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Four hours later than planned, the ladies lined up for the final race of the weekend and the highly anticipated battle between Therese Johaug of Norway and Frida Karlsson of Sweden. Due to the frigid temperatures in Ruka, officials first delayed the race by an hour and then by another three in hopes that the thermometer would read above -20°C (about -4°F), the cutoff temperature for racing. Hats, buffs, and face-tape were a must given the reading of -18.5°C, around 0°F, when the race began.
The Norwegian men chose not to race in the frigid conditions, raising the question of whether Johaug and the other Norwegian women would take part in the competition. But Johaug had a point to prove and questions to be answered, so the battle was set.
With today’s pursuit format, Karlsson (SWE) had a 14-second lead on Johaug out of the start after her victory on Saturday and she capitalized on this advantage with a strong start. Katharina Hennig of Germany started just a second behind Johaug and the order continued in reverse of Saturday’s finishes. Rosie Brennan was the first American off the start line in 6th position, +38.6 seconds back from Karlsson.
After the delays, the local start time was 2:45pm, a solid 45 minutes after sunset in the far north. As such, it was under the glow of the course lights that Karlsson passed the first time-check at 1.1k, her lead 15.5 seconds over Johaug. Henning (GER) was quickly swallowed by the chase pack that formed, spearheaded by Ebba Andersson of Sweden.
The first time through the stadium, with the first lap complete, Johaug had only gained 0.5 seconds on Karlsson, the gap essentially the same. The next time the two skiers mounted the sprint hill climb into the stadium Johaug had chipped away at that lead, narrowing it to +9.7 seconds. As they headed into the stadium for the penultimate time, the gap was reduced to just a ski length and at the 5k mark, Karlsson was caught.
Forty seconds back, the chase pack had grown, and was moving along steadily. Although Yulia Stupak of Russia, who started in 9th position, +54.7 back withdrew from the race.
After gaining a bit of rest drafting behind Karlsson, Johaug turned on the burners and made a clean break, gapping the Swede up the climb into the stadium. From there Karlsson hung tough but the race for first and second place had been settled. At 7.5 k, Karlsson was 4.7 seconds down, at 8.6 k she was 7.3 behind and when Johaug crossed the finish line first in a time of 25:56, Karlsson finished +7.8 seconds behind.
“I had really good skis,” said Johaug in a FIS interview after the race. “Yesterday I wasn’t sure how the shape was but today I got the answer.”
With numbers one and two decided, it became a race for third as the pace of the chasing pack picked up. Brennan (USA) led at 8.6k, with Andersson (SWE), Heidi Weng (NOR), Krista Parmakoski (FIN) and Henning (GER) hot on her heels. Heading up the final hill that so often decides the race here in Ruka, Weng (NOR) created just enough space to snag bronze, finishing +37.9 seconds behind Johaug. Weng, who started 10th +55.7 seconds, also recorded the fastest time of the day, completing the four laps in a time of 25:37.9.
When asked how it was to share the podium with her teammate Weng, Johaug said, “Yeah, it’s so nice for Heidi, I’m really happy.”
Behind Weng, Parmakoski (FIN) and Brennan (USA) lunged together in a photo finish, 4th place ultimately going to Parmakoski, with Brennan finishing as the top American in 5th. “I am very happy to remain in the mix and to know my body is there,” wrote Brennan after the race, “but [I] have some to gain on the mental side. It was a good first weekend for me and really gave me a good starting point.” In regard to the temperatures and delayed start, Brennan said, “We had to be flexible as the race kept getting delayed and finally rescheduled for the afternoon. It’s always hard to warm-up, have to stop, go back home and then start over again and in the dark….I am happy I managed to deal with the punches and make the best of it. I felt really good or as good as one can racing in so many layers, but struggled with my tactics and confidence today.”
She added that she is working with a new wax technician this season which adds a little chaos to the mix but she added, “but I am feeling good about our start! I know we will be dealing with some subpar snow conditions so that will be the next hurdle to tackle next week! I know where I am now and where I need to go to meet my goals later in the season.”
After Brennan, Jessie Diggins was the next American across the line, finishing 11th, +1:25.7 behind Johaug. Diggins started the day in 18th position and recorded the 9th fastest time of the day.
Post-race interview with Jessie Diggins.
Katherine Stewart-Jones was the first Canadian woman in 21st (+2:44.8). Behind her came a slew of stars and stripes with Hailey Swirbul earning her first World Cup points of the season in 26th (+3:57.4), Katharine Ogden in 30th (+4:18.9), Julia Kern in 31st (+4:23.6), Sophia Laukli 32nd (+4:32.0), Caitlin Patterson 35th (+4:48.7) and Novie McCabe finishing her first weekend of World Cup racing in 37th place (+4:50.6).
Also representing Nordiq Canada, Cendrine Browne also landed inside the points with a 28th place finish (+4:00.1).
“I had a tough starting position so I’m really happy with today’s race,” Browne said in a Nordiq Canada media release. “I had good feelings today and was able to pull myself up into the top-30. My skis were super-fast thanks to the wax techs. This gives me a lot of confidence for the next World Cup.”
Frida Karlsson now wears the yellow leader’s bib as the racers depart Ruka. The World Cup heads to Lillehammer Norway next weekend with another three-day lineup including a skate sprint, 10/15 kilometer freestyle and relay.
Growing up in Washington’s Methow Valley, Ella was immersed in skiing and the ski community from a young age. From early days bundled in the pulk, to learning to ski as soon as she could walk, to junior racing, a few seasons of collegiate racing, and then to coaching, she has experienced the ski world in many forms. Now, as a recent graduate from Dartmouth College, she finds herself living in France splitting her time between teaching English at a university in Lyon, avidly following ski racing (and now writing about it!) and adventuring in the outdoors as often as possible.