GOVERNMENT PEAK RECREATION AREA, above Palmer, Alaska — High-end nordic ski racing was last seen in this country in mid-April, when a bevy of national-team members who call Alaska home competed in a pair of FIS races in mid-winter conditions, followed by a more vernal 2,000’ hill climb the following weekend. Less than seven months later, as Alaska kicks off another season of ski racing, little has changed: the country’s deepest domestic fields, single-digit temps, and fierce competition. The 2021/2022 American race season is officially underway.
The Mat-Su Ski Club has hosted the season-opening Race to the Outhouse #1 somewhere in the Matanuska–Susitna Valley, above Palmer, Alaska, for the past 13 years now. Typical locations are Archangel Road and Independence Mine. The race course at Archangel ends with a 240-meter climb; the race course at Independence Mine starts with a 145-meter climb over the first 1.8 kilometers. Both feature an eponymous state parks outhouse near the finish line. Neither is exactly FIS-legal.
This year, poor road conditions on the upper mountain caused by recent heavy snowfall necessitated a last-minute change to Government Peak Recreation Area, or GPRA, elev. 1,000′.
When the snow cleared and the new venue was announced on Friday morning, this year’s race was somehow even harder. The Government Peak 5k FIS course has 38.2 meters of gain per kilometer, on par with the Lahti World Cup course (38.5) that has hosted multiple World Championships. It has a height difference of 81m, more than Ruka or Lillehammer or Lahti or Falun or Oberstdorf or frankly most venues. After Sadie Maubet Bjornsen skied here for the first time, in October 2020, she called these “the most legit ski trails I have ever skied in the US,” and pronounced the venue World Cup-ready.
Overnight temperatures on Friday of nearly zero, rising to only 7° F in time for Saturday’s race, did not make the snow on an already difficult course ski any faster.
Rosie Brennan (USST/APU) was unfazed by the slow snow, covering two laps in 32:18.4 to take a commanding win in the women’s 10-kilometer mass start classic race. She was followed by Hailey Swirbul (USST/APU, +2:44.6), who was 0.7 seconds ahead of Rosie Frankowski (APU). Fourth place was another Olympian, Australian–American dual national Jessica Yeaton (Australia National Team/APU).
“I was looking for an opportunity to practice racing and shake some cobwebs off on the snow,” Brennan wrote to FasterSkier on Saturday. “It was absolutely incredible what Mat-Su Ski Club pulled off for us today. From one surprise storm they were able to set classic tracks on a 5k homologated loop. I honestly can’t think of a better way to get a good test race in than that. I am very grateful for the community support and effort to help get us ready to race before leaving. I am really happy with my effort and was able to find some race feelings and some good movements on snow. I am feeling on track and ready to hit the road.”
Swirbul sounded similar sentiments, writing, “I was hoping to get a good workout in and practice pacing. I don’t think time trials have to be great to have a good effect and shake some of the cobwebs out. Good to go hard with some great teammates!”
For the men, Gus Schumacher (USST/Alaska Winter Stars) took the win in the 10 k classic, crossing the line in 29:29.2 in the mass start race. He was closely followed by Hunter Wonders (USST/APU) and David Norris (APU), 0.8 and 2.4 seconds back, respectively.
Schumacher had much the same reaction as Swirbul, writing to FasterSkier, “Today was mostly just to shake off some cobwebs and get a sense for where my race fitness is at. It went really well; I felt good and it was fun to end up ballpark where I want to be. It gives me some confidence just to have a solid race under my belt before travel.”
The World Cup athletes were concentrated in the 10 k classic. In the men’s 5k skate, Oskar Flora led a strong junior field to take the win in 15:50.4, followed by Liam Chisholm (+36.0) and Kyle Fischer (+54.7). In the women’s 5k classic, it was Meredith Schwartz first in 18:59.6, Alison Arians (Schwartz’s mother) 43.6 seconds back, and Tuva Granøien in third, 1:25.8 back.
In the men’s 10k skate, JC Schoonmaker (USST/UAA) led a small field to the finish in 29:35.1. He was followed by local juniors Skyler Amy and Cole Flowers in second and third several minutes later.
Anna Engel (45:26.7) appears to have been the only woman who did the 10k skate.
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The races were a robust test of athletes’ fitness on a challenging course. They were also somewhat of an epistemological puzzle: Is it really an early-season race if you’ve been on snow for nearly two months already? Snow came to the Chugach foothills above Anchorage, ca. 2,000 feet, on September 24. By the time that early-season storm was melting out, race-skis skiing was online at Independence Mine – this photo was taken on October 10:
An Anchorage- or Palmer-based athlete in a position to drive could have logged seven full weeks on snow by the time race day dawned. APU head coach Erik Flora had 30 hours on snow by Halloween. Climate change is undeniably present in southcentral Alaska, but its effects in this La Niña winter have so far been kind to skiers.
Making the question of “what type of race is this, anyway” even more complicated was the depth of the fields. Alaska’s World Cup skiers are off to Europe soon, but not yet, and turned out in force for Saturday’s race – four out of five athletes on the U.S. Ski Team A-Team raced, and a total of six athletes who will be starting on the World Cup this fall were in the field (potentially seven depending on what happens with alternates).
FasterSkier unofficially calculates the race penalty for the men’s race as 23.7, and as 30.3 for the women, if these had been sanctioned as FIS races. U.S. Nationals, in Soldier Hollow in January, will likely have a higher number, reflecting the fact that the country’s fastest athletes are typically racing in Europe in January. Two out of three women on Saturday’s podium have World Cup podiums to their name; the third was 21st in the Olympics. For the men, Schumacher, Wonders, and Norris would not be surprising picks for the 2022 Winter Olympics American men’s relay team. Was this a free, low-key fun run involving a line in the parking lot to sign a waiver and pick up safety pins for your bib, or was it an unofficial U.S. Nationals? It’s complicated.
Racing continues in Alaska next weekend with the start of the town race series at Fairbanks’ Birch Hill ski area, then over Thanksgiving with races at Government Peak (the first annual Turkey Trax race) and Birch Hill (the 57th annual Turkey Day Relays). Domestic FIS racing gets underway in West Yellowstone the same weekend. The Midwest racing calendar at SkinnySki.com is currently unavailable, but the Duluth SuperTour races on December 4-5 are a notable early-season event. In New England, the NENSA calendar begins with the Quarry Road Opener on December 5. Wherever you are and whatever your local racing scene looks like, think snow.
(N.b., the results are slightly idiosyncratic, reflecting a free, low-key event in which athletes could choose between doing a 5k and a 10k up to the moment of the finish lane vs. lap cutoff. This manifests as all racers for both distances being listed together in a single results sheet, which is then further sorted by wave and gender. My sense of what’s what is: In the 10 a.m. men’s wave, places 9–11 did the 10k; in the 10 a.m. women’s wave, all athletes did 5k; in the 10:02 a.m. men’s wave, first place did the 5k and everyone else did 10k; in the 10:02 a.m. women’s wave, places 1–4 did 5k and the rest did 10k; in the 10:04 a.m. wave, places 23 and 24 for the men, and 9th place for the women, did 10k; everyone in the 10:06/10:08/10:10 a.m. waves did 5k, except that 8th place in the 10:06 a.m. classic did 10k.)
Gavin Kentch is a lifelong Alaskan. He skis with the Alaska Pacific University Masters team in Anchorage, plays with his two adorable daughters, and occasionally works as a solo attorney. He has a cat named Marit. He was probably on snow this year before you were.