SUN VALLEY, Idaho — How much of ski racing is at the behest of the inner individual and how much rests upon the support of a team? For Chelsea Holmes of Alaska Pacific University (APU), the winner of the women’s SuperTour 10-kilometer classic mass start on Sunday at the Lake Creek trails, it’s a little of both.
“Yesterday was really big for me,” Holmes said of her fifth-place finish in Saturday’s classic sprint.
“I’ve worked really hard on classic skiing this season and spent a ton of time on Eagle Glacier [near Anchorage]. Yesterday proved to me that what I’m doing has paid off and what I’m capable of is inside of me. It was good mental preparation [for today].”
A boost of confidence — and a cup of holiday spirit, “I drank some eggnog to get in the mood,” Holmes explained — the 28-year-old Girdwood, Alaska, native felt ready to lead Sunday’s SuperTour classic mass start.
“I skied with [teammate] Caitlin [Patterson] for most of the race. I knew what I wanted to do and she just kept popping up at the bottom of those downhills,” Holmes said. “But that’s what racing is, it’s so mental.”
With 49 athletes lined up at the start of the mass start, and Holmes in bib number 1 at the front, the individual mental game was high even before the race winner and competitors set their skis in motion on the 4 1/2-lap course.
The pressure only increased after the starting gun sounded, as Holmes took it out hard in front.
“Chelsea really took off at the beginning with a nice high tempo and going for it,” Patterson, of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP) said. She started in bib 2.
“I clung on to her and hung on. Then I realized we dropped most everyone else,” Patterson added.
The two gapped the rest of the field by a substantial amount for three of the 2.2 k laps. A climber by nature, Holmes led most of the uphills.
“Climbing is my thing,” Holmes said. “I just tried to go with it and do what was comfortable for me.”
Finally, with a lap to go, Holmes gunned it and won in 31:29, beating APU teammate Becca Rorabaugh by 9.7 seconds. Rorabaugh passed Patterson in the final climb to claim second place.
Even with her solid striding and lead over the field, Holmes pointed to her mental strength and team support as part of the process in her first victory of the season. In four SuperTour races so far this winter, she had finished in the top five in all of them, and reached the podium twice (Holmes was second in the 10 k freestyle in West Yellowstone).
“It was hard … You’re going to doubt yourself at times and I definitely had those moments today of thinking ‘Maybe I don’t have it,’ ” Holmes reflected. “But it just so happened that there was a little voice in there and there was a nice presence on the side of the trail right when I needed it.”
“I definitely had those moments today of thinking ‘Maybe I don’t have it,’ but it just so happened that there was a little voice in there and there was a nice presence on the side of the trail right when I needed it.” — Chelsea Holmes, women’s 10 k classic mass start winner at the Sun Valley SuperTour
Similarly, Rorabaugh found race fortitude in herself and her team on-site. Instead of it coming from the trail side, she found the most valuable support from Holmes ahead of her.
“I was a little to far from the front pack and had people breathing down my neck for a lot of the middle of the race, which was mentally stressful,” Rorabaugh said. “But I could see the front pack and so I was still able to focus on moving forward.”
A little off the front pack until the final lap, Rorabaugh, Saturday’s sprint winner, charged during the final hill.
“Here, you can see everything, so I could kind of get a gauge of where [Chelsea and Caitlin] were at throughout the race,” she explained. “The last time up the big hill, I was like ‘They’re not that far and I only have to do this one more time, so I’m going for it.’”
Patterson, who finished third, 16.3 seconds behind Holmes, also found the course advantageous and somewhat devising.
“It’s fun the way this course wanders around and is so open in the field,” Patterson, 25, said.
“I’d get glimpses of my Green Team teammates and know that they were doing well,” she explained. “Likewise, [I] could see when people were catching up. Becca had a really strong finish and passed me at the end.”
The APU women weren’t the only ones with two podiums for the day. APU men Scott Patterson and Eric Packer also both earned a top three in the men’s 15 k.
“I’m really proud of our group,” APU Head Coach Erik Flora said. “We traveled with 16 athletes [to West Yellowstone and Sun Valley] and every single athlete had a moment in this trip where they shined. Whether it was a sprint race or distance race, a classic race or a skate race … everyone is going to go home happy and ready to work on what’s next.”
For most of them, that includes going back to Alaska to race at a few local events and preparing for U.S. Nationals in Houghton, Mich.
“Most of the athletes will fly right out of Sun Valley, the coaches will drive to Boise — there will definitely be some high fives [during the ride over],” Flora added.
“I’m just super proud of my team,” Holmes said. “It was so fun to see them do well and see how the group came together.”
Gabby Naranja considers herself a true Mainer, having grown up in the northern most part of the state playing hockey and roofing houses with her five brothers. She graduated from Bates College where she ran cross-country, track, and nordic skied. She spent this past winter in Europe and is currently in Montana enjoying all that the U.S. northwest has to offer.