HOUGHTON, Mich. — With close to a 500-meter incline to the finish, rounding the same course potentially four times in head-t0-head heats and a qualifier, Monday’s 1.5-kilometer freestyle sprint at U.S. Cross Country Championships proved a test beyond sheer fitness and tact. For overall race winner, Reese Hanneman of Alaska Pacific University (APU), it was combination staying smart, smooth and relaxed.
“I was just trying to stay relaxed [through the heats],” said Hanneman, a 2014 classic sprint national champion, after notching his second sprint title on Monday. “I know that I’m in great sprint form right now. I have the acceleration, I have the power and I was just trying not to use that unnecessarily early. This finish is very long and very uphill so it takes a big punch in order to make it to the line first.”
The fastest qualifier in a time of 3:18.07, the 26-year-old Hanneman held his own in first all the way through the men’s final.
“I could tell all day watching Reese that he was very comfortable,” runner-up and defending skate champion Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess, of the Bend Endurance Academy, said in a post-race phone interview. “He’s skiing really well right now.”
In his quarterfinal, Hanneman was first out of the start and in the lead as the group headed out onto the 1.5 k course. Rounding the final corner, again it was Hanneman in first, followed by Canada’s Alexis Turgeon (Skinouk/Quebec Ski Team) close to 10 meters behind.
Hanneman won that heat in 3:18.07, while Michigan Tech’s Didrik Elset, chose the left outside lane to overtake Turgeon, ending up 0.31 seconds behind Hanneman for second in the quarterfinal.
Hanneman and Elset met again in the same semifinal, along with Blackhorse-von Jess, Brian Gregg (Team Gregg), Canada’s Michael Somppi (NDC Thunder Bay), and Silas Talbot (Alaska Winter Stars).
Hanneman and Elset led out of the start gate, with Blackhorse-von Jess and Gregg tucked in close behind them. However, it was Hanneman once more who led the final uphill stretch to the finish, with Blackhorse-von Jess skiing right on his ski tails.
Gregg managed to close the gap to the front two, and the three lunged for the line with Hanneman finishing first in 3:17.42, 0.21 seconds ahead of Blackhorse-von Jess in second, and 0.33 seconds ahead of Gregg in third.
As Gregg waited to see if his time would be fast enough for a “lucky loser” spot in the final, the second semifinal, with APU’s Eric Packer and Logan Hanneman, Northern Michigan University’s Fredrik Schwencke, Miles Havlick (Sun Valley Gold Team), and Canadians Julien Locke (Team Black Jack), and Evan Palmer-Charrette (National Development Centre Thunder Bay) stepped up to the line.
Schwencke and Havlick led from the start with Packer, the two Canadians, and Logan Hanneman (Reese’s younger brother) not far behind.
Packer cornered into the final stretch in first, but with approximately 150 meters to go, Schwencke made the pass on Packer’s right while Locke moved into the left lane. Palmer-Charrette moved in behind Locke, while Havlick challenged Schwencke on the right.
In a four-way lunge for the line, Scwencke won the second semifinal win in 3:17.04, while Havlick finished just 0.07 seconds after. The third- and fourth-place efforts by the two Canadians, Locke (+0.14) and Palmer-Charrette (+0.27), proved worthwhile, as they both earned the two available lucky loser spots in the final.
“In both the quarter and semi, I stayed pretty relaxed during the first two thirds of the course and was at the back of the pack,” Palmer-Charrette, 21 said. “After saving my legs off the start, I was able to work my way up after the main climb through the finishing stretch to the front, or close to the front.”
The action for Palmer-Charrette and the five other finalists — Hanneman, Blackhorse-von Jess, Locke, Schwencke, and Havlick — continued as they lined up for the men’s final.
Hanneman and Havlick took it out from the starting gate, with Havlick moving to the front for the first part of the course.
“I was leading on the lower part of the course and then I just kind of ran out of steam on the top part,” Havlick recalled. “Obviously these sprint races are some of the toughest days, but I was psyched to be in the final for sure.”
After Havlick led the first part of the final, Hanneman made his move during the second large climb on the course.
“I was in second up the first climb and then there was a little downhill and I tried to work that corner and I was able to slingshot around and get my own lane up the second climb,” Hanneman said.
From that point on, the past classic-sprint champ and last year’s early season SuperTour leader gained momentum for the finish.
“The final didn’t really break up until the second main climb, then Reese Hanneman really pushed the pace and opened the field up a bit,” recalled Palmer-Charrette, who placed sixth overall.
As Hanneman rounded the final corner in first, Blackhorse-von Jess raced into the righthand lane, challenging him for the win.
“I built a little gap and Dakota was able to get away from the rest of the guys and he bridged up to me,” Hanneman said. “Then we came into the final lanes and I was ahead and he kicked and pulled up next to me and I was able to kick again and put the hammer down in the last 30 meters and get away from him.”
Hanneman took the final win in 3:15.14, while Blackhorse-von Jess finished 0.35 seconds behind him.
“I’m pretty pleased to finish the day on the podium, fighting for the win,” said 29-year-old Blackhorse-von Jess.
“I don’t think I’ve been in fifth place in a heat in a normal SuperTour or a nationals championship in a long time, and I was in fifth place today at one point and that’s cool,” added Blackhorse-von Jess, who won both sprints at last year’s nationals. This year, he won the SuperTour classic sprint in Sun Valley, Idaho, in early December.
“There’s a lot more moving around. There’s a lot more jostling for position. There’s more sprinting going on and it makes racing fun,” he said.
Finishing 2.89 seconds after Blackhorse-von Jess was Locke in third for his first-ever U.S. nationals podium.
“Today was fun,” Locke, 22, said. “We have our U23 World Champ trials next week so today was mostly just to see how my shape is and have a good race before that event. I’ll race the sprint on Saturday here and hopefully I can podium again”
Palmer-Charrette is also looking for a top result at Canada’s U23 World Championship trials Jan. 14-17 at Lappe Nordic in Thunder Bay, Ontario.
“It was a good day for Evan,” NDC Thunder Bay head coach Timo Puiras wrote in an email. “His shape has been steadily improving all race season and I look forward to seeing how he will race at the World U23 Trials on his home trails in Thunder Bay next week.”
In his first skate-sprint final, collegiate skier Schwencke raced to fourth overall, 4.27 seconds after Hanneman.
“I’ve never in my whole career of skiing qualified for a skate sprint so it was pretty fun to be in the final,” Schwencke said.
“After the qualifier and the quarterfinal, everything was just a bonus,” the 23-year-old Norwegian added. “It was an amazing day.”
Havlick finished fifth (+6.29) and Palmer-Charrette took sixth (+12.93).
While it’s no secret that Hanneman will leave this race as the name to beat, he remains elusive about the pre-race sound beats that helped him come into his own.
“It wasn’t Justin Bieber, we’ll just say that,” said Hanneman with a smile.
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.