We’ve arrived at the final act, the culmination of a week of racing in Canada and a season of international racing before that. Piloting a gender-equal distance, both men and women raced a 45 k mass start skate on Sunday, completing six laps of a 7.5 k loop at the Whistler Olympic Park. Continuing a pattern of challenging weather conditions, the day started with temperatures around 37° F with rain, making for soft and wet skiing.
The open men went first, with a field of 99 starters heading off the line at 8:30 local time. With 107 on the start list, some notable names among the athletes who did not start include Gus Schumacher (Alaska Winter Stars), Tyler Kornfield (APU) and Xavier McKeever (Foothills Nordic), who took his first national title in the sprint race earlier this week.
Relying on live-timing to provide a picture as the race unfolded, it appeared that the first three laps saw steady skiing with a big pack together at the front. Between 22.5 – 30 k that group splintered with ten athletes breaking +31 seconds or more clear of the rest of the field. Among those ten, the Canadians were represented by Russell Kennedy (Canmore Nordic), Rémi Drolet (Team Black Jack), Philippe Boucher (CNEPH), Antoine Cyr (CNEPH), Graham Ritchie (Thunder Bay Nordic) and Olivier Léveillé (CNEPH). Up front for the Americans was Luke Jager (University of Utah), Scott Patterson (APU), Adam Martin (CRGP) and Finn O’Connell (BSF Pro).
Beginning the final lap, that group of ten lost a member as Léveillé (CNEPH) dropped off the pace, drifting into no-man’s land, still a minute clear of chaser Johnny Hagenbuch (Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation). At the next split, Boucher (CNEPH) too had dropped, leaving eight men at the front, all within 5.5 seconds. With just a few kilometers to go, the fight was on.
Creating a gap in the final stages, Graham Ritchie (Thunder Bay Nordic) claimed the victory and earned his first national title. Ritchie finished in a time of 1:40:32.5.
“I’m not sure how this happened,” said Ritchie to Nordiq Canada, “I haven’t raced this long of a race in a couple of years, so I had no game plan going into it. I just said I’m going to stick with the lead pack as long as I can.” This strategy worked in his favor.
“I was able to stick with the lead pack and being in the top three with one kilometer left,” continued Ritchie, “I knew I had a little jam left to go for it in the last few hundred meters. I had a good day and really fast skis. The techs killed the boards so I’m super stoked.”
Concluding a strong week of racing, Jager (University of Utah) topped the American podium, coming in +6.8 seconds behind Ritchie. Speaking to the conditions, Jager said, “it was good, the news that they were salting last night was music to my ears because it would have been so different if they hadn’t. It was really firm and fast and even where it was getting mushy it was pretty firm underneath so it was fast out there.”
Displaying consistency, Jager has been on the Super Tour podium in every event this past week. He was the first American in the 10 k interval skate, the third American in the 15 k interval classic, the first American in the classic sprint, and he and his teammate Noel Keeffe finished first overall in Friday’s team sprint event. Asked about how the tactics played out within the group, Jager said, “it was kind of going back and forth, I mean Russ [Kennedy] was pushing a little bit and so was Scott but there wasn’t quite enough work from the bottom of the stadium to the top to get rid of everyone, so it would string out and then come back together on the downhills a little bit which was playing to my advantage for sure.”
Coming down to a sprint finish, Ritchie made an early move to gain the advantage. “I didn’t even know who was in the group anymore,” said Jager, “I was kind of in the front going into the last climb and [Ritchie] came ripping by me and he was really strong so even if I had the foresight of that coming I don’t know if I would have been able to hold him off because he was so strong coming into that hill.”
Cyr (CNEPH) finished third overall and was the second Canadian (+7.8). Completing the Canadian podium, Kennedy (Canmore Nordic) finished fourth overall (+8.1).
Patterson (APU) was the second American finisher, coming in fifth overall (+9.6), while Martin (CRGP) was the third American and sixth overall (+12.6).
Following the conclusion of the men’s race, the open women got underway at 10:30 local time. At the crack of the gun, fifty-six racers set off to complete their six laps. Although there were 72 athletes registered, sixteen did not start, including Rosie Brennan (APU), Katherine Stewart-Jones (Nakkertok Nordique), Novie McCabe (University of Utah) and Olivia Bouffard-Nesbitt (Foundeurs-Laurentides).
This is the first time the women raced 45 k at a national championship event, a new event stemming from the push for equal distance racing. When asked about this distance after the race, Julia Kern (SMS T2) told Nordiq Canada, “I think it’s a really interesting format. For me personally I like the shorter distance but recently I’ve had really good experiences with 30 k and today was a great day so, I think whatever makes ski racing exciting for both men and women should be what pushes the sport forward.”
Regarding whether this should become a permanent feature, or be introduced to the World Cup, Kern said, “potentially, or just shortening the men’s race so that everything is short and exciting because there are marathon circuits out there as well.”
With the race under way, the first 7.5 k saw the pack at the front was a slightly strung-out group of twelve. Just a few kilometers later, that number was cut in half as six athletes pulled twenty seconds clear. Of that group, Cendrine Browne (Foundeurs-Laurentides) was the lone Canadian, skiing with Sophia Laukli (University of Utah), Kern (SMS T2), Rosie Frankowski (APU), Caitlin Patterson (CGRP), and Sydney Palmer-Leger (University of Utah).
For the next four laps, those first six women skied together, alternating leads and staying within ~5 seconds at each split. As they set out for the final lap, Browne (Foundeurs-Laurentides) dropped slightly, +10 seconds behind the pack. “I just wanted to be in the lead pack today and I was until the last lap, I bonked. It was tough conditions today, but it was a really fun way to go out,” said Browne.
From there, the splinters in the group became larger cracks as Kern (SMS T2) applied pressure at the front. Next to drop was Palmer-Leger (UU) who was +6 seconds back at the first split on the final lap. A few moments later, Kern had made a full break.
“My tactic was just hang on, conserve energy for as long as possible,” shared Kern, “I didn’t really want to suffer for 45 k and it was fun to ski in a pack and work together. So for me it was just being patient and seeing how I was feeling and evaluating my plan from there. What I ended up doing was skiing with the pack, alternating leads and in the last lap I was feeling good so I decided to send it. 7.5 k to suffer isn’t too hard.”
At the final time split before the finish, Kern was 27.5 seconds ahead of runner-up Patterson (CGRP). Reaching the finish line, she had widened this lead to 34 seconds, finishing in a time of 1:58:55.6. This victory was Kern’s fourth of the week, having topped every race save for the 5 k individual skate where she finished second behind teammate Jessie Diggins (SMS T2). Commenting on the conditions Kern said, “the first few laps held up pretty well and the last few laps got really deep and slushy, you just had to make sure you didn’t catch a tip or fall and look for the less skied in areas. But it made it exciting, good spring skiing, classic slush conditions.”
Patterson (CGRP) finished second overall, +34 seconds back. Behind her came Laukli (UU), completing the American podium and finishing third overall (+1:00.9).
Browne (Foundeurs-Laurentides), for whom this race was her final as a professional athlete, held sixth position overall, and was the first Canadian (+2:41.5). “It feels really good to end my career this way. I love distance racing and it is a great way to go out as National Champ,” said Browne to Nordiq Canada. “Thank you to everyone in the ski community who has believed in me and cheered for me over the last 10 years.”
Dahria Beatty (Whitehorse Ski Club) was the next Canadian in twelfth overall, +9:39.8 behind Kern. Completing the Canadian podium, Laura Leclair (Club Chelsea Nordiq) came in sixteenth overall (+12:08.8).
This race concludes the 2022 Canadian Ski Championships and US SuperTour Finals as the athletes now get to enjoy a break after a long season.
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.