FasterSkier’s coverage of the 2014 U.S. Cross Country Championships is brought to you through the generous support of The Memory Clinic in Bennington, Vt.
MIDWAY, Utah — The seventh starter of 152 women in Saturday’s 10-kilometer classic individual start, Becca Rorabaugh had a few things to think about in the first race of U.S. Cross Country Championships.
One, try to catch the seven A-seeds in front of her, and two, stay well ahead of the 13 other top-ranked skiers behind her.
But above all, don’t bonk out there. Racing at 5,500 to 5,900 feet above sea level is tough. Add two laps around a Soldier Hollow’s 5 k Olympic loop to that and you’re getting into dangerous territory.
An Alaska Pacific University (APU) skier based out of Anchorage, Alaska (and originally from Fairbanks), Rorabaugh mostly trains at sea level. But she and the APU Elite team know what hard efforts are all about, training at Eagle Glacier some 5,000 feet high throughout various summer camps. They also utilize Hatcher Pass about 1 1/2 hours from Anchorage — more accessible than a helicopter ride — at nearly 4,000 feet.
“The whole time I was just trying to keep it together, try to keep consistent skiing and good glide and good transitions and ski really smooth,” Rorabaugh said.
Starting a minute and 30 seconds behind Caitlin Gregg (Team Gregg/Madshus) in bib 1, Rorabaugh took advantage of the 15-second intervals and started picking people off — but with caution.
“I was just trying to make sure I didn’t really tank it over the top of any of the hills on the first lap,” she said. Her goal was to come on strong the second lap, but she ended up skiing the first one faster than anybody.
Rorabaugh led from start to finish, clocking the first lap 15.3 seconds faster than Gregg in second. Tucking down toward the stadium before the start of her second lap, Rorabaugh had already passed two people: Dartmouth’s Anne Hart and Erika Flowers (Stratton Mountain School T2), who ended up 17th and 11th, respectively.
While Rorabaugh’s second lap was one second slower than Gregg’s, it didn’t matter. The 24 year old had jumped out to an untouchable lead and ended up winning in 29:09.9, 14.2 seconds ahead of Gregg in second.
“I haven’t had a great classic race in a couple years so I wanted to feel like I could stride out like that again.” — Becca Rorabaugh, U.S. nationals 10 k classic winner
For Rorabaugh, it was her first national title in the first of four races over the next week.
“I have no idea what it’s gonna mean … I guess it means I get to go to OPA’s if I want to, so that’s good,” Rorabaugh said of the opportunity to race the OPA Cup Tour this season in Europe.
Doing well enough at U.S. nationals could prompt internal U.S. Ski Team discussion about whether she’s worthy of making the 2014 Olympic team, which will be named later this month. However, the spots remain tight with so many dominant U.S. Ski Team women currently competing or training in Europe.
“Mostly it’s a good little boost of confidence,” Rorabaugh said. “I haven’t had a great classic race in a couple years so I wanted to feel like I could stride out like that again.”
Gregg joked about the odds of both her and her husband, Brian, being randomly selected to start first in both the women’s and men’s races. It a was 1-in-400 chance, and they ended up leading the A-seeds* on a clear-and-sunny morning with temperatures in the mid-20s.
“There was probably a higher probability of that than me winning U.S. nationals, although I did a dang good job of trying to get in there,” Gregg said after notching her best U.S. nationals classic result.
Third halfway through Saturday’s 10 k behind Caitlin Patterson (Craftsbury Green Racing Project) in second, Gregg posted the fastest second lap to finish 25.6 seconds ahead of Patterson, who placed third.
Gregg laughed about starting first at the first race of nationals, with her last race a week earlier on Dec. 28 at the Wasatch Citizens Series in nearby Park City, Utah. There at the White Pine Touring Center, she and Brian set course records on the 5.4 k loop.
“We did a time trial last weekend, but it was a lower-key citizens’ event,” she said. “Nothing like starting off with a hard 10 k at altitude. I think working into it was key.”
Without any splits to go off throughout much of the race, especially her first lap, Gregg had to rely on the cheers of spectators to indicate where she stood.
“During the first lap, I’d be skiing by and they’d be like, ‘Go Rosie!’ ” she said of Rosie Brennan (APU), who placed sixth (+1:30.8). “I was like, ‘Oh, that means she’s clearly right there.’ ”
Laughing as she visualized people softly clapping for her, Gregg said she reminded herself not to “freak out” on the first lap. “I swear I always magnify when I’m racing, and i can hear Rosie’s skis behind me, like ,’Oh gosh, she’s coming.’ I kind of just had a plan to really ski consistently.”
“I wish there was a couple more laps in there. I feel like I was just getting goin’.” — Caitlin Gregg, second
With her heart set on making the upcoming Winter Olympics and specifically racing the 30 k in Sochi, Russia, Gregg said she’s been looking forward to proving herself in longer races.
“Man, I wish there was a couple more laps in there,” she said. “I feel like I was just getting goin’. That second lap felt really good, which I think was key.”
Ski speed also made a difference on a morning (and afternoon) that turned warmer than expected, with sub-zero wind chills expected early. From what Rorabaugh could tell, her skis were solid on both the climbs and descents, and Gregg was grateful for the help University of New Mexico Head Coach Fredrik Landstedt leant both her and Brian with waxing.
“I had Fredrik doing my skis and I had Grethe [Hagensen] from MSU out on course and she gave me the best information ever,” Gregg said of the Montana State University head coach. “She said, ‘Now you’re doing it, your dropping those girls off and you’re moving up.’ That was exactly what I needed to hear.”
The 18th starter, Patterson said she tried to refine her pacing strategy to start a little faster than usual, but not too fast.
“I have a tendency to start slow so I wanted to not lose too much time at the beginning,” she said. “I did lose a little bit of time, but still … I felt pretty well in control.”
Fourth fastest after 5 k (trailing Rorabaugh, Gregg and Brennan) and getting splits that she was in fifth at one point thereafter, Patterson clawed back the time to place third.
“To move up during the second lap to third I’m really happy with that,” she said. “Obviously there’s room for improvement, but I think it’s a really good start.”
In her previous 10 k classic races this season, Patterson placed second in the SuperTour mass start in Bozeman, Mont., and seventh in the NorAm individual race in Rossland, B.C.
“I think this one was a lot more solid,” she said.
Forty-two seconds behind Patterson and 1:27.3 out of first, University of Vermont junior Anja Gruber placed fourth, improving from the sixth-fastest time at 5 k.
“I’m really happy,” Gruber said. “It’s kind of like the first real race for us and we just came out here on Monday, and I was home over Christmas training by myself.”
A member of the German national team in 2009, Gruber returned to Germany for the holidays, then picked up in her first race of the season before the Eastern Intercollegiate Ski Association (EISA) circuit starts Jan. 17**.
“It’s really nice for me because there’s really no pressure this week,” said Gruber, 22, after posting her first top 20 at U.S. nationals. “It’s more just fun and checking out the course in case I make NCAA’s here.”
After Rorabaugh, Kate Fitzgerald and Brennan helped APU put three women in the top six, with Fitzgerald finishing 5.4 seconds after Gruber and 1:27.3 back from first.
A fan of the 15-second intervals***, Fitzgerald said it helped to see people ahead of her to try to catch and ski with others at times. “You could get a bit of a pack going,” she said.
The eighth starter, she mostly heard that she was in eighth, but she took the splits with “a grain of salt” and aimed to ski consistently strong.
“[I was] stoked to hear Becca doing so well,” Fitzgerald said. “She started right ahead of me and she just took off. I was like, ‘Woo! She’s having a good one.’ ”
Third in the 10 k skate individual start at nationals last year (behind APU teammates Brennan in first and Sadie Bjornsen of the U.S. Ski Team in second), Fitzgerald was glad to get this one out of the way.
“I was super nervous this morning, like, ‘Oh man, nationals, here we go!’ but I’m excited for the rest of the week,” she said, with her focus on the 20 k freestyle mass start. “I think it’s gonna be awesome.”
*A-seeds started first to give them the most “advantageous” conditions, according to technical delegate John Estle. Snow was initially forecast in the morning, and organizers considered moving the A-seeds back behind the B’s, but the chance for snowfall became less likely so they kept the top women at the front of the pack.
**The western collegiate Rocky Mountain (RMISA) circuit starts a week from Saturday on Jan 11.
***Estle said race officials decided to cut the time between intervals in half from the usual 30-seconds to speed up the day and give the athletes several additional hours to recover before Sunday’s skate sprint. Had they been dealing with 80 athletes, they would’ve stuck with 30 seconds, but with nearly 360 skiers between the women’s and men’s races, starting them 15 seconds apart was more efficient.
— Lander Karath contributed reporting
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.