What comes to mind when you think of a cross country ski race? Depending on your location and how you choose to interact with the sport, there are likely a variety of answers to the question, but it’s likely that there are some common themes.
“Cross country events are pretty much all the same when you boil them down, you know?” said retired US Ski Team member and 2018 Olympian Reese Hanneman. “It’s a test of endurance and speed over a set course, and it’s timed, and you’re usually out there in the woods alone. And I mean, that’s what cross country [racing] always will be, but I always felt like there was room for more.”
In what he described as “living out [his] 10 year old dream”, Hanneman set out to break this mold. His dream came to fruition on April 2nd in his home of Anchorage, Alaska, as cross country skiers from the junior level to recent Olympians careened down the slopes at Hilltop Ski Area, rounding tight turns, skating uphill, and catching air – with some not-so-graceful landings – off of jumps before finishing amidst a festival atmosphere at the base. The event was NordicX, an untimed, head-to-head “nordic-cross” event where style points on the final kicker into the finish might earn you a lucky loser spot in the next round.
“I knew that there was a lot of appetite for [an event like] that because every time I coach kids, which has been quite a bit over my career, I see that same energy and excitement for hitting jumps and sessioning little whoopty-dos or tabletops. And basically, there’s no cross country event that caters to that.”
While Hanneman wanted a non-traditional event, he was not looking to eliminate the character or skills of cross country skiing altogether. He pulled from his experience competing in the 2016 Red Bull Nordix event at Lake Louise in Alberta, where he raced against other top international skiers including Norway’s Petter Northug and his US Ski Teammate Andy Newell.
“It was so fun and it was so crazy and scary and fast. And I was like, ‘Man, I need to bring this to Alaska.’”
In creating his own event, he said he wanted to navigate the “delicate balance of new, exciting, and extreme, but also staying true to cross country skiing. It’s one thing to build a little booter next to the xc ski trail and ski ’round and ’round hitting it with your friends, and it’s another to try and package that experience into a full-on event that offers excitement for all ranges of skills and ages.”
“I knew it needed the right venue,” Hanneman continued. “I wanted something ‘net downhill’ because otherwise I felt like it would be too similar to other xc races, a loop with the same start and finish meant that in order to have a huge downhill you would need a huge uphill. But I also wanted it to be ‘cross country’, so that it truly rewarded good cross country skiers, and so that cross country skis were truly the best tools for the job.”
As the course and conditions hinged on both the weather and Hilltop’s grooming, an official course map was never set. To ensure the event catered to skiers beyond the nucleus of elite skiers based in Anchorage, an A-, B-, and C-Line was established on each of the features, making air-time not requisite and allowing athletes to select a route that felt safe, at the expense of simply forgoing the fastest line, which might pay off in the end if it kept the racer upright with equipment intact.
Holding to the spirited theme of the event, Hanneman described it as “a freestyle event in both feel and in practice,” meaning there were no official course maps, no timing, and plenty of subjectivity in the results. Get sendy and try to 360 off the final kicker into the finish only to crash and stall out before the line? Style points – you just became the lucky loser and can move on. Flooded legs from the uphill sprint section cause you to catch an edge off the drop and yard sale? The crowd loved it – lucky loser spot for you also.
No official prologue seeded athletes; after a few hours where skiers could preview the course, the event simply kicked off with heats of six in the quarterfinal, splitting the 100 athletes between open and junior men’s and women’s categories. Among the field were six Olympians: alphabetically, Erik Bjornsen, Rosie Brennan, Hannah Halvorsen, Logan Hanneman, Sadie Bjornsen Maubet, and JC Schoonmaker, most of whom ended up on the podium at the end of the day. Next year, Hanneman hopes to include additional categories for parents, masters skiers, etc.
For those who weren’t up for racing or couldn’t quite match the on-ski agility of Maubet or Schoonmaker, a continuous stream of raffles offered plenty of alternative opportunities to win. A DJ fed the energy at the base, while emcees Rob Whitney and Lee Bolling kept the momentum alive between heats, announcing the winners of numerous prizes from sponsor companies like Odlo, Fischer, Oakley, Skull Candy, Toko, and more.
Though these factors added to the festival atmosphere at the base, spectating alone was plenty exciting. In particular, the finish of the senior men’s final was one to watch.
“You couldn’t have scripted a better finish,” Hanneman laughed. “You had JC Schoonmaker, who’s one of the fastest sprinters in the world right now, and Erik Bjornsen, who was just on fire all day back from retirement. [They were] just completely sending it and just flying through this final steep slalom section, and Erik is trying to catch JC, and JC is trying to hold him off. They go to the finish, over this big table top, and everyone’s holding their breath. JC goes off it and does this massive spread-eagle.”
But he didn’t stick the landing. Landing a little too far in the backseat, Schoonmaker’s skis washed out from underneath him, leaving him sliding across the snow toward the inflated archway that marked the finish. He stalled out just before reaching the line.
“Erik is coming at Mach 50, about to beat him to the line. JC has to roll over and, like, flops [his skis] over the line.”
From a photo finish, Schoonmaker was awarded the victory, with Bjornsen narrowly taking second. U20 APU athlete Michael Earnhart skied to third, taking the final podium step.
“NordicX was one of the most fun races I’ve participated in,” wrote Schoonmaker after the event. “It took me back to middle school building jumps with my friends and seeing how far we push the skinny ski boundaries. Everyone who took part in putting the race on did a great job and with the spectators who came out, it really just had a good vibe to it. Everyone was having a great time and I’d definitely like to do it again. My highlight was watching some of the younger skiers before the race who were hitting the last jump doing 360’s and backflips and seeing how pumped up they were to be there.”
In the senior women’s senior division, it was a current and former APU athlete sweep, with Sadie Bjornsen Maubet taking the win ahead of Hannah Halvorsen in second and Rosie Brennan in third.
“Nordic X was a super fun event, with a fun new twist to nordic skiing, and nordic ski spectating,” wrote Bjornsen Maubet. “Reese did an amazing job of dreaming up this super fun and social way to share our sport with our community… I relied on my thirty years of spending most of my days on nordic skis to attempt to gracefully make it down the little jump park. Though incredibly inspired by all the young kids catching tons of air, and throwing font and back flips, I figured I better save those moves for another life. The day was full of tons of laughs, cheers, and excitement. It felt special to put a bib on beside my previous teammates, and participate in the fun.
“I look forward to watching this spectator friendly event grow in the Anchorage Community. I think my husband had the most fun of us all, as he showed up with his chainsaw without the blade, some flares, and wearing a hat that said ‘Make the Bjornsen’s Great Again’. He was the cheering squad of the day, representing his French blood and the famous French Team Valoche cheering squad.”
For Hanneman, there were also a number of smaller highlights he’s enjoyed looking back on. While marking the course with food coloring, he loved watching skiers riding the lift to the top of the course on their skinny skis, and seeing athletes from 13-year-olds to veteran racers sessioning the course to dial in their lines and strategize. During the heats, he watched a number of young athletes gain confidence, and perhaps some additional skills, after working through initial trepidation surrounding the new race experience.
“There were some juniors who you could see at the start of the day were pretty intimidated by the last part of the course, which was really steep and had some sharp slalom turns,” Hanneman explained. “It was definitely challenging their skill level. And by the end of the day, like they were coming through and just ripping, and they were having so much fun and you could tell they had gotten a lot better just in a couple hours.”
For those 12 and under and too young to compete on the full course, there was a “Kiddie Cross” course, which included banked turns, tabletops, a rhythm section, and a number of other terrain park features for kids to play on and session.
“The parents love it, right? Because the parents are just sitting there in the sun, watching their little kids just love cross country skiing.”
He commented that he had friends who had been trying to sell their child on cross country skiing but felt like it was a hard sell compared to downhill skiing. “They were like, ‘Oh, man, I’ve been trying to get her out on their cross country skis all year and they don’t want to go,’ and they brought him to this event and their kids were like on their on their cross country skis just doing laps up the hill 1000 times so they could go back and hit the jumps again. So for me, that right there is like the essence of this event.”
In reflecting on the event and its impact on the local cross country ski community, Hanneman felt it added “a shot of energy… I mean, there’s so many cool races out there, but this is just a little bit different. And I think it gets people excited.”
While the biggest air and most impressive skill was seen from the elite racers, Hanneman kept coming back to the youth participating in the event, highlighting that it really was his boyhood dream to see an event like this in Alaska.
“Something like this would have probably excited me for a whole year like knowing that it was coming. And I think the more people that we get excited about cross country skiing the better, because I think it can be a really fun sport, but, let’s be honest, sometimes it has this perception of being kind of slow and boring, and hard.”
He described it as the type of event that could nudge skiers with that perception to give it a try, opening their eyes to what’s possible and how fun the sport can be. While there are perhaps other locations in the US that might be a candidate to host, Hanneman also explained why Anchorage is an ideal location for NordicX.
“We have a huge ski market here, massive participation in high school skiing, and obviously a ridiculous number of elite-level racers here.”
On all accounts, the first year of NordicX was a success, which begs the question: what are the plans for next year?
“So many people came up and were like, ‘I can’t wait for next year.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, man, I don’t know.’ I haven’t necessarily committed, you know? This was a crazy undertaking.”
Since retiring from professional ski racing, Hanneman has been investing his time and energy in starting and serving as CEO for the PR agency, Ophira Group. He and his wife also welcomed a baby girl in March, 2021, and he’s remodeling their family home. He expressed that pulling off the inaugural event was already “pushing the limits” of what he should take on.
“I do want to say thank you to the team that we put together which includes Lauri Bassett (exec. administrator at Cross Country AK) and Rob Whitney, and the people at Hilltop, because without them, this absolutely would not have happened.”
As for next year, “people are too excited about it for it to not happen again.” And he wants to see it happen for a second year. To pull it off, he anticipates putting together a larger team to more evenly distribute the workload, “just so that we can all maintain a healthy NordicX-life balance.”
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