HOUGHTON, Mich. — When Rosie Brennan lined up for the 20 k classic mass start at the 2015 U.S. Cross Country Championships there was a target on her back. Having won four of six SuperTour races, including Tuesday’s classic sprint, the Alaska Pacific University skier was the clear favorite in the field of 61 racers, and the nation’s best were looking to see if they could topple this season’s highest-performing domestic racer.
At the end of the day none succeeded in ending Brennan’s reign, as she crossed the finish line with a time of 1:10:42.4. The victory was hardly contested as she sped down the final meters, with second place finisher Caitlin Patterson of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project finishing 5.5 seconds back.
The 20 k marked the the third race of the Championships and featured two laps on a 10 k loop. With little wind and temperatures sitting around three degrees Fahrenheit, the weather seemed tame in comparison to the previous two days of racing which featured strong winds and heavy snow.
In the first kilometers of the 10 k loop, Brennan, Patterson, APU skiers Becca Rorabaugh and Chelsea Holmes, and Czech skier Eliska Hajkova (Boulder Junior Nordic Racing Team) emerged as the lead pack. With each stride the group of five extended their margin over the remainder of the field, as the three APU women communicated to take turns in front.
However, as the race progressed the communication thinned as each skier eyed the prospect of a national championship title.
“Earlier on in the first lap when Chelsea and Becca were there, we were talking and switching up leading,” Brennan said of the group tactics in a post-race interview. “But when it gets down to it everyone wants their piece of the pie.”
From then on, it was Brennan and Holmes who traded the lead, each looking for a chance for a breakaway to secure the win. The chances were slim, however, due to light layer of new snow that coated the course. Instead of the calm, stable conditions seen in the men’s race, the women faced a slight wind and falling snow – making the tracks extremely slow for the leaders and much faster for anyone who followed.
“You are plowing in the front. You can be tucking and not working in the back, but when you’re leading it’s a lot of work,” Holmes said of skiing at the front in Thursday’s conditions.
Brennan agreed, explaining that while the snow was light, it made a decisive move mid-way through the course nearly impossible.
“I was hoping to break a lot earlier but with the falling snow it just wasn’t possible. It was so much slower in the front,” she said.
Despite her inability to leave the four women behind, Brennan forged ahead and set a pace that would allow her to have a strong finish.
“I kind of felt like I had a target on me, so no one really wanted to lead – everyone was kind of pushing me to lead. I expected that… Halfway through the first lap when I realized it was the group of us, I just picked a comfortable pace and tried to stick with it,” she explained.
The relaxed pace was part of an overarching plan for Brennan to save energy before the final kilometers. Given the abilities of the four other women – all of whom are traditionally stronger distance skiers – Brennan was confident that if the race came to a sprint she would be able to take the win.
By the final lap of the race, the leaders’ number was reduced to four as Rorabaugh fell off the back on one of the course’s many climbs. The group almost shrank to three when Hajkova and Patterson collided around the 14 k mark, snapping one of the latter skier’s poles. Patterson continued to stride as the three skiers ahead of her began to inch away. According to the 24-year-old, a spectator gave her a new pole roughly two minutes later and she was able to “claw” her way back.
When the four women reached the 400-meter mark, they passed APU Head Coach Erik Flora who gave Brennan the final push she needed to take the win. Brennan, who had been waiting for a moment to make her final push, received the sign she was looking for when Flora urged her to attack. With her coaches encouragement, Brennan powerfully strode up the final climb into the stadium leaving the other three fighting for the remaining podium spots.
Patterson, who attempted to make a move earlier in the final kilometer, had a small advantage over Hajkova and Holmes when Brennan took off. It was an advantage that proved valuable, as Patterson held her position through the finishing stretch and across the line.
Following Patterson was Hajkova who finished 7.5 seconds back from the winning time to take the final podium position. Holmes earned fourth after falling behind the Czech skier, 12.8 seconds off pace, while Rorabaugh trailed by 38.9 seconds in fifth.
Brennan said that her strong results this season, including Thursday’s 20 k victory, are a product of a productive summer of training.
“I feel really good in my fitness and really confident. I just had a really good summer and everything in terms of racing has been going really well. I’ve just been trying to focus on that,” she said.
According to Flora, the past few seasons have proven Brennan is one of the top skiers – in both distance and sprinting – in the country. Given her World Cup experience, he believes that she ready to make the next step in her skiing.
“She is gritty, super gritty,” Flora said of his athlete.“I definitely think she is one of our top ladies and she is right at that point to make that next step and jump in with the World Cup crew.”
With possible U.S. starting spots at the 2015 World Championships on the line, Brennan said that she hopes to earn a trip to Sweden later this winter. At the same time, however, she hasn’t let the prospect of the season’s biggest event dictate her season.
“I decided that if I could ski my best, it could work out the way it was going to work out. Of course I’m aware of how to qualify, but I’m just trying to focus on each day as a new ski race and how I can ski that day,” she said.
In second, Patterson said that it was her goal to get on the podium in Thursday’s 20 k after Tuesday’s sprint where she failed to qualify for the heats.
“I had a really rough day in the classic sprint – I didn’t qualify… I just had to believe in my fitness and I did completely [today],” she said, also pointing to her extremely fast skis as another reason for her success.
Hajkova, a former collegiate skier, was an unknown entering the championships but has risen to the top of the national field, finishing eighth in both the 10 k freestyle and classic sprint.
The Czech citizen left the U.S. after graduating from the University of Colorado in the fall of 2013 to return to her home country. Once there, she attempted to ski for the Czech Olympic team but cited politics surrounding the selection as the main hindrance her failed attendance.
Hajkova returned to the U.S. on an optional practical training visa, and is the junior coach for the Boulder Nordic Junior Racing Team based out of Boulder, Colo. As a coach for the team, Hajkova explained most of her skiing hours come from training with her juniors so that they don’t get lost on the local trails. While in West Yellowstone, Mont. for the 2014 Yellowstone Ski Festival, Hajkova competed in the SuperTour races to see where her fitness placed her in the national field. When she landed in the top-30, Hajkova decided to continue racing.
After the Thursday’s 20 k, Hajkova said her skiing has gone well beyond her expectations at the U.S. Championships. In her joy of earning a podium finish, she explained that much of her success comes from her focus on the skiers she coaches, rather than herself.
“Taking care of other people takes your mind off your pain. Training the juniors really relaxed me. It didn’t matter if I was last of first in this race, so maybe it’s easier to race when you don’t think of yourself,” she said.
Fifth place finisher Rorabaugh explained that while she fell off the leaders’ pace and ultimately out of medal contention, she was proud that she was able to ski efficiently once she was by herself.
“I was able to ski my own transitions and in a way it was better just to ski by myself for a while – I actually made up time but I wasn’t able close on them,” she said in a post-race interview. “I’m very happy that I was able to keep my head in the race and keep plugging away even after I got separated from the lead pack.”
Absent from Thursday’s race was 2015 10 k national champion Caitlin Gregg (Team Gregg/Madshus), who was the only person to overcome Brennan since the the APU skier placed fifth in the West Yellowstone sprint earlier this season. According to Gregg, a bout of shingles she contracted in November is still effecting her energy levels.
“Sunday went great and was actually the first time I’ve been able to push to a higher level in a long time. I sat out the classic sprint for the same reason… I want to make sure that I’m not pushing the limit and have the end of my season come before I need it to,” she said.
Brennan said was disappointed that Gregg sat out Thursday’s mass start, but that there was nothing she would do but manage her own skiing.
“[Gregg’s absence] was a bummer of course. I only got to race her once and it was a disaster – falling and crashing and everything. It’s not something I can control, so I just have to do my best and hope that’s enough,” Brennan said, referencing Sunday’s 10 k freestyle where she fell and broke a pole before finishing 12.7 seconds behind Gregg.
The 2015 U.S. Cross Country Championships continues in Houghton with Saturday’s freestyle sprint.
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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.