HOUGHTON, Mich. — As Rosie Brennan plowed through the fresh powder and tried to pick out what she thought was the best lane for the women’s 1.5-kilometer classic sprint at U.S. Cross Country Championships on Tuesday, she thought, this is brutal.
Not only did she have to start first in the qualifier, which began at 10 a.m. after nearly half a foot of fresh snow had fallen since two hours earlier, when the groomer last passed over the Michigan Tech course, but Brennan had nobody starting directly behind her, either. Caitlin Gregg (Team Gregg/Madshus) in bib No. 2 had scratched.
“I had no idea how fast I was going relatively, plus I was plowing the tracks for everybody so it actually was kind of unfortunate,” Brennan recalled with a laugh. “But I just tried to tell myself that if I skied well, that I had to be moving fast enough and just hope for the best.”
The Alaska Pacific University (APU) veteran ended up second in the qualifier, 1.16 seconds behind Eliška Hájková, a 2013 University of Colorado Boulder graduate and current Boulder Nordic Junior Racing Team coach, who clocked the fastest time of 5 minutes, 18.63 seconds.
After the race, several described it as more like a prologue or even a distance race than a typical sprint. At least for many, it felt that way.
“I kind of felt like I was doing a 5 k,” said Brennan’s APU teammate Becca Rorabaugh, who qualified 10th.
Fortunately for the racers, the track got faster by the time the heats rolled around at 12:30 p.m., and there were more options that the one track Brennan picked to lead 136 women out in the qualifier.
The organizers re-groomed the loop after the men’s qualifier ended at 11:50, and with wet snow from a northwest wind off Lake Superior about 10 miles north, the course set quickly before the women’s quarterfinals started 40 minutes later.
It was still about 7 degrees with a biting wind shooting across the stadium start and finish, but racers seemed unfazed once they got moving. With the snow still falling, as long as they could find a skied-in track, they were generally happy.
The blizzard let up by the afternoon, right about the time Brennan started to come into her own. With three SuperTour victories out of four races on the circuit this season (and a national podium on Sunday), she had the confidence — and she soon realized she had the ski speed as well.
“I thought it would be more prudent to be patient basically on top of the big climbs because it’s still half a [kilometer] to the finish,” she explained, “But I just noticed how fast my skis were.”
Seeing that, the 26-year-old Park City, Utah, native decided to take advantage of the gap she had created and extend her lead on the downhills then up the final gradual climb to the finish.
Brennan won her quarterfinal by 2.55 seconds over 17-year-old Katharine Ogden of the Stratton Mountain School (SMS) in second. In the semifinal, she again stole the show ahead of 16-year-old runner-up Hannah Halvorsen (Sugar Bowl Academy) and Anne Hart (SMST2), who advanced as the lucky loser in third, 1.18 seconds behind Brennan.
Ogden in fourth — ahead of Erika Flowers (SMST2) in fifth and another New England skier, Julia Kern (Cambridge Sports Union) in sixth — did not advance. The three women went head-to-head in the B-final (along with Hájková, Michigan Tech’s own Deedra Irwin, and APU’s Rosie Frankowski), where Ogden bested Hájková by nearly a second to win the heat and tie her best-senior-nationals result in seventh.
“I kind of went in with not a lot of expectations, just hoping to do the best I could and I was pretty psyched with how it ended up,” Ogden said. “It’s also really cool to see Julia Kern [who qualified in third], is a junior; she was in my heat, and Hannah Halvorsen is even younger than me and she [was] in this A-final.”
Six women lined up for the A-final, four of them ages 23 and under. Brennan and Rorabaugh were the most experienced in the group, and Hart had raced one national A-final before, but none of the other three — Halvorsen, Liz Guiney (Craftsbury Green Racing Project) and Heather Mooney (Middlebury College) — had previously made it that far in national sprint.
“At that point, it was just very exciting,” Halvorsen recalled. “I wasn’t really worried — I just wanted to have fun out there. It was just an honor to get to race with those super-fast girls and go as hard as I could.”
For Brennan, it was a matter of business. She wondered if she had the snap she needed to win her third national title, especially given how long the course felt and how cold it was.
“It’s hard to feel great all the time,” Brennan said. “I really just tried to trust the fitness that I’ve built and try to keep skiing and not look back and just keep going.”
That’s exactly what she did, and to no one’s surprise in the final.
“I knew Rosie was just gonna blow it out of the water so I just tried to hang on,” Rorabaugh said with a laugh.
Brennan did just that, surging to front of the pack out of the start, slightly ahead of Rorabaugh and Guiney, and directly in front of Hart before the downhill out of the stadium. According to Rorabaugh, Brennan attacked on the course’s two steeper climbs — most notably on the slight downhill in the middle and on the second hill about two-thirds of the way through.
“It’s kind of like training, like, ‘Oh, Rosie’s going away on a hill again, this is my chance to hang on,’ ” Rorabaugh said.
But unlike some training sessions in Anchorage, Alaska, this time, Brennan dropped Rorabaugh and the rest of the field for good.
“I actually was putting most of my time in over the top of that first uphill and in the downhill,” Brennan said. “And then I guess the second uphill, I just surged to the top of that and then just tried to relax and ski it in.”
Just like each of her preceding heats, she won the final comfortably by 6.82 seconds in 4:52.72.
Rorabaugh sensed a couple women gunning behind her for second, so she sped up on the final gradual climb before the stadium straightaway.
“I figured they were close enough that I should just go as hard as I could, so I was happy that the finishing stretch was striding today,” she said of the still-dragging conditions.
After securing the win, Brennan looked behind her to welcome her teammate and the rest of her competitors (including Guiney as a former Park City teammate) across the line. She and Rorabaugh embraced after delivering the 1-2 APU punch, and Guiney, who finished 3.67 seconds later, stayed 2.4 seconds ahead of Hart for her first national podium in third.
“[I’m] tired, cold. I’m ecstatic, honestly,” Brennan said with a laugh after. “Last year, I technically got the national championship [in the classic sprint], but I was second [to Russia’s Natalja Naryshkina] so to win outright is that much sweeter. I really like classic sprinting so it was just good — good course and good skiing for me.”
“It’s hard to feel great all the time. I really just tried to trust the fitness that I’ve built and try to keep skiing and not look back and just keep going.” — Rosie Brennan (APU), two-time national classic sprint champion
It was also her fourth win out of six SuperTour races this year. Rorabaugh said she was happy the two could team up to take first and second.
“We work really hard together all the time so it’s really great to have it play out like this,” she said.
Guiney, a 23-year-old, first-year senior who qualified in fourth, placed ninth the last two years at nationals in the classic sprint (in 2013) and freestyle sprint (in 2014).
“It’s really exciting,” said Guiney, who won her quarterfinal ahead of Frankowski and placed third in her semifinal behind Brennan and Rorabaugh, respectively. “It’s kind of a cool realization for me that I can be up there.”
Hart improved upon her best nationals finish (which was fifth in the 2013 skate sprint) in fourth on Tuesday, about 13 seconds behind Brennan, and explained her main goal after qualifying in 15th was to keep an open mind and chip away at the heats.
“It was really anyone’s day out there,” she said. “When you look at [Sunday’s 15 k] skate race with Kyle [Bratrud] having such a standout race, you just have to remember that anything can happen.”
Hart won her quarterfinal by 1.32 seconds over Mooney, advanced out of the semifinal in third, and by the time the final rolled around, she was mostly aiming to stay in front of her fellow U23 competitors.
“[Stratton coach] Pat [O’Brien] gave us stunningly fast skis today, so all of the starts the plan was, I figured Rosie was going to be the fastest out there,” Hart recalled. “I was just like, if I can just get myself right behind her and stay on her as long as possible…”
She did so on the first climb, but by the second hill, she thought, “ ‘OK, maybe not,’ ” Hart said. “From there on out, it was just kind of battling for spots and with U23’s, every spot matters, so I was just willing myself to the finish line.”
Her father was cheering her on from the sidelines, which helped, she said.
“I graduated from Dartmouth last year and the first year out of college, I’ve been told a million and a half times by everyone and their mother that … it’s really different,” Hart said. “I just had what I call a bunch of vanilla races [to start the season], and so it’s just a confidence booster to say, ‘I’m doing this for a reason, I can do this.’ … So it’s gonna help me sleep better at night I think.”
“It’s just a confidence booster to say, ‘I’m doing this for a reason, I can do this.’ ” — Anne Hart (SMS T2 Team), fourth
Halvorsen in fifth (+15.16) said her parents also buoyed her throughout the day.
“My parents were really believing in me so I decided I’d give it what I have and I was pretty surprised that I was able to do really well in the heats,” Halvorsen said. “I had a lot of fun skiing with some fast girls.
“I’ve been training this year with World Juniors kind of on my mind, but just trying to focus on the process and ski as well as I can,” she added. “So we’ll see what happens and how the points play out.”
Twenty-year-old Mooney in sixth (+15.36), in her senior year at Middlebury, improved upon her two eighth-place finishes at nationals in the classic sprints in 2013 and 2011.
“I was in the A-final at Spring Series when I was a J2, same race, but I was psyched [about today],” she said after qualifying 16th. “[I] tried to go into it without any expectations … definitely was intimidated by a six-minute sprint course, but just took each one as it came.”
As for her goals for the rest of the season — and whether U23 World Championships are at the heart of them — Mooney said not necessarily.
“This sounds really silly — I’d like to race fast enough to be among the top U23’s, but I love college racing and this is my last year and I’m really excited to try to race really consistently and be at the top of the college circuit, focusing on NCAAs,” she said. “I’d love to make [U23 World Championships], but also I’m going to spend the winter in the East and I’m excited for that.”
Note: The defending freestyle sprint champion and 2013 classic sprint champion, Jennie Bender of the Bridger Ski Foundation crashed out of contention while leading up and over a climb near the end of her quarterfinal. She placed fifth, 7.8 seconds behind Rorabaugh as the quarterfinal winner, and did not advance to the semifinals.
“I was leading, then I was on my face,” Bender recalled in an email. “Knocked the wind out of me. … I am pretty disappointed, because I came into this race with high hopes, but that’s sprint racing. Looking forward to the skate sprint.”
— Lander Karath contributed reporting
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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.