Capping off the U.S. nordic season in the spring with a 50-kilometer race is bound to bring some racers to peel off the layers under their race bibs, and many to the brink of their most basic needs.
“I was dreaming about hamburgers before we even made it halfway,” Alaska Pacific University’s (APU) Eric Packer wrote in an email. “It was just like the warmest of days we see training on the glacier — slow, sloppy, and soft. In those conditions you just have to keep the legs moving and work every bit of the way.”
While Packer led the band of men’s racers for the first lap of this year’s U.S. Distance Nationals 50 k classic mass start on Saturday in Craftsbury, Vt., it was his APU teammate, Erik Bjornsen, who evetually took the overall win.
Bjornsen, who grew up in Washington state’s Methow Valley, secured his second win of the week after completing the men’s 15-lap 3.5 k course in a time of 2:43:56.7. However, while Bjornsen was the first racer to cross the finish line, he was rarely leading throughout the 50 k race.
Setting the pace up front instead was Bjornsen’s APU teammate Scott Patterson and Noah Hoffman and Tad Elliott, both of Ski & Snowboard Club Vail (SSCV).
“The 50k turned into a race of attrition,” Elliott wrote in an email. “There was Noah, Erik, and I and we were all skiing off the front at some point in the final 3 laps We were all unsure who would win and we were all skiing alone. It was brutally hard.”
With two $125-dollar primes waiting at lap 3 and lap 10 for the first skier, the men’s front pack stayed close together for the first 10 k, with Hoffman eventually claiming the first cash prize as his own.
One-fifth of the race behind them, Patterson regained the lead until the next prime. Bjornsen sat in third, Elliott fourth and APU’s David Norris, who eventually placed third overall, in seventh.
“Maybe around lap seven Hoff pushed the pace and I tried to follow it along with BJ, but I didn’t have the strength to latch on,” Norris wrote in an email. “From that point on I kind of skied an individual race.”
Heading into lap six, it was Hoffman who hounded the pace with Packer holding on to try and make a break from the rest of the field on the course’s major incline. But by the course’s flat section, Bjornsen had surged his way back to the front two, pulling Elliott with him.
Packer and Patterson wound up racing together for the remainder of the race, with Patterson pacing.
“From the 7th lap to the finish, the race was about survival,” Packer wrote. “Scott and I skied together, and Scott deserves a ton of credit because he led 90% of it. He is such a strong pace setter.”
Norris skied a few seconds ahead of Kris Freeman (Team Freebird) for a stretch before breaking away and racing on his own.
“From that point on I kind of skied an individual race,” Norris wrote. “Skiing alone I found a good rhthym and was able move into third starting my final lap.”
Hoffman pushed the front pack for the next 15 k until he started seeing spots.
“I felt great until 4 laps to go when I blew up harder than I’ve ever blown up before,” Hoffman wrote in an email. “I got shaky and my vision got blurry. It was all I could do to get around the course. I probably used too much energy early in the race going for the cash preems and trying to set a hard pace.”
Losing steam, Hoffman dropped back to second during lap 12 and Elliott pulled up to first, Bjornsen yo-yoed from a minute back from the lead to within its sights.
“When Hoff went for the preem, he created a big enough gap that he was out of sight and I think at one point he probably had a minute on me,” Bjornsen said during a phone interview on Sunday. “A lot of times when you see gaps form like that, you don’t see the front group come back. But … with three laps to go, I just got a boost of energy and in my mind could see that there was an opportunity to take it.”
Elliott expanded his lead and by the end of the next two laps he was 12 seconds up on Bjornsen in second.
However, with 44 k done and just 6 k more to go, Bjornsen began to bring on the burn. He caught Elliott and before the second-to-last lap, he had 32 seconds on him. By the time Bjornsen crossed the finish line, had bettered his 30-second lead by over a minute.
Elliott finished second, 1:39.3 minutes off of Bjornsen’s race time and Norris in third, 3:35.9 minutes back from Bjornsen.
“The 50k went amazing it was the best classic result I have ever had and maybe the best race I have ever had,” Elliott wrote. “My skis were incredible, Evan Elliott, Zach Caldwell, Josh Smullin, Austin Caldwell, and Brayton Osgood worked so hard for us. Evan my twin my was wax guy specifically. Skis really helped me in the race.”
About 24 seconds off the podium, Freeman finished fourth (+5:33.4), Packer followed in fifth (+5:59.3), Patterson sixth (+6:05.0), and Hoffman seventh (+7:50.6).
Spring Series Sums Up Season
With the culminating Spring Series event, some of Saturday’s racers are saying goodbye to the 2015/2016 season with a slight sigh, both of relief and excitement, for the end of one season and the ones yet to come.
“Saturday’s race shows that things are really going well for me,” Elliott wrote in an email. “To come off Ski Tour Canada, and a long week in Craftsbury and to ski like this after all the health issues the last two years shows that I am in a really good place. I am excited for the future.”
Elliott added that much of his season’s success would not have been possible without the continuing support from the ski community.
“This season was a step in the right direction,” he wrote. “I never thought that is would go so well. I am amazed. So much thanks to Vail, [coach] Zach Cadwell, Salomon, Oakley, Swix. They all stayed by me and helped me come back . I lived with Zach all winter in his house with his family. Without the Caldwells this season wouldn’t have gone the way it has.”
Just how will Saturday’s second place finisher prepare for next season? Working the green with good friends.
“Next is Golfing with some of my best friends in South Carolina,” Elliott wrote. “As for skiing, the only goal is to stay healthy and positive to training results will fall into place.”
Norris echoed Elliott’s enthusiasm for not just Saturday’s race, but the season as a whole.
“I’m glad I could climb back onto the US National podium again after two years not being able to find it,” Norris wrote.
Norris, who said he spent his 2014 race year recovering from an illness, also sees his races from this season, including his win in the American Birkebeiner and back-to-back SuperTour victories in Lake Placid, N.Y., as sign for more performances to come.
“The highlights to my season would have to be my American Birkie win and picking up my first Super Tour wins ever,” Norris wrote. “I advanced to my first SuperTour sprint A final this winter and then won the race — that was a seaon highlight! Today will be remembered as a highlight but more because of how painful it was to get to the finish line.”
Norris, like many nordic skiers, savors the season as an indicator for more.
“I always want more from myself when any season comes to to an end,” he added. “I don’t think my results have put me in a different position that last year but I’m going into the summer with excitement knowing that some really great results are possible for me.”
“I’m actually headed to France,” Bjornsen said, who will race one more 50 k next Sunday.
As far as his last race on U.S. soil, Bjornsen is ready to soak up the win. “It’s been a while since I’ve had a national title,” he added. “So that was pretty cool at the end.”
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.