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 — Saturday’s 15-kilometer skiathlon at the 2015 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships went better than Liz Stephen expected. The American entered the day with few goals due to fatigue from the prior week’s training, but exited with an 11th place finish that landed her 1:45 behind race-winner Therese Johaug,
“It was much better than I expected it to be,” Stephen said a post-race interview. “I’ve had a little bit of low energy – just tired muscles and fatigue – coming out of the training week. I’ve been resting a bunch, but today I didn’t really have any expectations, I just wanted to get a race out of the way and test out how racing felt.”
Wearing bib five and starting in the first row of the mass start chevron, Stephen led the pack from the start, along with Norwegians Johaug and Marit Bjørgen. Her action at the front was short lived, however, as the 27-year-old fell back to roughly 15th place in the first 500 meters. Often a slow starter, Stephen said the pace of the pack was relaxed, which helped her maintain contact.
“I’m not a super fast starter,” she said. “I have to say, that was the chilliest mass start I’ve ever done. I don’t know if maybe Marit wasn’t feeling so good or whoever pushes the pace up there just kept it chill, but I couldn’t believe how easy it was in the beginning. So it worked out okay for me.”
Stephen maintained her position in the group, trying to hold her standing before the switch to freestyle – her stronger technique – at 7.5 k. The Vermont native entered the stadium in 20th and clocked the eighth-fastest pit time. Stephen began her attack as she transitioned from classic to freestyle. She made her way through the pack, nearing one of the competition’s favored skiers.
“[I] started to see Heidi [Weng] and Marit. The last time I think I saw Marit in a race was Liberec in 2009, so it was motivating to see her right up there,” Stephen said of seeing the famed Norwegian, who skied to sixth in the skiathlon. “If you see Marit it must be at least fairly good.”
Stephen entered the stadium in a fight for seventh which included Norwegian Heidi Weng, Riitta-Liisa Roponen of Finland, Maria Rydqvist of Sweden and Eva Vrabcova-Nyvltova of the Czech Republic. As they sprinted the final meters Stephen fell behind to finish 11th overall.
While Stephen missed the top-10, her skate leg was the fourth fastest of the day. Her time of 21:04 in the final 7.5 k was only bested by the three podium finishers: Johaug, Astrid Jacobsen of Norway, and Charlotte Kalla of Sweden.
With Saturday’s race complete, Stephen will look to Tuesday’s 10 k freestyle as her best chance for a top performance.
“I have a few days for recovery now, and that’s kind of my key individual race,” she siad, referring to the 10 k freestyle. “I have some focusing to do and figure out exactly how I want to ski the course and ski it the best I can. I’m really excited.”
Teammate Sadie Bjornsen was also pleased with her race after finishing 20th overall and skiing the 17th fastest classic and 22nd fastest freestyle legs. “It was really fun and I’m happy with it,” Bjornsen said in an interview. “Pursuits have never been my strongest suit, and so it’s always a goal to come away from a pursuit feeling good.”
Bjornsen explained that she struggled in the classic portion of Saturday’s race – a technique that usually favors the Washington native. In the end, however, she recovered for a strong second half after skiing in a grouping of competitors. The 25-year-old used the roughly 45,000 fans that lined the trails of the Falun Lugent Ski Stadium as motivation while traversing the challenging course.
“Mördarbacken (a large climb called ‘murder-hill’) was just filled with fans, and it was actually spectacular because I could take my brain outside of my head and just listen to the crowd to channel some rhythm to keep going up that hill,” she said. “I definitely am thankful for that hill and that crowd today.”
“It’s a feeling that I can’t even explain,” Bjornsen added. “But it’s one of those things I’m going to remember past ski racing – the feeling of that crowd powering you.”
In 30th place American Rosie Brennan said she enjoyed skiing alongside the cheering crowd, but that the number of people was often overwhelming.
“I like cross country skiing because I like being alone in the woods,” she said. “Having so many people around is something you have to adjust to.”
Brennan fell in the first meters of the skiathlon and fought to reclaim her position in the group of women for the rest of the classic portion. She eventually made her way up to 23rd, but the Alaska Pacific University skier explained the effort used to comeback ultimately affected her freestyle leg.
“I fell right out of the start, so I was really far back in the classic,” Brennan said. “I worked pretty hard to get back up and I got to the position I wanted to be in right at the end of the classic race. I didn’t feel like I had much time to kind of relax, which I think probably stressed me out in the skating.”
Just over 30 seconds behind Brennan was Kikkan Randall, who said her entry in the skiathlon was a last-minute decision. Randall struggled with the classic portion, but explained she was able to ski a solid second half after switching to freestyle.
“I was kind of interested to see what I would feel like out there today. I tried to go in with a positive mindset, but once again I think I felt better and skied better in the warmup,” she said. “Things are not clicking. I’m not getting the good race feel where I can get into a good pace and work there. It is challenging mentally to not be feeling that, not to be feeling in the hunt.”
“[I’m] just kind of playing it day by day, and searching, and trying to find better feelings,” she added.
Randall entered the skiathlon after USST coaches decided that she would not start in Sunday’s team sprint. Randall is the defending world champion in the event after she and Jessie Diggins won the title at the 2013 Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy. The 2015 team will consist of Diggins and Sophie Caldwell.
The final North American in Saturday’s race was Canadian Perianne Jones, who ended her day in 37th. Jones, a strong sprinter who is competing in her fourth World Championships, said the classic portion of her race went especially well.
“The classic felt great,” Jones said after the race. “When we switched to skating, for sure people started to go by me pretty quickly. I tried to just latch on to people as they went by and stick with them for a little while. It was really painful but better than it could’ve been.”
Jones will not compete in Sunday’s team sprint as both her teammates, Olivia Bouffard-Nesbitt and Emily Nishikawa are recovering from illness in Östersund, Sweden.
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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.