HOUGHTON, MICHIGAN: Welcome to FasterSkier’s on-location coverage of the United States National Cross-Country Ski Championships from Houghton, Michigan.
This week, Houghton hosts the U.S. National Cross-Country Championships on the Michigan Technological University’s trails system. Today’s event is the 20-kilometer classic mass start.
There were several questions to be answered at the beginning of the day: the women’s side has been dominated by Hailey Swirbul. Swirbul has won the two previous races, the 10-kilometer individual start skate, and the classic sprints. Would Swirbul be able to complete the three-peat by winning today’s long classic race, which would give her a first place in sprint, middle, and long distances?
The men’s results have been on the opposite side of the spectrum. There have been six different men standing on the podium so far. Would any man be able to claim a repeat podium position?
Finally, the weather was not a dominating factor as overnight temperatures were in the teens, with highs in the upper twenties. Unlike the night before the sprint races, the wax technicians could actually get some sleep. The men’s race started at 9:30 and by then conditions were beautiful. The sky was blue, the temperatures were in the mid-twenties, and the wind was calm; for January in the Keweenaw, it could be called unusual.
The classic course was a 5-kilometer loop with challenging corners and descents, and long very steep climbs.
In a thrilling women’s race, Hailey Swirbul (APU Nordic Ski Center) did pull off the three-peat by beating out Sydney Palmer-Leger (University of Utah), by four-tenths of a second. Novie McCabe finished third, less than 10 seconds out of second place.
For the men, Luke Jager (University of Utah) claimed another podium, finishing first. Two seconds behind him, in second, was distance phenom David Norris (Steamboat Springs Winter Sport), and in third was Zanden McMulllen (APU Nordic Ski Center).
Men’s 20 k Mass Start
The men’s competition took an unexpected turn when the lead pack was broken apart early on the second lap by a large crash. Jager told FasterSkier, “There was a big crash on the second lap, a few skiers went down, most notably Andreas [Kirkeng], and he had been hitting the pace the entire first lap. I was in front of Andreas, it was on a downhill, I was pulling out for the sharp turn, and he also did, we kind of clipped each other skis. You never want that…it’s a big bummer. Suddenly it was me and David [Norris] off the front. It really disrupted things.” Jager was able to adjust on the fly, and after the crash it was a group of four skiers until the end.
Andreas Kirkeng (University of Denver) told FasterSkier that after the fall he couldn’t close the gap.
“I broke a pole, and my binding popped off, so I had to stop on the downhill to put my binding back on. I was skiing with one pole for a while, it was unlucky”. Andreas Kirkeng
As the race wound down to the last few kilometers Norris pushed the paced. Jager told FasterSkier that, “Thankfully I had enough left in the tank to get a little bit of a gap in the last climb. If it came to a battle of just grinding as hard as we could, I knew I wasn’t going to win.”
The weather did affect tactics when it came down to ski choices. The favorable conditions allowed Jager to optimize his ski choice. “I picked a little bit of a softer ski,” he said. “It was a little easier to kick.”
The win was meaningful for Jager. “I’ve tried really hard to not be super specialized as not just a sprinter these last few years, to be able to be competitive in all the events,” he said. “To hold with those guys until the end was really rewarding.”
Women’s 20 k Mass Start
The women’s race came down to a thrilling duel between Swirbul and Palmer-Leger. Ultimately, Swirbul made an on-the-fly tactical choice which enabled her to inch out Palmer-Leger, winning the race by abandoning double poling at the finishing sprint and switching to diagonal stride. The tactical choice enabled her to beat out Palmer-Leger by about a boot length. Second place finisher Palmer-Leger, a junior at University of Utah, noted the difference in technique choice at the finish. “She was striding, I was double poling, it was hard to know what would be faster, right at the end I kind of switched into a run to see if that would work, but it didn’t.”
Swirbul said that the top three skiers stayed together for most of the race. “Novie, Sydney, and I became a pod at one point and skied a lot of the last half of the race together.”
Swirbul said that coming into the championships she knew that top results were a real possibility. “The beginning of my season has been going well,” she said. “But you never know. There are so many factors that play into it.” Commenting on the distance Swirbul said,. “20 k is really long. We’ve had [this distance] at nationals, but I don’t do that many of them.”
Going into the race, Palmer-Leger’s strategy was to not let the hills wear her down. “I paced it on the hills and tried sitting behind somebody, stay relaxed and focus on breathing,” she said. “A lot of time I get stressed, start to run and use up most of my upper body, so trying to stay relaxed [was important].” Palmer-Leger appreciated the Houghton course noting that, “It’s kind of fun to have something different. It keeps you on your toes when you kind of have to sprint from the start to get in a good lead, so you don’t crash in the corner. I made sure I was in a good spot [to avoid a crash].”
Ute junior, Novie McCabe, told FasterSkier that she tried to push the pace about two laps into the race. That’s when the race turned into a four-skier pack. “My plan was to go on the last lap on the first long hill and get a lead there,” she said. “It didn’t quite happen for me. I kept trying to go on all the hills, but they [Palmer-Leger and Swirbul] were too strong and they blew me away at the end. I was kind of hanging on a by a thread there for a while.” After the race week concludes, McCabe will focus on the U-23 championships in Whistler.
Houghton provided a beautiful day for a classic race, and the racing was equally spectacular.