It was a fight for every second in the women’s 5-kilometer freestyle on a damp morning during the second day of World Cup racing in Kuusamo, Finland.
Sadie Bjornsen led the American women in 14th on Saturday, 41.8 seconds behind Norway’s Therese Johaug, who won in 11:23.8. Less than two seconds behind Bjornsen, another U.S. Ski Team member Jessie Diggins tied for 16th with Russia’s Alevtina Tanygina — 43.6 seconds behind Johaug.
In the 500-meter race, 55 seconds separated the top 30 women, making every second count in the results.
“Everything is so tight, a half second will move you up or down a place,” Diggins said in a phone interview after the race. “So it’s really important to look for places to get every second you possibly can, figure out what spots you are good at and where you can make up time.”
All 85 female finishers posted times within 2 minutes and 13 seconds of one another, and 59 of the racers took between 12 and 13 minutes to complete the one-lap course. Johaug’s 17.8-second win over Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla stood as the largest time gap between any two finishers.
“The difference between a good race and your best race ever here can be ten seconds,” U.S. women’s coach Matt Whitcomb explained in a post-race phone interview.
This was illustrated by the rest of the American women as they posted competitive times, but ended up farther down the results than most of them had hoped for. Rosie Brennan took 35th (+59.5), Liz Stephan was 43rd (+1:06.4), Caitlin Gregg 48th (+1:11.8), Sophie Caldwell 56th (+1:22), and Ida Sargent 68th (+1:36.4).
“The girls put in a great effort, just a bit shy of where they wanted to be in some cases, but it was a good process and a good team effort,” Whitcomb said. “Two in the top 20 is a decent day for us and Rosie was close to skiing in the points [top 30].”
“I’m happy, but I wanted more, which is great because I know I have a lot of fire for the rest of the season,” Diggins said. “I know the fitness is there, right where I wanted it to be at the beginning of the season.”
This sentiment was shared by several team members. “I was happy with how I skied and hope to be pushing for that next gear,” Brennan wrote in an email.
“Today didn’t feel as good as last weekend, but I am still psyched about where my fitness and preparation are,” Gregg wrote, referring to the U.S. team’s season-opening FIS races in Gällivare, Sweden, where she placed third in the 10 k freestyle. Diggins won that race; her second-straight last weekend.
According to Whitcomb, the team’s universal goal was to “ski with 11 or 12 minutes of pure focus,” in Saturday’s 5 k. “This is the kind of course that if you start to space out for a moment or two, the race can leave your control.”
An 11-12 minute race also left little room to race conservatively. Diggins said her plan in the short-distance race was to “charge from the start.” This was also Gregg’s game plan as she posted the eighth-fastest time through the first time check at 1.2 k.
“I knew that if I wanted to be anywhere in the mix of the top girls I would have to start hard!” she wrote. “Unfortunately I felt like I wasn’t quite myself and although the pace felt good and my skis were fast, I wasn’t as powerful and high energy as I usually am during skate races.”
Gregg faded in the second half to finish 48th, but Whitcomb commended her effort.
“It’s is a great way to blow up, but also a great way to win races,” he said of her go-hard-from-the-gun tactic. “You can ski conservatively and go for 30th or take it out hard and shoot for the podium.”
The humidity and rain the night before and the morning of took a toll on the course, creating soft conditions and some harrowing downhills. The most challenging part of the course is a sketchy downhill corner, nicknamed “Noah’s corner” after Noah Hoffman’s crash and broken fibula at last year’s Kuusamo 15 k classic.
“It comes right after a tough uphill so your legs are just flooded,” Bjornsen said of the hairpin corner. “It is tough on everyone.”
While all of the American women stayed on their feet, Diggins pointed out that descent as a spot she lost seconds. “I know I am better at downhills than that, I just got a bit freaked out,” she said.
Despite the challenging conditions, the team commended the wax techs for preparing fast skis.
“It always amazes me they can put together awesome skis in challenging conditions with such a small team,” Bjornsen said.
After placing seventh in Friday’s classic sprint and 14th on Saturday, Bjornsen is currently 11th in the overall standings heading into the 10 k classic pursuit on Sunday.
“A couple of years ago I was in a similar position, but now I feel more confident in my overall fitness. I’m excited for tomorrow,” Bjornsen said.
Diggins in 19th overall is also poised to move up in the overall standings.
“Both Sadie and Jessie have a chance to ski into the top ten with a good classic race tomorrow,” Whitcomb said. “We are very much looking forward to that. The rest of the girls are within striking distance of the top 30 so it is going to be a fun day.”
Sunday’s classic pursuit features an especially challenging course with significant climbing. Bjornsen described it as “basically skiing up a wall.” Diggins said the course poses unique challenges because the hills are so steep; you are basically running on skis. “A big goal is just keeping my technique together on the long climbs,” she said.
With Johaug heading out first, the pursuit will feature 27 women starting within a minute of her, with Bjornsen 35 seconds back and Diggins heading out 17 seconds later.
“It will almost be like a mass start because we are all packed in there so tight,” Bjornsen said.
The pursuit format creates an exciting culmination of a mini tour and a chance to considerably shake up the overall standings.
“I really like pursuit starts because you get to start with people of similar speeds and really focus on picking people off,” Brennan wrote. She’ll start 34th, 1:09 back. “I love classic skiing so I am excited to see if I can find my rhythm tomorrow.”
“There was a lot of good that came out of today,” Whitcomb said. “Whether the athletes are disappointed or excited after today, we are all fired up for tomorrow.”