FasterSkier’s coverage of the 2015 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Falun, Sweden, is brought to you by the generous support of L.L. Bean, now featuring a complete line of Kikkan Randall training wear.
FALUN, Sweden — While Therese Johaug made Saturday’s 30-kilometer classic mass start look like a solo walk in the park, the 26-year-old Norwegian’s race didn’t come without some serious anxiety.
The first minor cause for concern came around 7 k. Skiing at the front of the 49-woman pack out of the start, Johaug found herself leading with teammate Marit Bjørgen, Sweden’s Sofia Bleckur and Charlotte Kalla, and Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk.
As they completed the red loop comprising the first half of each 10 k lap, Johaug decided pace was too slow. She didn’t want to attack, but she did want to pick it up a bit to break up the large group.
She did so on the largest climb on the second half of the course, known as “Big Mördarbacken” on the blue loop.
“I feel that the skis were so good and I had also really good grip, but I never thought I will get a gap there,” Johaug said in a post-race press conference. “I thought the other girls were behind me.”
As she reached the high point, they weren’t — at least they weren’t as close as she thought.
“The coaches standing at the top said that I had five or six seconds on the others, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s early. I have 23 kilometers to the end,’ ” Johaug recalled. “But I understand that the skis were really good and the shape was good so I just focused on myself and the technique.”
After leading Kowalczyk, Kalla, her two teammates Heidi Weng and Bjørgen, Finland’s Kerttu Niskanen, and Bleckur up the climb, Johaug came through the 7.8 k timing point nearly 8 seconds ahead of anyone else. Kalla was in second, followed by Finland’s Aino-Kaisa Saarinen and five others in the group. From there, Johaug continued to distance herself from the women behind her — coming through the stadium at 10 k with a 17-second lead on Bjørgen in second.
One-and-a-half kilometers later, back on the red loop, she was more than 40 seconds ahead of Niskanen and Saarinen, which led the chase pack in second and third.
“I heard all the ways in the tracks that I get more and more seconds to the girls behind me,” Johaug said. “It was amazing to ski here and the people around the tracks, they give me so much energy.”
In all the excitement, she got a little confused. Coming down off the red trail and back into the stadium for an opportunity to change skis at 15 k, Johaug feared she took a wrong turn and suddenly wondered whether she had accidentally skied on the blue course.
“I began to snowplow and stopped completely,” she told NRK, according to a translation. “I yelled to the officials, ‘I have gone wrong?’ I almost started to cry.”
Unable to get an answer fast enough, she pressed on, fearing disqualification if she inadvertently took a shortcut and missed the stadium.
“I just bet that I was on red. I came down and thought ‘yes, yes!’ when I saw it was correct,” she recalled.
By then, the chase group had made up some ground on her. While Johaug changed skis, the two Finns — Saarinen and Niskanen — did not, and were within 30 and 31 seconds of her leaving the stadium at 15 k.
Bjørgen and everyone else in the chase pack switched to a freshly waxed skis as well, and Bjørgen left the pit stop in fourth, 11 seconds after Niskanen. Weng followed, as did Bleckur and Kalla, all of which were within 45 seconds of Johaug.
Meanwhile, Sweden’s Anna Haag in eighth led a second chase group around 27 seconds back, with Germany’s Stefanie Böhler, Austria’s Teresa Stadlober, Norway’s Martin Ek Hagen, the Czech Republic’s Eva Vrabcová-Nývltová, and Americans Rosie Brennan and Liz Stephen.
Back on the blue course, Johaug gathered time back while ascending Mördarbacken for the second time, while Bjørgen caught and challenged the Finns on the same climb. By 16.2 k, Bjørgen was up to second, 54.4 seconds behind Johaug and just ahead of Niskanen in third. About 9 seconds later, Saarinen skied alone while Weng and Bleckur stuck together another four seconds back.
Kalla came through the checkpoint in seventh, 24 seconds after Bjørgen, and Vrabcová-Nývltová, Stephen, Stadlober, Brennan, Böhler, Hagen, and Haag were another 17 seconds back in eighth through 14th place.
Johaug didn’t know it, but she had successfully strung out the group as she’d intended. Except by 17.8 k, with more than a minute gap to second, it didn’t really matter.
Soaring down into the stadium with a 1:05 lead on Bjørgen, Johaug continued to push, as did Bjørgen and the rest of the women chasing a podium.
The deficit was up to 1:15 by 25 k, where Johaug came charging through the stadium for the second-to-last time, skipping a feed there and keeping her head down.
About a kilometer back, Kalla worked hard up Little Mördarbacken to pass Bleckur and Niskanen and put herself in third. With 5 k to go, she was 2:08.1 behind Johaug and 53 seconds behind Bjørgen. Leaving the stadium with Niskanen, Weng and Bleckur, Kalla dropped them a kilometer later. By 27.8 k, she was within 35 seconds of Bjørgen, and 12 seconds ahead of Niskanen.
“You have to never stop believing,” Kalla said at the press conference. “The audience around the track gave me so much energy. When I was about 10 seconds up, the coaches told me I [put] seconds [into] second and that gave me more energy when I reached the bronze group. I recognized that I had good skis and I decided to push as hard as I could to get a gap.”
With 2.2 k to go, Johaug had kept herself 1:13 ahead of Bjørgen and was essentially in the clear. As she crested the second-to-last sprint climb, Norwegian fans showered her with champagne. She could literally taste the win.
On the next uphill, she took a Norwegian flag from the sidelines and carried it in one hand all the way to the finish — even up the final stadium ascent.
“Then I could look up and see how much people that were in the arena,” she said. “When you’re training a lot, it’s these memories that are so huge. Also the sun came out in the end of the race. The championships can not end better.”
Temperatures were around 38 degrees during the race on another partly cloudy afternoon in Falun. The sun peaked through the clouds a couple times, especially toward the end of the 30 k.
With a winning time of 1:24:77, Johaug secured her third gold of these championships (after winning the 15 k skiathlon and 4 x 5 k relay with Norway) for her seventh World Championships title. Bjørgen held her own in second, 52.3 seconds behind, and Kalla finished 1:31.6 after Johaug in third.
For Bjørgen, it was her first silver and third medal of the 2015 worlds (after winning the classic sprint and anchoring the relay). Coming into the 30 k classic, she was unbeaten in the event since Kowalczyk won the event at the 2010 Olympics. Johaug had won the 30 k skate at Holmenkollen in 2011 and 2013, but never a 30 k classic.
“I never have like been in such good shape before. It feels good to have it here at World Championships,” Johaug said. “I have been training a lot for this distance, and before we start this championships, it was this day I was really looking forward to. That I can reach my goal and take the gold medal here today, it’s a dream.”
“I tried [to catch her], but she was too strong today and I didn’t have a chance,” Bjørgen said at the conference. “After 15 kilometers, we changed skis and I had a gap back to the other girls then I knew it was possible to take the silver. I’m really really happy for it.”
With less than three kilometers to go, a Norwegian fan running alongside Bjørgen with a selfie stick slammed into a tree. Once he came to, Erlend Holberg, 24, told NRK that he had been waiting for Bjørgen to pass by, and when she did, he sang while sprinting through the woods next to her.
“Suddenly, I ran straight into a tree and fall to the ground,” he said, according to a translation. “… It was most important to focus on Bjørgen. I was very focused on the task.”
Bjørgen didn’t see it happen, but after finishing, she heard about the collision, which was caught on video.
“[At first] I thought, ‘Oh, maybe it was one of our coaches,’ ” Bjørgen said. “I don’t know who the man is. … He [got] up again. Maybe he’s a little bit … in the head.”
She pointed at her head and circled her finger around to gesture “crazy.”
After the final women’s race in Falun, Bjørgen said she considered these World Championships a success.
“We had some bad skis on the 10 k and not the best day on the pursuit, but I have three medals and I’m really really happy with that,” she said.
For Kalla, her fourth medal of the championships (in every race she competed in) marked her first in a 30 k classic event.
“My biggest goal this season was to go very well in Falun and feel that I did every thing I could every single race I started in,” she said. “I’m really satisfied with the way I have done my competitions.”
Niskanen took fourth, 31.6 seconds off the podium and 1:55.2 after Johaug, and Bleckur finished fifth (+ 2:09.3). Böhler was sixth (+2:36.9), Saarinen placed seventh (+2:45.2), Weng eighth (+2:45.7), Vrabcová-Nývltová ninth (+2:52.4), and Østberg passed Stephen in the stadium for 10th (+3:01.1).
The 30 k classic runner-up at the 2013 World Championships to Bjørgen, Kowalczyk finished 17th (+3:56).
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.