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An iconic venue, Lahti’s ski jumps rise out of the pine forest from atop the rolling hills, tucked between the many lakes of the region in southern Finland. After two years of empty trails and stadiums, horns blazed, cowbells rang, and voices cheered during the women’s 10-kilometer individual start classic race as fans lined the hills and filled the stadium, memories of pre-pandemic racing flooded back into mind.
What has remained constant through the last two years is the presence of Norway’s Therese Johaug at the top of the results sheet in distance races, particularly classic. Johaug started as the final athlete in the seeded group wearing bib 60, meaning she would have information available to her from the start on how hard she would
A little over halfway through the first of two 5 k laps, it looked like Johaug would run away with yet another World Cup distance race. At the 3.7 time check, Johaug was 11.7 seconds up on Natalia Nepyraeva of Russia who had clocked the fastest prior split, with the Finnish Olympic bronze and silver medalists, Krista Pärmäkoski and Kerttu Niskanen, lurking just behind at 16.2 and 17.5 seconds back. And the Finns were racing on home soil with most of the aforementioned fans waving their country’s flag.
Sure enough, the margin of Johaug’s lead narrowed. At the lap, she was just under ten seconds ahead of Nepryaeva, who looked to have conserved her energy in the first lap to push the pace in the second. While the Finns became less of a threat to Johaug, the Norwegian’s margin over the Russian’s splits whittled down rapidly.
And ironically, the Russian’s fast second lap might have been partly Johaug’s own doing. As the Norwegian had headed out on course, Nepryaeva was lapping through the stadium, allowing her to match pace as she chased the high-tempo Norwegian through the woods for the second 5 k, perhaps pressuring Johaug to burn a few of her matches a bit earlier than she’d otherwise planned.
Regardless of what was going through each athlete’s mind, Nepryaeva finished her second lap to set the bar at 24:29.6.
Over the first kilometer of Johaug’s second lap, now racing on her own, the time difference between the two women was slashed in half, from 9.8 to 4.8 seconds, and at 8.7 k, it had essentially remained constant at 5.5 seconds. It would come down to the wire.
Looking back at the season, it might be easy to focus on the three Olympic gold medals Johaug won in Zhangjiakou, including in the 10 k classic event. But, she had been beaten in the only other 10 k classic she’s raced on the World Cup this year, which also took place in Finland, during the opening weekend of World Cup racing in Ruka. She might be the favorite, but she’s also beatable.
As Nepryaeva watched the clock eagerly from the leader’s chair, Johaug kicked, glided, and double poled through the final kilometer. Having over ten minutes prior, she had plenty of time to wait, watch, and be watched by the cameras.
Nepryaeva leaned forward, not taking her eyes off the leaderboard as Johaug made the tight right-hand turn down into the stadium without losing too much momentum, and began to charge as hard as she could toward the line.
With 15 seconds remaining to stay inside Nepryaeva’s mark, Johaug rounded the corner to the finish. With ten seconds to go, she hit the lanes. Nepryaeva watched the seconds tick by hoping Johaug’s time would change to red, while the Norwegian was just trying to keep it in the green.
Until the actual finish line was crossed, it felt like the result could go either way. But with a final push from her poles and kick with her boot, Therese Johaug sealed the deal, just 1.2 seconds ahead of Natalia Nepryaeva. Johaug let out a victorious roar, just before cameras showed the Russian roll her eyes in exasperation, as if thinking, “Really? Not again.”
Cameras panning back to Johaug watched her shift away from her own celebration to comfort a very disappointed Heidi Weng, who had started a minute ahead of Johaug in bib 58, but finished 42 seconds behind her teammate in 19th place (+1:42.4). After promising results in the Tour de Ski, Weng had tested positive for COVID just prior to the Olympics, leaving her watching the event from afar. From Weng’s disappointment at the finish, it looked as though she had been looking for more in her return to racing on the World Cup.
Johaug spoke with FIS after the finish, speaking to what it means to win again today as she nears the end of a successful season, including the three gold medals earned in Zhangjiakou this month.
“It means a lot for me, and I am so happy that I have a second on my side,” Johaug said with a laugh. “After the Olympics, you’re coming home and it’s a little bit hard to motivate again, but when I come to Lahti and go on this beautiful track, I really enjoy it.”
Johaug was also asked whether she felt the benefits of having trained and raced at altitude surrounding the Games, which were held at roughly 5,500 feet above sea level.
“Yeah, I feel that,” Johaug said of the boost. “When you train a lot at altitude and then you go down, you feel like you have more energy in the hills. I think my shape right now is really good, so I’m excited to race at the Holmenkollen next weekend, and in Falun, then the rest of the season.”
Rounding out the women’s podium, Finland’s Pärmäkoski held her margin to 16.7 seconds at the finish for third place, followed after a gap by her teammate Niskanen in fourth (37.7). Sweden’s sprint champion Jonna Sundling was just behind in fifth (+40.7).
Leading the way for the American team, Rosie Brennan posted consistent splits to hover in sixth place through the first lap. Maintaining even tempo and effort, Brennan remained in this position until the last checkpoint, which showed a hard-charging Ebba Andersson of Sweden trade positions to bump Brennan back to 7th.
Also posting a split Brennan was not quite able to match in the final kilometer, the American lost nearly eight seconds to Germany’s Katharina Hennig between the final time check at 8.7 k and the finish, leaving Brennan in eighth place overall (+1:02.8) at the finish.
“I am really happy with today.,” Brennan wrote in a post-race email. “I have always struggled post-championships, not so much in my body, but in my mind. It’s really difficult to live on the road and be sharp and push so hard all the time. It often feels like there is never a chance to let down the way someone who goes home every week might experience. I am always trying to figure this out and work towards finding ways to let down and then pull the fight back up for the weekend. It’s all part of the game and it’s a good challenge to try to figure everything out.
“Anyway, today, I felt much more like myself and was able to ski the way I wanted to. Lahti has been a tough venue for me in the past and today I really felt strong in my classic skiing and had some ability to push hard. I was definitely frustrated after yesterday and am really happy I was able to let it go and find myself out there today. We have had really great weather this weekend and a big crowd so that was a huge bonus. It was a joy to not be skiing in an arctic tornado!”
Following a podium near-miss in yesterday’s sprint, Jessie Diggins was next for the U.S., just behind Heidi Weng in 20th (+1:43.4). Julia Kern and Hailey Swirbul also raced into the top-30 for the second day in a row, finishing 28th (+2:03.2) and 29th (+2:10.5), respectively.
Just off Swirbul’s split, Canada’s Katherine Stewart-Jones led her team in 30th place (+2:10.7), with her teammate Dahria Beatty just outside the top-30 in 33rd (+2:19.4). Cendrine Browne raced to 36th (+2:24.5), while Laura Leclair was the final Canadian woman in 58th (+4:29.7).
Finishing 30 seconds outside the top-30, Katharine Ogden returned to the World Cup in 43rd (+2:40.8).
Following the races, US Ski Team head coach Matt Whitcomb provided insights into both the women’s and men’s races in Lahti, as well as sharing the news that Östersund, SWE may become the host to the initially cancelled World Cup Finals that had been scheduled for Tyumen, Russia. Whitcomb also speaks to the “Olympic hangover” that can make hard for athletes to perform at their best the weekend following the Games, and gave a shoutout to the athletes racing at World Juniors in nearby Lygna.
World Cup racing continues on Thursday, March 3rd with a classic sprint in Drammen, Norway, just prior to the storied 30/50 k mass start classic races at the Holmenkollen in Oslo.
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