There are a couple things one can count on at the Canmore Nordic Centre, including solid tracks and quality snow, even in October. At the first unofficial sprint of the North American season on Friday morning, more than 120 racers found both for the Frozen Thunder classic sprint, and organizers added what could be a new tradition to the mix: a zero-elimination format.
Sounds chaotic? It worked, according to American Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess of the Bend Endurance Academy in Oregon.
“It was a great format — worked out far better than I could possibly have imagined,” he wrote in an email after the race. “Gets everyone the chance to race with like-speed people and … experience the stress of a full sprint day. Great opportunity for all that ran like clockwork. … Fantastic event.”
Blackhorse-von Jess and another American Ida Sargent (U.S. Ski Team/Craftsbury Green Racing Project) posted the top men’s and women’s qualifying times, respectively, beating out their competition on the 1.6-kilometer course by more than 2 seconds apiece.
Frozen Thunder organizers opted for what they called the “knock-in sprints,” or King’s Court format, ranking all 122 racers — men and women combined — by qualifying times and seeding them in four-person heats for the first of three rounds.
The top two in each heat of round 1 moved up; the last two moved down a heat. The format repeated for round 2 to put the most competitive skiers at the top of round 3, allowing all participants to race all three rounds.
Blackhorse-von Jess won his first two heats, topping U.S. Ski Team and SMST2 Team member Andy Newell in round 2, but Newell had the edge in the final round 3 for the overall win. Blackhorse-von Jess placed second, Switzerland’s Mathias Inniger took third, and Kris Freeman (Team Freebird) was fourth.
“It kind of felt like each heat was a final since nobody wants to move down a bracket so we had to push each hard each round,” Newell wrote in an email. “There were a lot of fast skiers here but we North Americans are all pretty good buddies so it was definitely a friendly fight out there. We’ve all trained with each other a bit this off season and want everyone to kick ass over season.”
In terms of tactics, he added that it depended on how fast your skis were.
“We all agreed to use kick wax this year to make it an even playing field and only waxed with low flour [sic] wax,” Newell wrote. “For me the tactic was to push hard on the uphills to try to break it up a bit. We were all on klister and the snow was sugary but still great racing conditions.”
The course was two laps, for a total of two uphills.
“One is a decent climb and the other is a pretty short one,” Newell explained. “The reason we have double poled here in the past is because it’s kind of a downhill finish which can be faster in the skate skis. But I think it worked out well this year with everyone on klister.”
According to Blackhorse-von Jess, the heats were an opportunity to get back into the swing of racing.
“With the fastest (and the best skiers in North America) all there, you have to push every time. And starting in the fastest quarter and moving on into the fastest semi means do-or-die for making the final, so there’s no sandbagging all day,” he wrote. “I don’t know why I was so fast qualifying, really. [My coach] Ben [Husaby] helped me make some major changes to my classic technique this year, which has made obvious improvements off the snow so it’s not surprising it’s helped on the snow. But who knows. It’s a training day for everyone and while I’m encouraged by the day, I don’t think anyone can read overmuch into the crystal ball based on today.”
Canadian World Cup Team member Devon Kershaw led the Canadians as the top man in the second-fastest final round, beating out Jess Cockney, of the Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA), Lenny Valjas (Canadian World Cup Team), and American Ben Saxton (SMST2).
“Not the best day ever for me, but not the worst,” Kershaw wrote on Instagram. “Thanks to all that made it possible (CCC, volunteers, all the racers & staff).”
Sargent raced three junior men in round 1, finishing third behind Reed Godfrey of the Alberta Ski Team (AST) and Caelan McLean (Yukon Ski Team). She then met two junior men and Canadian National Team member Perianne Jones in round 2.
There, she placed second behind Samuel Greer (NDC Thunder Bay), whom she outlasted in the first round, and Jones took third. Sargent advanced to the last round with Godfrey, Geer and another junior man, Tate Macdonald (AST), and beat them all for a resounding overall victory.
“The format was definitely funky but they did a great job pulling it off and I thought it ran really smoothly,” Sargent wrote in an email. “At first I thought it was a weird idea but then it ended up being fun and I had to go as hard as I could every single round rather than being able to ski a little conservatively through the early rounds. On the World Cup, every heat is 100% so this was great training.”
Her goal was to push as hard as possible each round, and with a downhill double-pole finish (in which she got passed at least once in previous rounds), she made a point to go even harder over the tops of each hill to get a sizable lead before the finish.
“I’m happy to be feeling good right now,” she wrote. “I don’t consider this part of the season yet and I’m just psyched to have had a fun and hard effort on snow.”
Jones was third in the second-fastest, coed round 3, after McLean and Thomas Manktelow (AST), respectively.
“I’ve never done rounds like that before, but it was really fun, and good for us to go hard every round,” Jones wrote in an email. “North American sprinting (especially for the women, and especially in Canada) has turned into a bit of a cake walk in the first couple rounds before putting the hammer down in the final — which is the worst thing for development because once you get to the World Cup there’s no lolly-gagging.”
Dahria Beatty (AWCA) placed third among the women, finishing ahead of fourth-place woman Heidi Widmer (AWCA/Canadian NST) in the final round.
Angus Foster (Big Thunder Nordic) was the top junior man in 21st overall, followed by Pearce Hanna (Rocky Mountain Racers) and David Askwith (Georgian Bay).
Maya MacIssac-Jones (RMR) was the top junior woman, followed by Katherine Stewart-Jones (Nakkertok) and Katie Weaver (Hollyburn).
“I’d say best Frozen Thunder Race ever,” Jones concluded. “It was sunny and warm, and CCC and Zone 4 (Dan Roycroft) somehow managed to make the day go incredibly smoothly running 96 heats — 1 every 30 seconds. I have to admit I was skeptical about the format, but the race ran like a well-oiled machine, and was a ton of fun.”
“Snow was incredible, as always,” Blackhorse-von Jess wrote. “They do an amazing job there and it got a lot more traffic this year with all the racers and it held up awesome.”
Distance racers will have a chance to strut their stuff at Frozen Thunder on Monday at the 10/15 k freestyle individual start at 9 a.m. Mountain time.
Check out dozens of photos from the first unofficial race of the season, the Frozen Thunder classic sprint, in Canmore, Alberta, courtesy of Angus Cockney, Jess Cockney’s father.
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.