The third International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup race in the three-straight days in Ruhpolding, Germany, was one wild ride for American Susan Dunklee, but in a good way.
During Sunday afternoon’s 12.5-kilometer mass start, Susan Dunklee — who had made the top-30 cut for the race in 23rd — found herself in second place after the second of four shooting stages.
The 29-year-old American then incurred just one penalty in the first standing stage to remain in contention for a spot on the podium until the final loop. Ultimately, two competitors passed her the last time around Ruhpolding’s 2.5 k loop, and Dunklee finished sixth, 31.4 seconds behind Germany’s Laura Dahlmeier, who won her second-straight race of the weekend in 33:17.7.
“This is really fun for me,” Dunklee said in an IBU video interview. “I’m super psyched to shoot that well in a head-to-head situation. It’s taken me years to get to this level, and I’m happy to be there finally.”
For Dunklee, the result tied her season best from last month’s sprint in Pokljuka, Slovenia.
“I did put a lot of thought and work into cutting down my shooting times this summer and I have clearly seen that work paying off,” Dunklee wrote in an email to FasterSkier after hitting 95 percent of her targets on Sunday (0+0+1+0). “This was by far my best ever shooting performance in a World Cup.”
“I’m super psyched to shoot that well in a head-to-head situation. It’s taken me years to get to this level, and I’m happy to be there finally.” — Susan Dunklee, after placing sixth in Ruhpolding mass start
Dahlmeier Doubles Up in Ruhpolding
Saturday’s pursuit winner, Dahlmeier also won on Sunday — in convincing fashion — as she cleaned in all four stages and skied to the third-fastest course time to beat runner-up Marie Dorin Habert of France by 15.3 seconds.
Habert had a single penalty in the first prone stage, and third place was decided in an extremely close photo finish between Norway’s Tiril Eckhoff, who had two penalties between the last two stages, and France’s Anaïs Bescond, who shot clean but was slower on the course.
A few years ago, the race might have been called a tie with both awarded the third place (i.e. 2003 World Championship in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, with the gold medal of the pursuit race awarded to both France’s Sandrine Bailly and Germany’s Martina Glagow). But with more advanced timing and imaging technology, the race jury ruled Eckhoff took third and Bescond fourth, both 21.9 seconds back from the winner.
Dunklee started out skiing fast with the seventh-best course time on the first loop. Once she reached the first prone stage, she also shot clean and fast with the fifth-best shooting time. Dunklee left the range in second, at that time just 0.3 seconds behind Germany’s Vanessa Hinz.
“Sometimes I have a habit of starting out a little too fast in the early loops and not having enough left to lay down a killer last loop,” Dunklee wrote. “I was actually talking with my coach before the start about maybe trying to pace a little more evenly. Then the gun went off and I just took whatever opportunities came my way. The reality is that I’d rather take some risk and put myself into the race early and then see if I can hang on.”
“For the shooting, my plan was to use the same rhythm and focus keys as I usually do and I did that,” she continued. “In mass starts, you shoot on the same lane as your bib number for the first stage and I got to my lane earlier than the ladies I was skiing around.”
After staying close to the front of the field on the second of five loops, Dunklee again managed to shoot clean and fast in the second prone (with the sixth-best time), leaving the range still in second, 2.2 seconds behind Eckhoff, with Dahlmeier trailing 2.7 seconds behind Dunklee.
A little surprised by this race development, a TV commentator for Germany’s ARD had to consult his notes: “Tiril Eckhoff, that was to be expected, but Susan Dunklee, she keeps up exceptionally well. She turns 30 next month; lives in Craftsbury, Vermont, the American here in second position. She shares hobbies with Laura Dahlmeier, mountaineering, especially when training in Utah, she has good opportunities for that.”
On the third loop, Dunklee lost a few positions, coming through the next split times at 6.1 and 6.4 k in third, then fifth place, but still just 1.9 seconds back and a few meters ahead of the next chase group.
In the third shooting — the first standing stage — Dunklee missed one target and had to ski through the 150-meter penalty lap, leaving the range in sixth, 21.6 seconds behind Dahlmeier.
She kept that position on the loop, skiing just behind overall World Cup leader Gabriela Soukalová of the Czech Republic and ahead of Poland’s Magdalena Gwizdon.
In the final stage, Dunklee cleaned all of her targets in a high-pressure situation, standing in the range with a group of at least five others, where every miss would be one too many. She started out on the final loop in fourth, 24.5 seconds back, chasing Bescond who had left the range 10 seconds ahead of her, with Eckhoff and Ukraine’s Olena Pidhrushna (who had cleaned all four stages) within eight seconds behind her.
Dunklee’s US Biathlon coaches and teammates in their new brightly colored orange-and-purple uniforms cheered her on from the side of the course.
“I did hear my coaches and teammates cheering on all the loops,” Dunklee wrote. “Clare [Egan] had an American flag and was sprinting up the last hill, urging me to chase down Tiril and Anais. She gave me a tremendous burst of energy there.”
Dunklee tried everything in her power to reach the podium, but Eckhoff passed her on a climb shortly before the arena. Eckhoff quickly created a little gap and chasing down Bescond.
“Oh, I was so tired,” Dunklee explained in her interview with the IBU. “I don’t think my ski shape is perfect yet, but hopefully will be in Oslo [for World Championships]. I was a little bummed I couldn’t keep up with a couple of girls who passed me on that loop.”
Overall, Dunklee posted the eighth-fastest course time. She skied the fifth-fastest last loop.
The second-fastest on the last loop (and fourth-fastest overall), Eckhoff caught Bescond before the finishing stretch and outlunged her by about an inch to achieve her first podium of the season.
“It was really, really exciting on the last loop,” said Eckhoff in an IBU video interview. “I was really tired, so I was very luck to get the margins on my side, and I’m happy.”
“I haven’t actually been on the podium this year, so I really wanted to get on the podium,” she added. “So I just had to stick my [ski out]… Yeah, do whatever I could to be on the podium.”
In the finishing stretch, Pidhrushna overtook Dunklee and edged her by 0.9 seconds at the line. Dunklee ended up 9.5 seconds off the podium.
After a hard fight, Dunklee seemed happy with her result, kneeling in the snow for a while in the finishing pen to catch her breath, but smiling for the TV cameras and waiving to the large crowd in the stands.
On Sunday she succeeded at keeping a number of athletes behind her who already achieved World Cup victories this season, including Soukalová in seventh place, Finland’s Kaisa Mäkäräinen in 13th, and Germany’s Franziska Hildebrand in 17th.
“The conditions were so good today,” Dunklee commented in the video. “Yesterday was a little deep, was a little warped. Today it was all good; it was beautiful skiing.”
“Range race conditions were very similar to the zero for the women [target practice to adjust the rifle sights before the race]; no tricky winds like the men had,” she added in her email.
First and second place were already mostly decided after the last shooting, with Dahlmeier leaving the range 6.9 seconds ahead of Habert and extending that to 15.3 seconds until the finish. Habert skied the fastest course time of all athletes, but was visibly tired on that final loop only recording the 17th best time.
“I am hungry for other wins and I hope to be on the podium next week,” Habert said Sunday, according to an IBU press release. “I didn’t see a chance to catch Laura in this form, I knew she was strong. … I made a miss at the first shooting, and it was hard to come back to the top of the race.”
“This was definitely a perfect race for me,” Dahlmeier told ARD in a post-race interview. “Four times zero [misses], and skiing was good again, too. Really crazy, a dream, a wicked race today.”
Asked why she went all-out on the final loop when she appeared to be comfortably in the lead, Dahlmeier recounted a story from her early years of racing with a laugh:
“I had an experience at the student-level [youth], when I got still outsprinted in the finishing stretch of a cross-country race by the little sister of Miri Gössner [her current teammate on the German biathlon national team]. And I swore to myself that would never happen again in my life, unnecessarily giving away a race at the finish. That’s why it’s hard for me to ski relaxed on the final loop. I tried to not go full-throttle today, but didn’t really succeed at that. Main thing was to win.”
“I tried to not go full-throttle today, but didn’t really succeed at that. Main thing was to win.” — Laura Dahlmeier, winner of the Ruhpolding IBU World Cup mass start on Sunday
No other North American female athlete qualified for the mass start on Sunday, where only the top-25 in the overall World Cup standings plus five additional athletes with the best performances of the weekend are given a start.
The World Cup circuit stays in Ruhpolding, with races starting again on Wednesday with the men’s 20 k individual race , and on Thursday with the women’s 15 k individual race.
“We’ll hope our men can reach the podium again,” Dahlmeier told ARD. “We are in great shape. I particularly feel really strong right now. Each race is a lot of fun, and I’m looking forward to part two of our World Cup at home.”