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 was the Classic Sprints.
Weather again played an outsized role in today’s proceedings as temperatures hovered around freezing all night. The overnight forecast varied from freezing rain, to rain, to rain mixed with snow, to straight snow. During ski testing yesterday, the tracks had been firm but heavily glazed. The question for the race today was whether these conditions would change; and what—if anything—to do about it. Moist, at-freezing conditions presented head-scratching questions about kick wax preparation, or whether to not wax at all and go with Zeroes or a Zero-ski equivalent. Conditions were fast, but getting good kick would likely come at the sacrifice of speed. Since the course doesn’t require a lot of kick, racers could take the gamble of going very thin on kick wax and count on double poling and fast glide where it mattered most.
Conditions remained consistent overnight with temperatures hovering around freezing. The called-for precipitation never materialized, at least for the beginning of the qualifiers. But things would change once the heats began.
Racers ended up using a bit of everything for kick. Many opted for no kick wax, some using skate skis, double poling the course and using herringbone technique up the steep hill. Many others used Zero skis, and some opted for klister covered with hard wax. It appeared to be an even distribution of skiers using the three options in the qualifiers.
Just as important as waxing strategy would be on-ski strategy. MTU’s sprint course is interesting and presents unique challenges. Racers competed on a fast two-lap course which consists mostly of long gradual descents, two fast sharp turns, and one short, but extremely steep uphill. Navigating safely through the fast turns and maintaining positioning on the final hill would likely determine the race outcome. After completing the hill for the second time, it is a long gradual uphill sprint into the stadium. It would be extraordinarily difficult to make up ground if a skier was caught in traffic on the hill.
The first-place finisher for the men was Kristoffer Alm Kasrud (Northern Michigan University) of Norway. In second was Magnus Boee, also of Norway (University of Colorado), and in third place was Luke Jager (University of Utah). Rounding out the field were Will Koch 4th (University of Colorado), Zanden McMullen 5th (APU Nordic Ski Center), and Christopher Kalev 6th of Estonia (University of Alaska-Fairbanks).
The first-place finisher for the women was Hailey Swirbul (APU Nordic Ski Center). In second was Mariel Merlii Pulles of Estonia (University of Alaska-Fairbanks), and in third was Tilde Baangman of Sweden (University of Utah). Completing the field for the women was Sydney Palmer-Leger, 4th (University of Utah), Kendall Kramer 5th (University of Alaska-Fairbanks), and in sixth was Weronika Kaleta (University of Colorado).
In the interval between the qualifiers and the heats, Lake Superior decided that it would remind everyone that it was really in charge of everything, and the unpredictable Upper Peninsula weather took a turn for the worse. The winds picked up, gusting to almost 40 mph, and the snow started. This forced a reassessment of waxing for everyone. For those who had been without kick wax, a switch over was considered to take advantage of the falling snow. For those skiing on covered klister a change might be needed to prevent kick zone icing.
Men’s winner Karsrud, who lives about 40 minutes outside Lillehammer, told FasterSkier that he had started the day with a hard wax, but changed kick wax between the qualifiers and the heats.
But it wasn’t all about wax strategy for the men’s winner. He decided to ,“Take the first lap chill, and then at the last hill to be in the top two.” The MTU trails suited the Norwegian well. He told FasterSkier that he has been practicing a lot of technical skiing at home which helped on the tight corners. The victory wasn’t just an individual accomplishment for Kasrud. “The victory is really cool for the team, building up to this together, it means a lot.”
The top American in the men’s field, in third place, was US Ski Team member Luke Jager. Jager was happy to be back on American soil, though he expressed a bit of a “love-hate” relationship with the rugged Upper Peninsula. Jager told FasterSkier that the wind and the long finishing straight was a difficult combination. “I think everyone hates that,” he said. “So I’m not alone there.” Jager was one of the racers who used skate skis in qualifying and in the quarter-finals, but then changed for the semi-finals. The equipment in part dictated his strategy. “The strategy was you want to be in front the whole time,” he said,”Because you don’t want to be stuck in the mess doing some ‘janky’ herringbone on skate skis up the hill.” Once the conditions changed, Jager opted to go with hard wax just prior to the semi-finals and stuck with that setup into the finals. The equipment changes created an interesting tactical paradox for the American. He told FasterSkier that in the final there were at least two skiers on skate skis, so he had to take advantage of situations where he had it. In the semi’s and finals, he had an advantage on the hills on waxed skis. “It’s fun when [wax choice] is that close. Usually, it’s lights out, one or the other. People had success on both set ups.”
“The finish is such a grind that any accelerating you can do into it is a pretty advantageous. It was a real toss-up. If you get bogged down on the skate skis, you’re going to be really hurting”.
Jager noted other tradeoffs in equipment choices. He told FasterSkier that on skate skis with skate boots you could take the corners more aggressively. “I kind of left the door open a little bit on the corner.”
Jager was also willing to discuss his plans for the future. “I’m going to race our college races in Bozeman next week…I’m going to try and get a lot of racing in and then go to U-23 champs. That will be the focus for the next little bit. I’d still like to get a World Championship spot. Hopefully that works out.” He continued with a theme that so many other skiers have commented on: “I’m really happy to be here. It feels really great to be back in the U.S. My first couple of days here were euphoric, everyone’s so friendly.”
For women’s winner, Swirbul, it was the top spot on the podium for the second race in a row. Swirbul put her faith in confronting the tricky wax conditions in her team. “I don’t know what the coaches did,” she said. “But whatever they did, it was awesome.” Swirbul complemented the Houghton race course management team by praising changes to the sprint course. “They’ve done a really good job at adding the steep hill in,” she said. “The finish stretch is horrifically long and painful.” Swirbul’s strategy was to use her strengths to get to the front of the pack by the top of the big hill near the finish. “I was hoping to be out front as I’m not as strong of a double poler as some of my competitors are. I knew that in a drag race without a head start I wouldn’t have a chance.”
Second place finisher, UAF senior Pulles told FasterSkier that she was happy to be in second at the top of the hill. She had planned to draft Swirbul, but made her break too soon. “I think I came out at Hailey too early…the wind was coming from that direction, so maybe I should have stayed behind her a little longer.” Pulles told FasterSkier that her skis were set up with covered klister. She never considered going without kick wax.
For all the competitors, it was a combination of tactical and equipment choices which only a 32 degree day on classic skis can bring out. For some, it was regrets; for others, it was reveling in the right choice. For all the racers it was a reminder that when you’re skiing in the U.P., the only givens are that any conditions can occur, and that Lake Superior is really always in charge.