Lisa Larsen and Hanna Falk.
Sömskar and Larsen led Randall and Stephen early in the race, but on a tough 10 k course marked by two significant climbs and several gradual hills, they fell behind before the end of the loop and switched to classic skis.
“After the first lap, there was actually zero rest on the whole course,” Brennan explained of the slowing conditions. “There was not one place you could tuck without losing time.”
On the last lap, Diggins worked her way up to Bjornsen, Swedish World Cup skier Maria Graefnings, Nicole Deyong (Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation), Caitlin Gregg (Central Cross Country), and Caldwell. She outsprinted them all to the finish, taking fourth 2:03.7 minutes behind Brennan and 1.5 seconds ahead of Caldwell in fifth.
“It took me the entire nine k to catch them back again,” Diggins said. “Once I caught them, the skis had better glide. It’s kind of a risky, risky move, but I felt like I didn’t have a choice because they were getting slick. I decided I needed to switch.”
The key to Brennan’s success was effectively not thinking about exchanges, but rather following the two World Cup veterans ahead of her. At the finish, she said it was one of the hardest races she’d ever done.
“I’m beyond happy. That was one of the best races I’ve had this year,” Brennan said. “I’ve never had a good 30 k so to have it be the last race of the year is pretty awesome.”
Not far behind Stephen and Randall, who came through together after the first lap, Brennan remembered what APU head coach Erik Flora told her this season.
“[He] had talked to me a lot about taking risks because I usually race too timid,” Brennan said. “So I was like, ‘Why the hell not? It’s the last race.’ ”
With a good start and fast skis, she stuck with the two leaders. Stephen and Randall picked up the pace toward the end of the first lap, and Caldwell worked to stay with them. Brennan latched on as well.
“I just got in the other track and went for it,” Brennan said. “I was able to catch back up to them, and I skied with them for another half lap.”
The thought of changing skis hardly entered Brennan’s mind as Flora waved both Randall and her into the third lap behind Stephen.
“I heard that it took a minute to do [the exchange] and a minute is so long to lose,” Brennan said. “Once you’re out of sight, it’s so hard mentally so I just was like, ‘That’s not worth it.’ ”
Caldwell didn’t give it much thought, either. Pushing herself outside her comfort zone on the first lap, she said she was “a little worried” heading into the second. She recovered on the second loop while skiing with Diggins and Bjornsen, who had regained contact with them.
“I figured as long as I stayed in a pack, speed wouldn’t matter as much ’cause I could try to draft,” Caldwell said. “I was afraid if I did change and I lost the group, I’d struggle to catch back up.”
In search of better skis after the first lap, Graefnings followed Bjornsen into the exchange, and like Bjornsen, spent the rest of the race paying the price. Both worked to regain their spot in the chase group, and once there, Graefnings put on a final attack with what she guessed was “three or four” kilometers to go.
“I’m a little mad at myself,” Graefnings said after losing the hunt for fourth and placing seventh, 4.7 seconds behind Diggins.
“I did some tactical mistakes,” she explained. “I was starting with my second pair and that was not a good choice. I should’ve had my first pair all the way … I think the best three girls had their first pair all 30 k.”
She was right. The top three skied on the same boards from start to finish. Diggins notched fourth with one change, Caldwell was fifth with none, and Deyong placed sixth (1.2 seconds after Caldwell) after switching her skis before lap two.
“I know I lost some time, but once I realized that I had caught that second pack I just tried to hang on and survive,” Deyong said.
The 30-year-old Sun Valley coach ended up surprising herself in her first distance race in a month since placing second in the 50 k Rendezvous Race in West Yellowstone, Mont. She also raced Monday’s hill climb up Sugar Bowl Resort, the final event of SuperTour Finals.
“I hadn’t raced in a while and I jumped into the hill climb and I was like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ ” Deyong said after posting the 17th-fastest time up the mountain. “But I think jumping into that race helped me kind of blow the fumes out and just kind of get into that race mode again.”
Graefnings finished 2 seconds behind Deyong on Wednesday, and Bjornsen took eighth, 3.4 seconds behind the Swede. Gregg finished ninth, 8.3 seconds after Bjornsen, and Sömskar was 10th.
“I was falling off the back, catching back, falling off the back, catching back,” Bjornsen said. “The last kilometer it was just everything you had left in your tank. Mine was a bit limited.”
Though disappointed, Bjornsen would remember her stellar SuperTour Finals, where she was third overall with four podiums in as many races.
“Today was more just to test what I could do with what I had left,” she said. “All of us were out there absolutely digging, giving as much as we could, ever last bit of fuel we had. That’s a fun way to end because we dropped at the end. That was everything.”
Standings outside in T-shirts and sports bras, several of the top women sipped champagne and celebrated the end of the season.
“Today was kind of epically tough conditions so you really feel like you had to grit it out,” Randall said. “When you get to that finish line, you just feel really satisfied about the race and the whole season.”
“[It was a] really great way to end it here in California; the volunteers have done great things,” Stephen said. “Big thanks to everybody for the season. It was fun as hell.”
— Audrey Mangan contributed reporting
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Alex Kochon (email@example.com) 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.