HOUGHTON, Mich. – In the final race of the 2015 U.S. Cross Country Championships, surprises were few and far between on Michigan Tech Trails. Tuesday’s classic sprint champion, Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess of the Bend Endurance Academy, qualified first with 3 1/2 seconds to spare in Saturday’s 1.5-kilometer freestyle sprint, demonstrating that he was well on his way to another national title.
If the qualifier hinted at Blackhorse-von Jess’s dominance, the heats confirmed it, with the Bend skier easily earning wins in both his quarterfinal and semifinal. Once the final was underway, it was only a matter of time before the characteristic black, red and white suit emerged from the woods at the head of the pack and across the finish line in first.
With a time of 3:31.02, Blackhorse-von Jess came out on top in the final, besting second-place finisher Tyler Kornfield of Alaska Pacific University (APU) by 1.16 seconds. Just behind Kornfield, a lunge for third resulted in a podium finish for APU’s Reese Hanneman (+2.57) and fourth for Kris Freeman (+2.62). Rounding out the final were APU’s Lex Treinen (+4.01) in fifth and Norwegian Michigan Tech exchange student Håkon Hjelstuen (+6.23) in sixth.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the day was the presence of the sun, which made its first appearance Saturday since a training day on Jan. 2. With the sun came the same cold temperatures that competitors had faced all week, thus resulting in relatively slow and difficult snow conditions for the sprint.
“That race course in this snow is way more challenging than it looks,” Blackhorse-von Jess said in a post-race interview about the conditions he and his competitors faced. “It’s hard, especially as a fast-twitch guy, pushing against slow snow. You’re not going very fast and it hurts, it hurts a lot.”
According to Blackhorse-von Jess, the snow speed increased throughout the afternoon, and when the six men of the final lined up to start, they were ready to clock the fastest times of the day.
When the gun went off at the start of the final, Blackhorse-von Jess and Hanneman double-poled to the front, hoping to avoid any entanglements within the action of the pack. Despite their best efforts, however, the four other men remained on their heels as they traversed the winding course.
“I was feeling that I was strong enough to ski at the front the whole way, today, so I thought tactically that would be the best thing,” Hanneman said of his strategy in the final. “I just went from the gun and got in front and tried to keep it about half way through and then just turn the afterburners on and see if I could just drag race anybody that tried to come around me.”
According to several competitors, as the group sped closer to the finish, the pack’s competitive nature began to flare, resulting in aggressive skiing and flying poles. At one point, Freeman explained he used “a few choice words” when a fellow skier repeatedly stepped on his poles.
“But there was no intimidating him, though – that’s a good thing. It was a solid final,” Freeman said.
While the group jostled behind him, Hanneman’s stint in the front seemed to be working. However, once the skiers hit the final third of the course, Blackhorse-von Jess surged ahead. With Blackhorse-von Jess pulling away and Hanneman and the four trailing skiers unable to respond, the final was shaping into a race for second.
Kornfield, who was sitting in fifth as the pack entered the last 150 meters, saw an opening on the outside and swung around Hanneman and Hjelstuen. Focusing on Blackhorse-von Jess, he powered his way behind the eventual winner to take a decisive second place.
With Kornfield charging to second, another skier was threatening Hanneman’s run for the podium. Freeman, who had come from behind in the right lane was almost even with Hanneman as they approached the finish. With massive lunges from both skiers as they crossed the line, it was uncertain who had earned the last podium finish. Moments later, however, Hanneman was revealed to be the third-place finisher, just 0.05 seconds ahead of Freeman.
After the race, Blackhorse-von Jess said his second national title of the week demonstrated he is at a high level of training and fitness.
“It’s more a validation of where I’m at in my training and where I am as an athlete in my career,” he explained. “I’m at the place in my career where I’m ready for next level.”
His goal for nationals was to win both sprints. In doing so, he hoped to make the case for a starting spot in Europe later this season, more specifically at the 2015 World Championships this February in Falun, Sweden. With the selection criteria period ending Jan. 18, the 29 year old said that he had done everything in his power to earn starting spots in Europe.
“I’ve done what I can do. The plan is to be ready if we get the call and obviously with the SuperTour and those two World Cups, if I can guarantee those, I will go and I will be ready. And if the phone rings and they send us over earlier, I’ll be there,” he said, referencing the Period 4 World Cup starts granted to the SuperTour sprint leader in March.
Championship selection aside, Blackhorse-von Jess said that this season has centered around returning to the true nature of the sport and the camaraderie that surrounds it. He explained that while many of the racers in his generation of skiing have moved on to other endeavors, they still have an impact on him to this day.
“I get messages from them every day that are like, ‘Man I’m so excited for you. I love you so much.’ There was a great photo that [Zach] Caldwell took of Sylvan [Ellefson] and I after he won his 30 k championship [in 2014]. Looking at that photo, that’s what ski racing is. That’s what kept me in the sport for so long and that’s why I’m still here,” he said.
With a new generation making its way into the upper ranks of American skiing, Blackhorse-von Jess said he’s excited for them to take his place as he makes the next step in his skiing abilities – which he believes are on par with top-30 placement on the World Cup.
One such skier from that generation is Saturday’s runner-up, Kornfield. While the 23 year old is relatively young, he has the hardware to prove his abilities. With a national title in the 2010 classic sprint at 18, he was the youngest skier to win at a U.S. Cross Country Championships. He earned another national title in the 2012 classic sprint. However, since then, Kornfield had yet to return to a national podium until Saturday.
Kornfield explained that he felt heightened pressure before Saturday’s sprint as he needed a top-five result to earn a trip to the European continental cups this year. With his other 2015 nationals results outside the top 15, Kornfield’s season rested on the freestyle sprint.
“I’ve had an OK week so far, but nothing that really shot me to where I wanted to go, so this is really exciting for me,” he said in a post-race interview.
The APU skier also explained his return to the national podium after a three-year absence demonstrates his potential as a successful professional skier.
“It definitely isn’t good feeling that you may have peaked young, so it’s good to finally get back up there,” he said.
Taking the final podium spot, Kornfield’s teammate Hanneman said that his result was a mental and physical victory after a difficult Period 1 on the World Cup where he struggled to meet his own expectations.
He explained that due to possible overtraining, his usual form — which earned him a 2014 national title and the overall SuperTour leader position — has been absent in the 2015 season. This week has been a turning point for Hanneman as he continues to search for an improved mental and physical state.
“This whole week I have been starting to feel better and better — more like myself. It is a huge affirmation that I am coming out of the hole that I was in,” he said. “I am starting to feel good, fit, and fast.”
According to Hanneman, the key to improved skiing over the remainder of the season will be more rest so that his body can recover and begin to feel the benefits of the year’s training.
Despite missing out on third to Hanneman in the lunge, Freeman said he was pleased with fourth, given that he failed to qualify for the heats in Tuesday’s classic sprint. According to the 34 year old, the classic sprint was the first time he failed to make the heats, let alone the final, of a nationals sprint.
“Before this event I had never missed a finals at a nationals that I raced in,” he said. “Now I can say that I’ve never missed a finals that I’ve qualified for. I have more force at the sprints at nationals than I’d like to admit, but I did everything I could today.”
Freeman leaves Houghton with a 30 k national title and a second-place finish in the 15 k freestyle. He plans to return home to New Hampshire and train until SuperTour racing begins Jan. 30 in Craftsbury, Vt.
After the five Craftsbury races, Freeman said he will attend the 2015 World Championships in Falun, Sweden. He explained that while he hasn’t received confirmation from the U.S. Ski Team (USST) regarding his selection for this year’s biggest event, he believes his placement at nationals and USSA points rankings are indicators that he will be selected. As of Jan. 2, Freeman currently sits in second behind USST member Noah Hoffman in the USSA distance points list.
“It would be a hard justification to not do it at this point,” he said of his possible selection.
Saturday’s sprint marked the final race of the 2015 U.S. Cross Country Championships. The event will return to Houghton in January 2016.
– Freeman said that the 2015 U.S. Cross Country Championships were the coldest ski races that he’s ever attended in his 15 years of professional ski racing. “I have never ever been in a place where it was this cold and it snowed so much for so long,” he said. “I’ve been pro 15 years and I’ve never woken up every morning and just been like, ‘Really?’ Even in Anchorage, in the years it was cold, it wasn’t snowing. I’m guessing next year’s will be 60 degrees and there’ll be shoveling.”
– Ben Saxton (SMST2/USST), who placed second in Tuesday’s classic sprint, qualified 24th in the freestyle sprint on Saturday after crashing, but failed to advance past the quarterfinals, where he was third in his heat. Saxton, who finished 57th in the 15 k freestyle, called some of his races this week “disasters” and explained he wasn’t at the top of his game in Houghton. “The bottom line is I wasn’t sharp this week,” he said. “Not being sharp is hard. I think I let a few things get to me as far as expectations other people have of me, being on the U.S. Ski Team. That’s something I need to be better at.”
– Welley Ramsey (Maine Winter Sports Club) scratched from Saturday’s sprint heats after qualifying 28th due to illness he’s been fighting all week.
– Ten athletes were named to the U23 World Championships team after Saturday’s sprints: Kyle Bratrud (Northern Michigan University), Logan Hanneman (University of Alaska Fairbanks), Ben Saxton (SMST2/USST), Patrick Caldwell (Dartmouth College/USST), Scott Patterson (APU), Joanne Reid, Annie Pokorny (SMST2), Anne Hart (SMST2), Paige Schember (Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation), Deedra Irwin (Michigan Techological University).
– 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.