Keys to the Castle and Free Fall Rollerski Races Light Up the Northeast

Rachel PerkinsSeptember 30, 2021
Over the bumps, Jessie Diggins heads out for her qualifier during the Keys to the Castle rollerski race in Lake Placid, NY. (Photo: Reese Brown / RDB Marketing)

As summer turned to fall, skiers from the Stratton Mountain School T2 team (SMS T2), the Sun Valley Gold Team (SVSEF), and the Bridger Ski Foundation Pro Team (BSF) met in Lake Placid, NY for a collaborative training camp, capped off with two stages of rollerski racing. The weekend featured a freestyle sprint event — The Keys to the Castle — on the rollerski track at Mt Van Hoevenberg, followed by a distance stage dubbed the Free Fall Rollerski Race in Jericho, VT. These events are perhaps the climax of NENSA’s summer rollerski series, which has helped feed the energy and momentum of the cross country ski community throughout the Northeast. 

“Lake Placid and Jericho were fantastic events and the beginning of the vision becoming a reality,” NENSA competitive programs director Justin Beckwith shared in an email. “They also highlight the amazing partnerships we have with clubs, venues and sponsors. We have four more roller races this fall including Climb to the Castle this weekend, which is paired with our Eastern Coaches Symposium — back in the Empire State. The really exciting part is we hope to carry the enthusiasm from rollerski into our Popular Race calendar, which will be released in the coming month.”

The man behind the wheels: NENSA competitive programs director Justin Beckwith. (Photo: Reese Brown / RDB Marketing)

After a year with minimal opportunity for cross-club collaboration, the events provided not only a solid training stimulus, but also invigorated the teams as they prepare for the upcoming season. It left U.S. Ski Team head coach Matt Whitcomb scheming about the opportunity to grow the events in the years to come. 

“Pulling off a stage-style roller ski race weekend, with over 100 competitors on two different roller-ski tracks, reminds me of summer racing in Norway and Sweden,” wrote Whitcomb in an email. “NENSA has upped its game. Think of the potential, too; we could do four stages, using four different tracks, and all within 1-2 hrs in VT and NY. Start in Craftsbury, move on to Jericho, and then to each of Lake Placid’s tracks. Everyone camps together at each location, and it’s just a giant summer ski party.”

The facilities at Mt Van Hoevenberg, home to the 1980 Olympics and an Olympic & Paralympic Training Center, have been undergoing extensive renovations and improvements, including the building of the new four-kilometer rollerski track which was finished this past August. (You can take a tour of the track via YouTube courtesy of Paul Schommer/Biathlon Uncharted.) 

“If I win the lottery, I’m putting in more roller-ski tracks in the U.S.,” said Whitcomb. “It’s a game-changer to not have to worry about cars. Also, the best way to replicate the demands of a ski course is to ski on a ski course.”

Bill Harmeyer (SMS T2) makes his way through the heats during the Keys to the Castle rollerski sprint. Harmeyer finished 4th overall on the day. (Photo: Matt Whitcomb)

Mt Van Hoevenberg has also improved their snow making operations, allowing for 5k of groomed skiing with 3-4 days of blowing snow in cold weather. Whitcomb explained the value this provides to American cross country skiing. 

“This was our second time utilizing New York’s investment in its facilities at Mount Van Hoevenberg. I’d be surprised if we’re not racing World Cups here in the future. A lot of work by ORDA has resulted in a world class roller-ski track and new race trails. What excites me is the chance for easterners to have early November skiing in years when the weather cooperates. Their snow-making capacity is impressive.”

With the added twist of a rolling ramp at the start, racers skied their way through the qualifier and rounds. In the women’s field, Jessie Diggins (SMS T2/USST) won the qualifier, cruising onward to snag the top spot on the podium, followed by teammates Julia Kern (SMS T2/USST) in second and Alayna Sonnesyn (SMS T2) in third. 

Jessie Diggins (SMS T2/USST) over the climb during the final round of the Keys to the Castle sprint. (Photo: Matt Whitcomb)

“This is the time of year where the intensity in training starts to ramp up and it’s always awesome to have the chance to test out your race day preparation,” wrote Diggins after the race. “Things like the timing of pre-race meals to warmups and what you do in between sprint heats to stay activated but not get tired — this was a perfect chance to tune in to those little details at the race in Lake Placid!” 

Diggins only competed in the sprint stage of the weekend, bowing out before the teams headed to Vermont.

“I’m super grateful to the organizers and hosts as it was an amazing new roller ski track and venue, and it was very cool to have so many teams and athletes there, from junior skiers to professional teams. The track was challenging and honestly just like a world cup sprint course, in terms of length, challenge and technical aspects. It was fun to fire up the engines and see what I still need to be working on in our final prep phase before the season begins!”

Jessie Diggins stomps the qualifier, continuing through the rounds to win the overall at the Keys to the Castle. (Photo: Reese Brown / RDB Marketing)

On the men’s side, Ben Ogden (SMS T2) also doubled up on the qualifier-final victories. He was followed by Peter Holmes (SVSEF) in second, and Logan Diekmann (BSF) in third. 

“This weekend’s rollerski race was like a breath of fresh air for me and I think most of the competitors,” wrote Ogden in an email. “As fun as constant training, time trials and quarantining was, ski racing is all about racing. Getting together with such a talented group and pushing each other on such a beautiful New England weekend seemed almost too good to be true. Having the BSF Pro Team, Sun Valley gold team, and SMS T2 team, all on sight made it a crazy stacked fall time trial, which was such a treat after a year of so many small group time trials. 

“This weekend was especially cool for me because It bridged the gap between all the ski worlds, something that has certainly not happened in a long time. Many of the college skiers were there, the SMS t2 team (who I ski with in the summers) was there, even a few fellow US ski team athletes and coaches were there. It’s rare that all these groups get together so that was a lot of fun.”

Putting on a clinic, Ben Ogden powers through the Keys to the Castle, winning both the qualifier and the overall. (Photo: Matt Whitcomb)

While racing in Vermont was not possible for much of the ‘20/21 season, Ogden, now 21-years-old, had a solid first run of international World Cup racing. On form when the stakes were highest, he qualified in 11th in the classic sprint at the World Championships in Oberstdorf, Germany and finished 17th. He was also the third fastest qualifier in the same event at U23 World Championships in Voukatti, Finland, where he finished 11th overall. 

Ogden provided insight into his current status with training, and how the races provided him with insight into how his body is responding. 

“I had a big period of training ending in these races and in true fall rollerski race style I didn’t change up much of my training for the races. I just thought of them as hard workouts with a bunch of friends who I don’t ski with all too often. I was really pleased to find some good speed through the entire skate sprint day. The course was really fast and tons of fun on rollerskis, so it was awesome to ski all three heats on Saturday…

“I’m really excited to get this winter underway. Feeling good about summer training in Stratton and the beginning of fall training at Groovy. (‘Groovy UV’ = University of Vermont, where Ogden is beginning his third year.) Lots of work to be done!! I think it’s going to be a fun year.”

The men’s podium of the Keys to the Castle rollerski sprint in Lake Placid. Ben Ogden (SMS T2) was the top qualifier and overall winner ahead of Peter Holmes (SVSEF) and Logan Diekmann (BSF Pro). (Photo: Reese Brown/RDB Marketing)

Heading east to the Camp Ethan Allen Training Site, men and women in the open division raced a 15k skate while juniors completed 5k. 

For the men, Johnny Hagenbuch (SVSEF) stopped the clock at 32:00.9 with the fastest time of the day. He was pursued by Ben Ogen in second (+1:07.3), with Ian Torchia (SMS T2) on his tails in third (+1:07.6) with a tight finish. 

“It was an awesome way to cap off a productive training camp!” wrote Hagenbuch after his race. “Being from altitude in Sun Valley, the main goal for the camp was to capitalize on some great venues for intensity training in and around Lake Placid. We had a bunch of really good sessions on rollerskis and foot, and it was awesome to collaborate with Andy Newell’s BSF Pro Team crew on a number of those quality workouts.”

20-year-old Hagenbuch was born and raised in Ketchum, ID. After taking a gap year following high school graduation, Hagenbuch will be attending Dartmouth College in the fall. He explained that his time spent in the east surrounding these events left him eager for what is to come in the years ahead. 

“The new venues in Lake Placid at the Mount Van Hoevenberg were incredibly well-designed, and I really look forward to checking out the ski trails in the winter as opposed to bounding. The rollerski track is a really great resource, and NENSA did a fantastic job of hosting that event. There was a surprisingly robust field for a rollerski race in Upstate NY, and it was cool to see how much energy there is for skiing and rollerskiing in the East. I actually had never previously spent any substantive period of time in New England – winter or summer, so it was great to experience orientation at Dartmouth the week before the camp as well. My perception of the East has completely changed; it’s very different from the West, but I love it!”

Johnny Hagenbuch powers through his qualifying round during the Keys to the Castle rollerski sprint in Lake Placid, NY. (Photo: Matt Whitcomb)

Breaking down the combined stages that led Hagenbuch to a third place finish in the overall standings, he explained his approach to the weekend including how it fits within his overall summer training plan. 

“The sprint went pretty well for me, especially considering that I historically and currently have not self-identified as the most talented sprinter. At this point in the season, it was a fun, low-stakes way to throw down with a great group of guys. Ben Ogden is fun to watch. The distance day in Jericho was much more my wheelhouse, as distance skate races are typically my best format. The 5km rollerski track on the National Guard base in Jericho was a treat to experience. I haven’t skied on Craftsbury’s rollerski track, but the Jericho rollerski track could easily be the best in the nation. Given that I’m still training at a relatively large volume, I wasn’t really expecting to feel particularly good or race anywhere near to my best form, but it was still a pretty good effort. 

“One of my goals for the past couple of seasons has been to get stronger and ski more powerfully, and it was cool to see some of that effort pay off in Jericho. I felt that I was skiing much more powerfully in general, and I don’t think I lost much on the uphills – despite having gained 25 pounds in the last year. It was an encouraging result in the end, and I’m excited for the next couple of months of training before the season kicks off in earnest in West Yellowstone. I’ll be pretty consistently alternating between being at home for two weeks and away training or racing for two weeks until January, which’ll be a nice way to break it up (and will make time fly)!”

The women’s podium of the Free Fall distance race in Jericho, VT. Alayna Sonnesyn (SMS T2) took the win ahead of teammate Lina Sutro, with Mariah Bredal (BSF Pro) in third. (Photo: Matt Whitcomb)

On the women’s side, Alayna Sonnesyn took the win on the second day in a time of 37:55.3, sealing the overall victory for the combined events. Her SMS T2 teammate Lina Sutro rolled through in second (+49.3) with BSF Pro Team member Mariah Bredal in third (+2:33.6). 

“In Lake Placid, it was really cool to ski on the new roller ski track,” wrote Sonnesyn in an email after the events. “I had heard stories about a pretty twisty and technical track but to finally have the opportunity to ski on a course similar to a World Cup level race was pretty sweet. Not to mention the new facilities at Mt. Van Hoevenberg are unbelievable! It was really fun to get into a sprint simulation with all of the other elite ski teams that were there and it felt almost like a SuperTour. That being said, it’s still September so although I brought a competitive spirit to the races, I still approached them as a workout. It was great to practice going super hard in the qualifier and then play around with tactics in the heats, but it was all in good fun too. With a pretty sketchy corner coming out of the last downhill, the women agreed this race wasn’t worth losing skin over. All in all, a great day!”

Alayna Sonnesyn leads her heat during the Keys to the Castle rollerski sprint in Lake Placid, NY. (Photo: Reese Brown / RDB Marketing)

“The following day in Jericho I was definitely feeling a little tired from the sprints the day before, but that was great practice for wintertime when we frequently race back to back,” Sonnesyn continued. “Also, during my time at UVM we skied at Jericho almost every week so it felt good to be back on a track that I knew so well and felt like home. Adding to that, it was great to see the UVM ski team and other junior/college racers attending this event. It had been a while since I had been at an event with so many New England skiers and I felt like everyone was just really happy to be there. Again, I was finding the balance in this race to approach it as a workout while still taking advantage of the opportunity to practice race warm ups, tactics, fueling, pacing, etc.”

Sonnesyn also concluded with insight into her overall feelings at this point in the season. 

“I’m feeling really good and lucky to have these races to test things out. I gained a lot of takeaways on little things I can work on in the next few months, but also built some confidence behind what we have already been doing all summer. I’m excited to potentially compete in a few more NENSA races this fall and get ready for snow to fall!”

The women’s final of the Keys to the Castle rollerski sprint in Lake Placid, NY. From left to right, Lauren Jortberg (BSF Pro), Julia Kern (SMS T2/USST), Jessie Diggins (SMS T2/USST), Alayna Sonnesyn (SMS T2). (Photo: Reese Brown RDB Marketing)


Keys to the Castle Sprint | Free Fall Distance Race

Overall Standings for the Combined Events:

Rachel Perkins

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

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