The 2019 Seefeld World Championships event came to a close on Sunday, the 11 days of competition capping off with a men’s 50-kilometer freestyle mass start. Unlike two years ago at the Lahti World Champs, when the top six finished within four seconds of each other, Canada’s Alex Harvey ultimately earning the 2017 title, this year’s World Champs featured no head-to-head sprint to the finish.
In Seefeld on Sunday, Norway’s Hans Christer Holund crossed alone, arms raised high in celebration of his gold medal performance. He stopped the clock at 1:49:59.3, the next closest finisher being Russia’s Alexander Bolshunov, who crossed 27.8 seconds after Holund.
Holund’s break from the pack came at the 21 k mark, a decisive move observed by his teammate Martin Johnsrud Sundby, who initially assumed the role of leading the chase pack as Holund skied ahead. The pulse of close to 40 skiers threatened to swallow Holund back up, if Sundby let it.
But the Norwegian continued to ski alone and in the lead past the 25 k mark, the 30 k mark, the 35 k. What may have at first appeared like an unsustainable rabbit’s pace off the front, was turning out to be cruise control for Holund. The 14-second gap he had on the field at 22 k had grown by a minute at the 34 k mark. Over the remaining 15 k, only Bolshunov would manage to put any more than 30 seconds back into Holund.
Even after securing the win, the 30 year old was somewhat surprised that he managed to maintain such a significant amount of time between himself and the rest of Sunday’s 50 k field.
“I didn’t expect that I was going to keep the gap all the way in but it was amazing,” Holund told the International Ski Federation (FIS) in a post race interview.
This is the first race Holund has competed in at the Seefeld World Champs, his start itself uncertain until recently.
“I’ve been in not so good shape this year and I actually didn’t thought I was going to go this race because I wasn’t qualified, but when I finally got the chance I thought well this may be my last chance to be World Champion, so I just have to go for it,” Holund said.
According to the FIS database, the title is Holund’s first World Championships gold–the only other World Champs event he has raced was the Lahti 50 k, where he placed 10th.
Holund’s closest challenger on Sunday, Bolshunov, had made his move to the helm of the chase pack around 25 k. The Russian did not begin to gain time on the Norwegian, however, until he broke from the chase group at 38 k.
From there, Bolshunov did regain 46.2 seconds on Holund, but ran out of course to see if he could make up the remaining 27.8 seconds. The podium finish is Bolshunov’s fourth from the Seefeld World Champs, all of which have been silver medal performances. Prior to this year, the 22 year old had never medaled at a World Champs event.
Sunday’s battle for bronze place came down to Norwegians Sjur Røthe and Martin Johnsrud Sundby. With less than 5 k to go, the two had moved to the front of the chase pack behind Holund and Bolshunov. In a sprint to the finish, Røthe outlunged his teammate by 0.1 seconds for third (+57.8) and Sundby place fourth (+57.9).
Leading the way for the North Americans on Sunday was Canada’s Alex Harvey in 12th (+1:10.5). Two years ago in Lahti, Harvey earned his first individual World Championships title in the men’s 50 k race, Sunday’s 50 k being his final career World Champs event. At the age of 30, Harvey announced his decision to retire after this year’s World Cup races in Quebec City, Quebec.
“I think it is pretty clear it is not what I had hoped for or dreamed for,” Harvey said during a post-race phone call. “I think today and for the whole week, or the whole of the last two weeks, I just have got to look at things with a more objective eye. The skiathlon is my best result of the season in distance. I had my best race of the season at World Champs so that is good. But of course, I was hoping to come away from Seefeld with a podium.”
Over the course of his career, Harvey has competed in six World Championships events, his first being in Liberec in 2009. He has since then amassed five World Champs medals, including two golds, two bronzes, and one silver.
“I really expected the Norwegians to attack, maybe a tiny bit later in the race, I was expecting more around 30 k,” Harvey said of Holund’s move at 21 k. “They kind of did that in Lahti in the 50 k. It forces the other nations to try and take on the chase. So knowing that they have so much depth, I was expecting it from either Holund or Krüger, because it is more their style of racing anyways.
“I had made a decision before the race that if an attack was made, it would not be the one chasing because it would have played too much in the hand of Sundby and Rothe,” he added “At the end of the day, I think Holund was just way better than the rest.”
With less than a kilometer to go, Harvey was still in the running for a podium. The final hill, however, found his legs flooded.
“I think for me there was still an opportunity for third place and I really positioned myself in the best way possible at the base of the sprint hill,” Harvey said. “Then I did not have the legs to go up the hill. I just lost a lot of position I just wasn’t strong enough. It is as simple as that. But everything else, we had the skis. In the 50k you have to have a feeding strategy and try to save energy where you can. I think I did everything to the best. … I would not do anything different. I just was not good enough. It is a bitter-sweet feeling knowing …it is easy to say I gave it my all. At the end of a race, you always give it your all. I think I really executed my plan.”
Following Harvey, two Americans cracked the top 20 on Sunday, with David Norris placing 20th (+1:22.6) and Scott Patterson in 23rd (+2:05.5). Norris came into Sunday’s race having competed in last year’s Holmenkollen 50 k where he placed 38th (He also won the 2016 American Birkebeiner 52 k). Seefeld has been his first World Championships experience.
“At Holmenkollen [last year], I felt strong, but often I have struggled to get engaged into the top-twenty,” Norris explained during a phone conversation. “From the gun I feel like I am one of the stragglers, trying to hang on.”
Sunday that was not the case for Norris. The 28 year old managed to position himself in the top 20 from the start, making for what he described as “smoother” skiing. He experienced less accordioning between groups of skiers and during the second half of the race was still skiing within 10 bibs of Sundby and Røthe.
“The way I have always tried to race over here is to go out hard and put yourself into the position to have a result that you are excited about and represents my goals,” Norris said. “So often I have died and blown up several times over here, but I feel like when that happens I also know in the back of my mind that if I put everything together the result that is almost a great one was not so far away.
“I think today, when I was racing, more things were just working out and clicking so it allowed me to finally reach the result that I have been pursuing and chasing in the first of races often instead of fading, I continued to feel strong all the way to the finish for the most part,” he added.
Norris will race next weekend’s Holmenkollen 50 k as well as the remaining Period III World Cup races. “I feel like I’m really fortunate that every year my skiing seems to get more feasible and the support has been there,” Norris said. “I think every athlete experiences huge portions of their season where they’re second-guessing or frustrated and those are the times to push through and believe in the plan.”
Patterson explained, the race was “a step up in results”, though still left him “ looking for a little more.” Seefeld is Patterson’s first World Championships, with Sunday’s 23rd his best individual ranking to date. Earlier in the week, he placed 30th in the 15 k classic and 32nd in the skiathlon.
“I spent most of the race kind of dangling on the back end of the lead pack,” Patterson wrote in an email.
The American indicated that he had good energy, though not enough to follow Holund’s break from the front group near the race’s halfway mark.
“I was a bit disappointed with the lack of leadership in the pack when we just chilled out instead of reacting at all to Holund’s move,” Patterson wrote. “There is talk around here of the unwritten principle of the Norwegians to not chase down the first attack. I think we saw that today as well as some weakness in the other strong nations such as Russia and France.”
The American maintained contact with the lead group until his sixth lap when things began to separate. Positioned at the rear of the group, Patterson found himself unable to chase down any breaks.
“Over the course of the first long hill on that lap, the main group seemed to spread and splinter between skiers,” Patterson wrote. “I was a little too far back to make the split for the front of the pack. I tried hard to chase, but going for it solo wasn’t working against a pack of 18. Overall, I am satisfied with 23rd but also believe that I still have more to give the rest of this season. I’m looking forward to another 50 k next weekend at Holmenkollen.”
Following Patterson was American Simi Hamilton placed 34th (+4:02.). At thirty-one year’s old, Hamilton has been a U.S. staple for high-end World Cup sprinting for years. His ninth place in the 2019 World Champs skate sprint adds another chapter to Hamilton’s world-class success.
However, as much as compartmentalizing athletes simplifies the narrative, Hamilton’s definition of cross-country racer helps broaden the sprint or distance paradigm. According to the FIS, Sunday’s race was Hamilton’s third 50 k at this level of competition. He placed 54th in the 2014 Holmenkollen 50 k classic and was a DNF last season in the Holmenkollen 50 k skate.
And although it is apples to oranges, Hamilton placed 5th in last season’s U.S. Distance Nationals 50 k classic in Craftsbury, Vermont.
“It’s definitely intimidating, I think this is maybe the third fifty k I’ve skied at this level, one of which I didn’t finish – at Holmenkollen last year, and I skied Holmenkollen the previous year,” Hamilton said in a post-race phone call. “It’s certainly quite different from the domestic scene generally, now the pace is just way hotter from the start.”
American Adam Martin raced to 45th (+8:01.7), while Canadians Russell Kennedy finished in 46th (+9:57.6), Evan Palmer-Charrette in 47th (+11:26.1), and Scott James Hill in 50th (+11:27.6).
-David Brown and Jason Albert contributed
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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.