Skies cleared and the sun shined on the 30-kilometer mass start classic at the Holmenkollen. When not surrounded by tall pines, racers were offered beautiful vistas of Oslo and the cold blue fjord on which Norway’s capital is built. While the Sunday crowd pales in comparison to the masses who attended the men’s event on Saturday, plenty of tents still lined the course to house families of fans camped out for the weekend. The snowbanks lining the course continued to bear the scars of carved benches lined with pine boughs and snow pits dug around small fires. Norwegian flags flew in abundance as Therese Johaug ran away with yet another distance victory, stopping the clock at 1:18:54.5.
Unlike the men’s race which was decided in the final kilometer, Johaug made it clear that she would win her third race at the Holmenkollen, her second with classic technique. With her wins in 2013 and 2016, she is tied for second-most wins with Larissa Lazutina of Russia who retired in 2002 and her teammate Julija Tchepalova who retired in 2009. Only Marit Bjørgen has earned more wins in Oslo with seven victories.
The race unfolded as nearly every other distance race Johaug has entered this season, including the 30 k freestyle at the World Ski Championships in Seefeld just over one week prior. Johaug separated herself from the pack early and built a gap of nearly a minute by the halfway mark, then continued to expand that lead by the finish. She showed little sign of fatigue and her technique never faltered as she soared through the classically Norwegian track, weaving through the woods, passing by a statue of a troll, and looping around the chapel before rolling past the modernist yet historic ski jump through the stadium. She now joins Bjørgen in the exclusive club of women who have won the 30k at both the Holmenkollen and the World Championships within the same year; Bjørgen has done this twice.
Johaug is a resident of Oslo, so her victory was won in front of her home crowd. The champion trained relentlessly on the tracks at the Holmenkollen and the surrounding trail system of Nordmarka during her suspension with the hope of returning with a season like she has had.
“It’s really special,” Johaug told the International Ski Federation (FIS). “The last two years I’m training so much on these tracks and have a lot of hard sensation out there. So I know the tracks really good, but it was amazing to ski here. There was a lot of people around the track and I love to ski the Holmenkollen.”
While she was aware of the gap that she had on the other women, she did not see that as a reason to slow her pace.
“The coaches give me some information that I have a lot of seconds in front of the rest, but I just have focus on myself and to just have fun out there,” she said. “And the last time in front of the stands I just look up and see all the people that are cheering at me. It means a lot in my heart.”
Behind the peerless leader, the battle for the remainder of the podium spots was decided much later. Natalia Nepryava of Russia was the only skier who made an attempt to stay with Johaug in the first lap. But she fell off the pace and raced mostly alone in front off a group of Ebba Andersson and Charlotte Kalla of Sweden, Ingvild Flugstad Østberg and Astrid Jacobsen of Norway, and Katharina Hennig of Germany, with Krista Pärmäkoski of Finland chasing from behind.
While she was never able to make significant headway on the gap Johaug created, Nepryeava held her position in second steadily, never looking over her shoulder to the women in pursuit behind her.
In the final lap, Kalla led the chase pack with a small gap, but she was reeled in by Østberg and Andersson. Østberg was hungry for her second podium finish after placing second in 2016. Østberg and Andersson passed Kalla with less than five kilometers to go, and continued to surge, drawing ever closer to Nepryeava.
Though they continued to gain on the Russian, Andersson and Østberg were not able to close the gap to Nepryeava, who finished on her own in second (+1:45.9). The Norwegian and the Swede charged through the final kilometer, double poling fiercely to the finish neck in neck. With a throw of her boot, Andersson edged out Østberg at the line, taking third (+1:49.9) with Ostberg inches behind in fourth (+1:50.1).
Three Americans competed in the Holmenkollen, but none were able to crack the top-30. Rosie Brennan (APU) was the top American finisher in 33rd (+7:57.0), followed by her APU teammate Rosie Frankowski (+9:40.2). Kaitlin Miller (CGRP) finished 42nd (+13:43.7). No Canadian women entered the race.
Amidst a strong season during which she has cracked the top 10 twice, one of which was earned during the World Championships in the 15 k skiathlon and the other in the 10 k skate in Davos, and has skied inside the FIS points 13 times in individual events, this result was not what Brennan was looking for.
“I’m a little disappointed, that wasn’t really what I hoped for,” Brennan told FasterSkier in the mixed zone. “I just didn’t have much fight, and I didn’t think my skis were very good, and I’m a little tired from World Champs still. It was a lot of racing and we did a 30 k a week ago.”
Brennan kept her performance today in perspective as it was not her primary objective.
“My goal was World Champs so I had to give everything I had there and I’m happy with that,” Brennan shared. “I hoped I would have more energy but I didn’t, so onto the next.”
Frankowski, who finished 31st last year at the Holmenkollen, had a tougher time keeping this in perspective.
“It was hard. I just didn’t feel good,” she stated simply.
Today was Frankowski’s fourth World Cup start this season. Her best result, and only top-30, took place in the 15 k skiathlon at the World Championships. The 27-year-old Minneapolis native took 21st in the 30k classic race during the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang.
“The climbing was good for me,” Frankowski commented on the highlights of a tough day. “I like the long climb better than the church loop, the church loop is always really hard. I wish it was skating.”
As the race strung out, Frankowski lost contact with the skier ahead of her, but remained several seconds ahead of the women behind. With the exception of passing a few competitors, she remained largely in no man’s land, a tough position to be in during a long race where drafting and working off of others can be so valuable.
“I didn’t ski with – literally no one,” expressed a frustrated Frankowski. “After the first 5 k, I couldn’t even – I saw like two girls the whole time in front of me…The crowd’s always good here, so at least you get a lot of cheers which is cool.”
She added that skiing alone is not always bad, but today it was not in her favor.
“Most of the time I like it, but today, I think I just was battling my own head, so it made it harder than if you could ski with someone and be distracted,” she explained. “Every person that I caught, which was only two, but they were going so slow that – I passed them on the long climbing section, so we weren’t skiing together at all.”
Both Brennan and Frankowski felt that their wax techs were not able to find the “magic balance”, as Brennan called it, when it came to kick and glide on the frozen tracks in Oslo. Both felt their skis were average and despite the ability to exchange for a new pair, never had an optimal pair that allowed sufficient kick up the long climbs without sacrificing glide on the equally long descents.
“30k is weird, especially classic,” Frankowski concluded. “I feel like sometimes you’re battling your skis, so you can’t go as hard as you want. I gave everything I had today, so that was good.”
While originally hailing from Perth, Australia, Jessica Yeaton has been primarily based in Alaska for the last 15 years. She is a teammate of Frankowski and Brennan at APU, but also skis for the Australian National Team. Yeaton has primarily raced in the Super Tour circuit this season, heading to Europe to race in Lahti in preparation for the World Championships. Yeaton raced in the individual sprint, the 15 k skiathlon, the 10 k classic, and the 30 k skate in Seefeld, with her best result taking place in the skiathlon where she placed 22nd, just behind Frankowski.
“My rest and recovery since Seefeld has gone well so I was really looking forward to racing today, and I am super happy to have made the top 30,” wrote Yeaton in an email. “My wax techs did a great job with the skis, and I was very fortunate that Madshus helped me with a second pair of skis for the exchange- so I had competitive skis for the whole race.
“It was a gorgeous, sunny day with tons of fans cheering out on course – this will definitely be a venue to remember!” she concluded.
Racing in Norway continues Tuesday on the streets of Drammen with a classic sprint.
–Aleks Tangen and Harald Zimmer contributed
Rachel is an endurance sport enthusiast based in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. You can find her cruising around on skinny skis, running in the mountains with her pup, or chasing her toddler (born Oct. 2018). Instagram: @bachrunner4646