HOUGHTON, Mich. — As the heavy, wet snow fell on the trails of the Michigan Tech Nordic Skiing Center Tuesday morning, the first starter in the men’s 1.5-kilometer classic sprint at the 2015 U.S. Cross Country Championships emerged from the dense cloud of white.
Plowing through the roughly seven inches of snow that had fallen in three hours, Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess (Bend Endurance Academy) notched the second-fastest time of the day. But much like the wind and snow, he wasn’t going to stop there.
Similar to his female counterpart, Rosie Brennan of Alaska Pacific University (APU), Blackhorse-von Jess breezed through the quarterfinal and semifinal – earing the top spot in both. Once in the final, it was more of the same for the 28 year old, who surged over the course’s second-to-last hill to enter the stadium far ahead of his competitors and across the line with a smile and a winning time of 4:06.16.
The next competitor, Ben Saxton (SMST2/USST), crossed the line 6.29 seconds after Blackhorse-von Jess in second, while Michigan Tech skier Håken Hjelstuen of Norway rounded out the podium in third, 7.12 seconds back.
While Blackhorse-von Jess had the task of tackling the slow, new snow in qualification, he said it was a common factor between he and the other first starters. Once in the heats, he explained, the unusually slow nature of the race made tactics less important.
“In a four-and-a-half minute long race you just go ski and you wait and see what happens. Obviously there are certain spots on the course where certain people do different things better than other people. [For me] it wasn’t a goal to lead and it wasn’t a goal to be in last,” he said of his strategy in a post-race interview.
Although he wasn’t aiming to lead, it was a position that Blackhorse-von Jess found himself in during the quarterfinal. Entering the stadium with a sizable lead over David Sinclair (GMVS) and Forrest Mahlen (MSU), he skied across the line with the speed of a 30 k instead of a sprint.
In the semifinal it looked as if the same would happen as the heat of six skiers sped up the ultimate hill. However, there was one competitor who held onto Blackhorse-von Jess – Cole Morgan of the University of Vermont.
“In the semifinal Cole Morgan was on my tail and wouldn’t let go and it made it sound like there were a lot more people around. So I had to push it into the finish,” Blackhorse-von Jess said.
The Bend Endurance Academy skier held off the challenge and the two automatically advanced to the final, where a similar situation took place. On the second-to-last hill, again, Blackhorse-von Jess felt Morgan on his tails. At that point he made the push to lose the 20-year-old college skier.
“I said, ‘well, I’m done with this,’ and I took off. Suddenly the woods got quite and I was by myself, so I went for it,” he said.
Tuesday’s win is Blackhorse-von Jess’ second national championship. Although he has landed on the podium multiple times, his only other win was in a 2013 freestyle sprint at Soldier Hollow. He explained his win in that race was more meaningful because it was unexpected and “something I really had to fight for.”
The 2015 title is different for Blackhorse-von Jess because it’s been a part of his season plan for a long time, and the highlight of that plan is not a national championship.
”This year everything has been geared toward Word Championships so this is a stepping-stone. The goal was to put myself in a position to win and see if I can do it. So everything worked out really well and I’m excited. Obviously I can’t control if I go to World Championships but I know that the way we set up the training, we are on the upswing and things will continue to rise in February,” he said.
Blackhorse-von Jess will not be selected for World Championships based on the objective criteria outlined by USSA, which includes a top 60 ranking in the overall World Cup. However, he does have a chance in the additional objective criteria, which is based on USSA sprint and distance points. Blackhorse-von Jess currently sits in third position behind World Cup skiers Andy Newell and Simi Hamilton in the most recent sprint ranking list released Jan. 2.
While he has no control over whether he will be selected for World Championships, Blackhorse-von Jess does have a say in earning the 2015 SuperTour sprint title, which could result in World Cup starting spots later this season.
“I think that being the best of the rest is best I can do. The only thing in my control is winning the sprint SuperTour so I can secure those two world cup starts at the end. Obviously it would be great to go to World Championships, but two years ago I had a first and a third and I still didn’t go,” he said.
In the meantime, however, Blackhorse-von Jess is skipping the 30 k classic mass start on Thursday to focus on Saturday’s freestyle sprint. He explained that, historically, the second sprint of nationals has always been a challenge for him but this year he’s hoping that will change.
“The goal for us is to figure out how to get through the next four days to be able to have a good race, because I haven’t had an awesome race the second time,” he said.
The Fight for Second
Saxton’s silver medal finish is his second in two years. In 2014, he was the runner-up to the national title behind Torin Koos in the freestyle sprint at Soldier Hollow.
En route to this year’s podium finish, Saxton had to maneuver a challenging quarterfinal to advance to the next round. In what he called the “quarterfinal of death,” Saxton faced a collection of strong sprinters including Reese Hanneman (APU), Tyler Kornfield (APU), Eric Packer (APU), Matt Gelso (SVSEF) and Welley Ramsey (MWSC). The heat was the fastest quarterfinal of the day, but Saxton crossed the line in first followed by Packer and Hanneman, both of whom advanced.
“You could have taken those six names and said this will be the A-final for today, and I wouldn’t have doubted you for a second. They are all really strong skiers, so I felt really lucky to advance out of that,” he said in a post-race interview.
By the time he reached the final Saxton was ready to fight for the top spot. At the start, however, he had trouble finding his top speed and suffered the consequences.
“In the final it was the first time all day I had a bad start and it came back to bite me. There were only two or three lanes in play when you’re going around the course, so when I fell down to sixth from the gun there was no way for me to move myself up,” he said of the final.
But he did move himself up, and by the time he reached the bottom of the last climb Saxton was third with a considerable distance to make up on Hjelstuen who was sitting in second. With a surge of energy Saxton reached the Norwegian and skied past him to gain an advantage on the straight away into the finish and earn silver.
While Saxton said he was hoping to win Tuesday’s race, he explained that a podium finish is never disappointing.
“Dakota is a good friend and he is the standard for domestic sprinters so there is no shame in watching him do his thing. I’m barely 21 and Dakota is almost 8 years older than me so there’s some catching up to do. I have so much to learn from him and I’m just psyched to do that for now,” he said.
The finish comes after Sunday’s 15 k freestyle in which Saxton finished 57th – a result that he said left him shaken.
“It’s nice to have some mojo back. It was a pretty tough day on Sunday,” Saxton explained.
Hjelstuen, a student at local Michigan Tech and native of Oslo, Norway, qualified first and had a successful campaign throughout the quarterfinals and semifinals. However, by the time he reached the final, his kick wax was deteriorating.
“My kick was not good in the semifinal. We tried to fix it for the final, but it got worse. Up the last hill I was fourth or fifth and I really wanted that podium so I was just double-poling all I could. Maybe with better kick I could maybe fight Dakota. I would have been fun to have a fight close to the end,” he said after the final’s completion.
While he is a student at MTU, Hjelstuen has yet to become a racing member of the Huskies’ ski team. Since he is an exchange student, his eligibility for NCAA racing has been up in the air. However, he predicted that within the next week the issue would be resolved.
A Strong Showing for Vermont
Despite challenging Blackhorse-von Jess in the middle of the course, Morgan ultimately ended his day in fourth. The University of Vermont senior from Bozeman, Mont. originally worried that the day would be a “grinder” due to the slow snow he faced in qualification, but found that conditions improved once organizers had groomed the trail between then and the heats.
While Morgan said he normally has a tendency to start too hard, a key factor in Tuesday’s strategy was to hold back until it the second third of the race.
“I just tried to tuck behind people for most of those heats until the last half kilometer where it was just rolling. It worked in the quarter and the semi, but in the final I got a little tired so I didn’t really have quite the punch as the other ones,” he explained.
Morgan was the second U23 skier behind Saxton, thus earning valuable points for a possible bid to make the U.S. U23 World Championship team. In regards to the U23 Championships, Morgan said he’s more focused on the season’s college races, but will see where he stands when the selections are announced Saturday.
“That wasn’t one of my big goals coming into here. I’m just looking to get some good racing before the college season. We’ll see how it ends up at the end of the week and how I feel there,” he said.
The University of Vermont saw another of its skiers in the final in the form of Jørgen Grav.
Grav, a junior from Oslo, Norway, said that he felt faster in the qualification and quarterfinal because he could ski his own pace. In the semifinal and final, he said it was more difficult to ski efficiently due to the grouping of the pack.
“Other than that I’m pretty satisfied. I didn’t expect to get to the A-final. I would say I was a very lucky loser,” Grav, who advanced to the final as a lucky loser, said after the race.
With their fourth and fifth place finishes, Morgan and Grav, were the top affiliated college skiers (as Hjelstuen has yet to gain eligibility). Prior to Tuesday’s race, UVM was ranked second behind Northern Michigan University in the Championship’s College Cup rankings.
“We worked pretty hard and we tried to hang on. We finished strong… It was great having a teammate in the final,” he said.
Taking the last spot in the final was Sun Valley’s Miles Havlick, who said that despite making a few tactical errors, he was happy with his result.
“I think the longer sprint and the conditions played in my favor as more of a distance skier,” he said in a post-race phone interview.
The 2015 U.S. Cross Country Championships continue Thursday with a 20/30 k classic mass start for senior skiers and a 10/5 k classic mass start for juniors.
— Alex Kochon contributed reporting
Lander Karath is FasterSkier's Associate Editor from Bozeman, Montana and a Bridger Ski Foundation alumnus. Between his studies at Middlebury College in Vermont, he is an outdoor enthusiast and a political junkie.