By Gavin Kentch, Ella Hall, and Rachel Bachman Perkins
Tuesday brought distance races to Soldier Hollow, in the second full day of racing at 2022 U.S. Cross Country Championships. The story at the front of the field was strong performances by athletes who had begun the year racing on the World Cup, as Rosie Brennan dominated the women’s field to win by over a minute, and Scott Patterson took the men’s race by roughly twelve seconds.
Brennan was followed by Rosie Frankowski and Caitlin Patterson. Scott Patterson was followed by David Norris and Hunter Wonders, giving APU five out of six podium spots on the day. Craftsbury athletes went 3-4-5 in the women’s race. Notably, four out of six podium finishers were on the north side of 30, with a fifth gaining Master status later this month, underscoring the lengthy developmental curve often required to achieve success in distance racing.
Women’s Race: Rosie Brennan Solos to Victory
Tuesday’s race, the women’s 20-kilometer freestyle race at 2022 U.S. Cross Country Championships, was, technically speaking, a mass start – but for Rosie Brennan, it skied more like an interval-start race. Brennan wore bib 101, at the sharp end of the chevron start in a field of 55 athletes, and led every one of 20,000 meters of the 20 k, pushing the pace right from the start and never looking back all the way through the finish line. She covered the challenging course in a speedy 53:16.9 to take her seventh national title, and first since 2015, in a dominating performance.
The race began under overcast skies and moderate temperatures. By one second into the race, Brennan (USST/APU) was in the lead. By one minute into the race, she was notably off the front, with only three athletes, Rosie Frankowski (APU), Caitlin Patterson (CGRP), and Sydney Palmer-Leger (USST/Utah) even contemplating whether to follow.
By two minutes into the race, Brennan had a sizable gap, as athletes in the Frankowski-led chase pack had decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and opted to ski their own race and focus on chasing the remaining two spots on the podium. No athletes other than Brennan would appear on screen again in the free livestream until the six-minute mark, in a wide-angle shot of the main climb up the Cabin Loop most of the way through the first lap. This is nothing against the production values of the online broadcast, which were once again superb, just a statement about how quickly Brennan distanced herself from the rest of the field.
After the first of six 3.33-kilometer laps, Brennan’s lead over the chase pack was roughly 26 seconds. After two laps, this gap had nearly doubled, to 49 seconds. The chase pack was now led by Patterson, who collected her tenth national championship earlier this week, and Frankowski, who has a 21st at the Olympics and World Cup top-30s to her name. These were not bad skiers; Brennan was simply unmatched on the day.
Over the next four laps, as the wind increased and a light snow began to fall, Brennan put on a clinic. She V2ed where others V1ed, and added a slight hop at the end of V1 strokes where others adopted a more labored V1 reflecting the tough terrain and elevation. She slowed down through the coaching zone long enough to get a full drink from her feed. She skied the downhills aggressively and took the best lines throughout. It was a 53-minute demonstration of the form and fitness that have already brought her a World Cup podium this season behind Frida Karlsson and Therese Johaug, and an additional five top-six finishes.
Brennan lapped her first skier midway through lap 4. She would ultimately lap 26 athletes in a field of 52 finishers before the end of the race, precisely half the field. In a national championship.
Brennan actually slowed slightly, or the chase pack may have sped up, as the race went on. Her gap over the Frankowski/Patterson duo was “only” 1:02 at lap 3, 1:17 at lap 4, and 1:21 at lap 5. It may have even shrunk by a fraction of a second over the final lap, as Frankowski and Patterson raced for second behind her. But the outcome was never in doubt – and barring multiple broken skis, a devastating earthquake or meteor strike, or some other truly unforeseen occurrence, the outcome was never really in doubt after the first minute of the race.
Brennan grew up skiing in Park City, starting in eighth grade, first with Team Utah Nordic Alliance, then with coach Gordon Lange at Park City Nordic. She won her first ever ski race, a Wasatch Citizens race, albeit aided by the fact that “there was only one other girl in my age group,” she told the Park City Park Record for a 2017 profile. She’s come a long way since then.
“It was so great to race at home and have my family and friends cheering me on the whole way!” Brennan wrote in a post-race email. “With COVID, even my Mom has been unable to watch me race for years so it felt really special to be able to race with a hometown crowd before heading to Beijing.”
On her approach to the race, Brennan explained the role that she hoped her effort would play in her preparation for the upcoming Olympics, concluding with her feelings about sitting out the Tour to instead join her club teammates in SoHo.
“I was feeling quite inspired after watching some great performances by the APU men this morning and that gave me faith that our fitness was high and we could grind away,” Brennan wrote. “I wanted to do my best to simulate World Cup racing so I wanted to start hard and then reassess based on what others in the field did and then ultimately keep grinding to get a long hard effort in at altitude, which we haven’t had the opportunity to do on the World Cup this year. The course we raced played into my strengths with a long gradual climb right out of the start so I felt I had to use that every lap to keep building on my strengths and do my best to work on relaxed, powerful skiing the rest of the lap. I am really happy that I had the opportunity to come home and race a long race! I think I may have lost my voice screaming Frankie into the finish as well. It was really awesome to see her dig so deep today and to have APU put in such strong performances all around today.”
Behind Brennan, Frankowski and Patterson were locked in a dogfight for second and third. The two women, age 30 and 31, respectively, have raced head-to-head frequently over the years. They have spent much of their careers in that liminal space between being some of the fastest domestic skiers and some of the slower American World Cup skiers, competing for limited start spots on the World Cup or at global championships. In the last Olympic-year National Championships, in 2018 at Kincaid, Patterson was the first American in every race; Frankowski was the 2nd and 4th American in the two distance races; ultimately both women went to Pyeongchang.
Four years later, there the two athletes were again, holding down the chase pack with potential Olympic berths on the line. Patterson, from Anchorage but now skiing for Craftsbury, is taller, with a more upright skate stance and a tempo that looks nearly languid when skiing behind Frankowski. Frankowski, from Minneapolis but now skiing for APU, is shorter, with a somewhat more hunched-over approach to attacking an uphill, and with a higher tempo. (see photo above)
The two are a study in contrasts, but their differing approaches left them evenly matched throughout Tuesday’s race, as they literally occupied the space between the top American World Cup skiers and the top domestic skiers. At the start of lap two, they were separated from one another by 1.6 seconds, skiing in a larger pack that at the time included Alexandra Lawson, Palmer-Leger, and Lina Sutro. By the start of lap three, the chase pack was down to two, Patterson and Frankowski, 0.5 seconds apart. Start of lap four: 0.5 seconds. Start of lap five: 0.5 seconds. You may sense a theme. It was, once again, going to come down to two athletes with divergent strengths.
Writing in the FasterSkier Slack channel on Monday morning, 24 hours in advance of Tuesday’s race, this reporter foresaw Brennan skiing away with the win with relative ease, then one of two things happening behind her, as he jokingly drafted an article for a race that had not yet happened: “Behind Brennan, Rosie F. pushed the pace hard from the start, attempting to create a gap over the rest of the field. She [was ultimately able to do so, and took second slightly ahead of Caitlin Patterson et al.] [was unable to do so, and was swallowed up by Caitlin Patterson/someone else] in the final kilometers.”
This is not to claim any great powers of prognostication. This is rather to say that everyone in the venue, the two athletes on course notably included, knew what Frankowski’s strengths were, and what she would aim to do over the final three kilometers: open up enough of a gap over Patterson that it would not come down to a sprint, or bury herself in the attempt.
A few minutes later, this is precisely what occurred. The sixth and final time up the main hill on the Cabin Loop, Frankowski came into view in the distance at the bottom of the climb, V1ing with an explosiveness and tempo befitting a sprint heat more so than the final lap of a tough 20 k. Patterson was being dropped, but not definitively so, as she followed up the climb with a more human tempo, keeping Frankowski in view the whole time.
Fast forward to the finish a few minutes later: Frankowski’s surge on the final uphill proved to be just enough. Patterson made up time on the downhill return to the stadium… closed to within a few meters… but was unable to shrink the gap any more.
Frankowski held her off with a progressively ragged V2, crossing the finish line and immediately collapsing into a heap on the snow just past the line. Brennan came over to take off her APU teammate’s skis and offer support. A few minutes later, Frankowski was upright, and giving Patterson a Covid-safe congratulatory hug.
Frankowski’s time was 54:37.5, 1:20.6 back of Brennan. She was 1.9 seconds ahead of Patterson in third.
“Today was something I am really proud of,” Frankowski wrote to FasterSkier after the race. “I have targeted this race for the last year and although I was excited, over the days leading up to the race, I was dreading the pain level Rosie B would inflict on the field. My initial plan was to try to stay with Rosie for any length of time, but that plan went out the window in the first kilometer when I thought I would literally pass out at 2k in if I tried her pace. I then had to recover for a lap in the chase pack, and the downhills were giving me real grief so I kept having to surge to get back on the pack or back with Caitlin P. After a few laps, Caitlin and I had a gap and we worked together using our individual strengths to make that gap larger, and that was super fun! Caitlin and I have raced together many times throughout the years so it was great to have the chance to relive some of that today. I knew I was feeling strong on the uphills, and the downhill finish was definitely on my mind, so on lap 5 I tried to push the pace on the ups a bit, and then on lap 6 going up the hollow I just went for it with total abandon. I created a gap that Caitlin narrowed over the rest of the course, but I managed to not fall on the last hermod’s downhill and take 2nd. I could see Rosie B in the finish stretch cheering me on so I was just full speed til that line.”
Frankowski also shared her thoughts on whether or not the race played out as anticipated.
“I’d say one of the surprises was how terrible the wind made the Hermod’s downhill. As someone who struggles with downhills anyways (but has made a lot of progress the last year), the wind drifts and the blowing snow were really dicey. And you couldn’t see the glazed icy spots under the snow so it was very stop-go. Otherwise, the race played out pretty much how I expected (or hoped) and one of the best parts of the day was having my APU teammates and coaches cheering out there, especially on the final lap.”
“It was quite the battle between Frankie and I,” Patterson wrote post-race. “However we also had a great time skiing and working together for the first 3/4 of the race or so. At the end certainly it was a furious battle to the finish, but earlier in the race we worked together to use each of our strengths and pull away from the chasers. Frankie and I have quite different styles, uphill vs downhill strengths, but it was really fun racing… Of course I would have been happier to be 2nd and I have slight regrets that I didn’t work my strengths a little better, but overall it was a strong race.”
Also commenting on the effect of wind, Patterson continued, “That was definitely a factor and annoyance on a few parts of the course. The Hollow had a notable head wind as we climbed up, which just added to the grinding nature of that climb. From lap 3 or 4 on, on both the back-side sprint downhill and the big downhill off of Hermod’s hill, there were small pockets of wind drifted snow forming. Especially on the Hermod’s downhill, the wind pockets were blowing across the course and making the downhill a little less predictable as the wind pockets felt much slower than the glazed path. Weather is just an aspect of racing, and while it was annoying, I think we as xc skiers have to learn to adapt to anything and everything, so it just became another variable to work around in the race.”
Patterson concluded with a nod to her brother, acknowledging the setbacks he has faced this season, which are elaborated upon in the men’s recap.
“I was quite nervous this morning watching the men’s race on the live feed, but I’m really proud of my brother Scott for skiing so smoothly and controlling the 30k. It’s awesome to see him showing a return to form and winning, after a tough start to the season attributable to his summertime broken wrist.”
Craftsbury skier Alexandra Lawson took 4th (+2:49.2), in a brave effort after skiing solo for basically the entire race. Her teammate Margie Freed came in 18 seconds later for 5th (+3:07.2), giving the green-clad skiers from Vermont 3rd, 4th, and 5th overall on the day.
In the other close finish of the top-10, BSF skier Hannah Rudd (+4:13.5) came in a few seconds ahead of Palmer-Leger (+4:17.6) for sixth, after skiing substantially above the seeding suggested by her 125 bib number. (The start list ranked athletes according to their current USSS distance points.)
Palmer-Leger, in seventh, was notable as one of only four juniors in this senior women’s field.
Looking ahead to the rest of this week, Tuesday marked Brennan’s only planned race in this series. Her plan coming into today was to rejoin the World Cup soon, though those plans may have become somewhat more fluid with the recent cancellation of the Les Rousses World Cup stop set for mid-January. Regardless, even if Brennan were to compete in and win both distance races this week, the second-ranking domestic woman at these championships is still eligible for consideration for potential Olympic selection, due to the precise phrasing of selection criterion four of the USSS criteria document, which excepts athletes otherwise nominated to the team on other grounds. (Brennan has achieved nomination already via criterion one, multiple top-eight finishes in specified World Cup races.)
That is, that second-ranked domestic woman (Frankowski or Patterson, for example, or someone else who does well in the classic race if both these women do not perform as expected) is not guaranteed to be selected, but she certainly could be alongside Brennan.
In the junior women’s race, Middlebury’s Kate Oldham paced the 7.5k freestyle ahead of the Ninas, Nina Seeman (Dartmouth) and Nina Schamberger (Summit Nordic Ski Club). The threesome pushed the pace from the front, maintaining a small gap over the remaining women throughout the two-lap course.
In a three-way sprint to the finish, Oldham snagged the win in a time of 20:17.7, +0.7 ahead of Seeman in second place and +1.1 ahead of Schamberger in third.
Men’s Race: Scott Patterson Leads APU Sweep
The first race of the day was the senior men’s 30 k, with 73 athletes completing eight 3.75 k loops. From the gun, the race was about bib number one, Scott Patterson representing APU. Patterson returned to the US after racing most of Period 1 of the World Cup.
Missing only the opening weekend in Ruka, Patterson competed in each of the distance stages despite having surgery on his wrist in late fall, roughly five weeks before he returned to World Cup racing, and still needing a brace to protect the healing injury. After his first race of the season in Lillehammer, Patterson explained that this made it harder for him to use his poles, shifting his energy use more to his legs and altering his technique, which likely impacted his ability to capitalize on the high level of fitness he had built through the summer.
Through the first lap most of the field held together, though as the leaders departed for lap number two, a group of fourteen skiers at the front had separated, led by Patterson. Trading leads with Ian Torchia of SMS and Hunter Wonders of APU, the gap to the rest of the field had widened although the front group was still largely together. Among those front fourteen skiers were Johnny Hagenbuch skiing for Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation, David Norris of APU, Peter Wolter (SVSEF), Braden Becker (CGRP), Adam Martin (CGRP), Torchia (SMS T2), Zanden McMullen (APU), Wonders (APU), and the leader, Patterson (USST/APU).
Finishing the third lap in a total time of 27:01, the lead group was down to nine, having lost Hagenbuch and Wolter. Norris (APU) moved to the front for the first time, as the group headed up the Cabin Loop climb on the fourth lap, and upped the pace. This briefly created a gap with Norris, Patterson, and Wonders, though that gap was closed with the downhill draft and the group passed through the lap lane as a group of six, having lost Becker (CGRP).
Climbing the hollow, Norris again put in an effort as he and Patterson created a small gap. Wonders worked to close it, bringing Torchia and Martin with him and once more, they closed on the front two on the sprint course downhill.
Ending lap five and departing for lap six, Patterson had gained a five-second advantage over his teammate, Norris. Through increasing lap traffic, Patterson continued to grow his lead. Despite the windy conditions, Patterson seemed to have no problem out on his own. Initially, Torchia was the sole chaser in second, with a gap to Wonders, Norris, and Martin.
Entering lap seven, Patterson was well clear of any competition, +24 seconds ahead of Torchia. Over the course of this penultimate lap, Torchia was caught by Wonders, Norris, and Martin and the chase group was once again a group of four.
Patterson held strong out front and entered the last lap after 1:03:58.2 of skiing. Norris and Wonders pulled away from Torchia and Martin, settling into second and third position respectively. Over the final 3.75 k, Norris gained steadily on Patterson, though Patterson had developed such a solid lead he was able to remain unchallenged to the line. Crossing the finish in 1:13:25.0, Patterson claimed his first national 30 k title.
“I went out today with the intention to win and establish myself as a top contender after some tough races early in the season,” Patterson wrote to FasterSkier after the race. “My intention from the start was to keep the pace fast even if I had to do most of the work. It was awesome on the early laps having APU teammates in the pack with the same intention. Although we strung things out earlier, lap 5 and 6 were really the key ones for eventually pulling away. On lap 5, David put a hard move up the cabin hill that gave the two of us a little gap. The front pack came back together in the stadium, but it was clear the next time up the hollow that many others in the pack were tiring. On lap 6 up the cabin hill, I put in a hard effort and found I had space behind me. At that point, I decided to go for it as I was still feeling strong. Climbing the hollow felt like my strength and I solidified my lead there. From that point it was a time trial to the finish while holding off David’s late charge. David and Hunter coming in to sweep the podium for APU and many of our younger skiers posting strong results were cherries on top of my personal success.”
In terms of how the races at U.S. Nationals fit into his season plan and goals, Patterson explained that his wrist injury has forced him to adjust on the fly, making it difficult to set objective goals.
“My grand plans for this season were a bit derailed from the start with my wrist injury and surgery. Mid summer, my intention was to race the full World Cup, but going into Period 1, I knew I had to take everything with a grain of salt. Every week would help my wrist, but also I was just lacking a bit of form following three months of training with one pole, a brace, or other modifications. I felt confident that my general fitness was still strong, but it was buried under a lack of race fitness early on in the season. Period 1 has always been a bit difficult for me and adding a few extra factors didn’t help. Following Davos I knew it was time to regroup a little. Nationals seemed like the best bet with a little more time. Also looking at the Tour [de Ski] races, I didn’t think they really suited my style, especially given my wrist.”
Providing additional insight into his rehabilitation, Patterson also gave an optimistic update on the status of his wrist and it’s lingering impact on his racing.
“Today marked 10 weeks post surgery for my wrist. While over on the world cup for period 1, I raced Lillehammer in a large plastic brace and Davos with it extensively taped. Neither of these were great solutions especially given where I was in the recovery process. Since then it has continued to improve and show signs of healing in all my follow up x-rays. I have also dialed in my taping since Davos. Only in the last week has my wrist really begun to feel that it’s ready for racing (with copious amounts of leukotape).”
Concluding on his plans moving forward, Patterson wrote, “At this point, I’ve got a little more confidence in racing and am looking forward to Thursday’s classic race. I’m not sure what my plans are after that, especially with the recent cancellation of the French World Cup, so I’m focusing on the remainder of races here for now.”
Norris, who skied the final lap 11.2 seconds faster than Patterson, finished in second place, +11.7 behind his teammate. Norris won the last 30k freestyle he contested at the 2019 National Championships, ahead of now-retired Kyle Bratrud (SMS T2) in second and Patterson in third.
“I’ve been skiing poorly this season without any explanation as to why,” Norris wrote in a post-race email. “This week I am enjoying being back with my team and seeing tons of friends on the course each day.”
In terms of his race, Norris continued, “Today I felt bad from the gun, but I tried to ignore those feelings and focus on making a race. Although I struggled quite a lot I am still proud to pull out a podium finish and to be part of a strong day for APU. Our coaches did a great job and gave me every opportunity to ski well.”
While Norris is perhaps facing an unlikely reality in terms of his selection for the currently five-man 2022 Olympic Team, his conclusion on the day was process focused.
“Every season I ski much stronger in February and March so I’m sure good form is on the horizon, but that doesn’t help me achieve my goals when I need to be skiing well right now. All I can do now is focus on the 15km classic coming up and then rest and prepare for the next races. After that – I don’t know yet what that will be.”
Closing out the APU sweep was Wonders, finishing third +27.9 back. A sprint for fourth position went to Martin, while Torchia took fifth.
In the junior men’s 10k, the pace started easy as 121 racers headed out for the first of three 3.3 k loops. Initially Wally Magill (Dartmouth), Will Koch (Colo. Univ), and Walker Hall (Univ. of Utah) traded off in the lead. Up the Cabin Loop hill on the second lap Hall picked up the pace and pulled away with Magill. Koch worked hard to bridge the gap and join the leaders though the effort cost him and as the front two upped the pace once more, Koch dropped off.
Cresting the final hill in the last lap, Hall was in the lead though Magill drew even with the draft on the descent. In a sprint finish, Hall crossed the line first in a time of 24:29.4, his second junior championship title of the week. Magill finished second (+0.5), while Brian Bushey (Univ. of Utah) overtook Koch at the line for third (+18.9).
This article has been corrected to reflect the fact that Rosie Frankowski was the fourth American in the 10 k freestyle at 2018 U.S. Nationals, not the third.