ANCHORAGE, Alaska — For the throng of spectators who lined up along the colorfully flagged sprint course at Kincaid Park on Friday, Mother Nature had donned a new look: an earl-gray sky and a rising sun, making the white snow-dusted base of the state’s Tordrillo Mountains (known locally as the “Ghost Range”) if ever so faintly distinguishable to the southwest.
Less than 48 hours had passed since the opening race of the 2018 U.S. Cross Country Championships at Kincaid Park, but the slushy trails and snowy skies that had prevailed Wednesday were tucked away in the closet.
The second day of racing found athletes and onlookers embracing the end of the sun’s bereavement; a few blinking in wonder and questioning if it was indeed, the same place they had ventured to two days before.
While the weather had transposed into an alter ego, one competition-day facet remained virtually unchanged: the name of the eventual winner.
Caitlin Patterson, who races for the Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP) and grew up in Anchorage, is proving herself a force to be reckoned with this week; the event weather and discipline may change, but her desire to finish first apparently does not.
The 27 year old won Friday’s 1.5-kilometer freestyle sprint final in a time of 3:20.9 minutes and now holds four U.S. national titles. One of those came in Wednesday’s 10 k freestyle and the other two from 2016 U.S. nationals, in the 10 k classic individual start and 20 k freestyle mass start races. Friday’s victory was her first sprint national title.
Though she has been on a U.S. nationals sprint podium once before — she finished third in the 2016 freestyle race — Patterson was slightly surprised with the margin by which she won Friday. She finished the final with a definitive win, the next closest finisher 3.56 seconds behind.
“I expected, especially in the final, that someone would really have a push on the top of that hill, but maybe everyone was getting a little bit tired or maybe I just went for it a little harder than I realized I could,” Patterson reflected after.
But she was especially wary of Finland’s Jasmi Joensuu, the University of Denver junior who had finished second right behind Patterson in both the quarterfinal and semifinal.
“In our quarterfinals [Joensuu] was extremely strong at the top of the major uphill, hop skating, really putting a push over that I could barely match,” Patterson said.
Joensuu, 21, had been punching the pace in the front through the first climb for most of the day, leading Patterson out during both their quarterfinal and semifinal. In the early heats, the CGRP skier tended toward the back through the first third of the course.
“I was really strong in the uphill. That’s what I think was my strength today,” Joensuu said after.
“I’m a slow starter,” Patterson explained. “In the semifinal I found myself in the very back of the heat.”
It was in the downhill returning to the stadium and the final uphill hook back toward the finish that Patterson tended to regain ground; that is how she held off Joensuu in the finish of both the quarterfinal and the semifinal (they went one-two in both heats, respectively).
The final was not much different. Joensuu was still at the front of the charge off the start, but this time alongside the University of Colorado Boulder (CU) senior Petra Hynčicova, a 2017 NCAA double champion, who hails from the Czech Republic.
“The first part was definitely the best part for me,” Hynčicova said after. I knew I had really good skis … I tried to go in the beginning. I think it was the right move.”
The two international college skiers continued in the front through the first descent running along the backside of the course. There, Patterson made her move. Tucking for speed, she slungshot her way from fourth to second, moving around Joensuu and her CGRP teammate Kaitlynn Miller, heading into the major climb side-by-side with Hynčicova.
Through the climb, Patterson tried to stay as quick as possible, reaching the top before the rest of the finalists. Pressing to keep up were Joensuu, Hynčicova, Miller, Hannah Halvorsen, of Alaska Pacific University (APU) and the U.S. Ski Team D-team, and Kelsey Phinney of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF).
“I was pretty tired by the final and didn’t have the legs to vie for a top spot but so it goes sometimes,” Phinney wrote in an email.
“I’ve still got to work on getting my extra sprint gear,” Phinney continued. “But it was great to have a really competitive final with everyone holding their own and jockeying for spots at different parts of the course, that’s always fun!”
As Phinney and the rest raced to catch up, Patterson focused on maintaining a gap. Now that she was in front, there was no turning back.
“I could feel people behind me but I was never looking back,” Patterson said. I knew that since I was going to be in front, I was not going to be drafting anyone on the downhill, so I better get out of there as fast as I could and then I just sent it on the downhill.”
Patterson cruised down back toward the stadium, Joensuu now the only one within proximal striking range, about five meters behind. Following Joensuu was Hynčicova and Halvorsen, then Phinney and Miller. The group looped into the final incline to the finish Patterson still leading the way, Miller having moved around Halvorsen during the course of the corner.
“I think you can always look at where you can improve and a lot of those girls were skiing that final U-turn a lot better, carrying more speed out of it than I did, so I’d like to work on that in the future,” the 19-year-old Halvorsen said.
Joensuu and Hynčicova had carried speed, but not enough to catch Patterson. The Finn claimed second 3.56 seconds behind, while Hynčicova earned third, 4.19 seconds back. In fourth, was Miller as the second American, 4.35 seconds out of from the win and 0.16 seconds out of third.
“It’s always exciting in the heats to keep moving up, especially when you feel like you gave it your all in the qualifier,” Miller said after the final.
“I definitely tend to have better results in classic, so for me, I just like to see improvement in my results, feel like I’ve done well,” added Miller, who was the 2016 classic sprint national champion and placed third in last year’s classic sprint. She also placed second in the 2016 classic 10 k individual start.
“I’m pretty happy with it,” she added of earning her first freestyle podium as the second American woman across the line.
Just missing the final and the winner of Friday’s qualifier was Anne Hart of the Stratton Mountain School (SMS) Elite Team in seventh. Earlier this season, Hart raced the opening International Ski Federation (FIS) races in Beitostølen, Norway, where she finished in the top 20 in the 10 k freestyle. She also won this year’s opening SuperTour freestyle sprint in West Yellowstone, Montana.
“I’m feeling overall good about the race, with a little bit of regret for what could have been.” Hart wrote in an email. “I had a really disappointing 10 k skate race for me — I had been hoping for a much better result, but unfortunately the course and conditions ended up not suiting my style of skiing.
“Both Pat O’Brien (SMS coach) and Max Lipset (strength coach) were talking to me after the 10K, and encouraging me to bring my best possible self to today’s effort, and throw a metaphorical punch that I would be proud of,” Hart continued. “With that mindset, some good energy, and great skis I was able to put together probably my best qualifier to date. I’ve never won a high-level full field qualifier, so while they don’t give flowers for that I am counting it as a definitive personal victory, and an affirmation in the training I’ve done.”
Hart won the qualifier in a time of 3:22.10 (Patterson qualified in 12th, 5.76 seconds back, and later won in a time of 3:20.9). The SMS skier advanced to the quarterfinals before getting eliminated in her semifinal after finishing third behind Miller and Hynčicova.
“My quarterfinal was good, although in retrospect I think I may have burned a little too much energy early on leading from start to finish,” Hart wrote. “I took a different tact in the semi-final to try and utilize the draft into the finish, but unfortunately followed the wrong person up the big hill and got a little further back than I would have liked to be.”
“So I put in my best effort to close the gap to the top two women, and came up less than a hundredth of a second short.” Hart continued. “So that stings a little bit to be so close to the final on a day when I know I could have been competitive in that last effort, but that is ski racing— for better or for worse— and I’m excited for the two races yet to come!”
Two races remain with a 20 k classic mass start on Sunday and a classic sprint on Monday.
In the junior women’s freestyle sprint on Friday, the win went to Sydney Palmer-Leger (SVSEF) in a time of 3:36.05. Callie Young of the Craftsbury Nordic Ski Center claimed second, while Kathleen O’Connell skiing for Montana State University took third.
Also in the junior’s final was Annika Hanestad in fourth, Sarah Morgan of Wasatch Nordic in fifth, and Kelly Koch of Loppet Nordic Racing in sixth.
–Ian Tovel and Gavin Kentch contributed
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.