Note: This article has been updated to include comments from Simi Hamilton of the U.S. Ski Team (USST) and Stratton Mountain School (SMS) T2 Team, and Kevin Bolger of the USST and Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation.
It’s that time of year again where several members of the U.S. Ski Team, along with top-level skiers from the Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP) and Stratton Mountain School (SMS) T2 Team are training at the Snow Farm above the town of Wanaka, New Zealand.
The on-snow volume camp, which featured multiple days of racing, started Aug. 20 and continues through Sept. 10, and includes U.S. Ski Team (USST) athletes Jessie Diggins, Ida Sargent, Sophie Caldwell, Katharine Ogden, Julia Kern, Simi Hamilton, Kevin Bolger, and Paddy Caldwell, and coaches Matt Whitcomb, Jason Cork and Gus Kaeding.
According to Sophie Caldwell, conditions have been “amazing” for the duration of camp so far. “New Zealand had a great snow year and we’ve been lucky to have sunny days almost every day,” she wrote in an email to FasterSkier.
Diggins called it the annual trip one of her “all-time favorite camps because the living at the Snow Farm is great, the food is outstanding, and you can step out the door right onto the 65+ km of trails!” she wrote in an email.
“I love having the chance to work on my on-snow technique for three solid weeks because that’s when I get to really see progress and make some changes in my striding,” Diggins wrote.
Apart from logging kilometers on snow and soaking up the vitamin D, the team has also spent time trail running in Wanaka.
“The highlight [of the camp] will probably be a crust cruise we go on in the next few days, but since we haven’t done that yet, some highlights so far are an awesome distance run down in Wanaka, and pretty much every day of bluebird skiing we’ve had up here!” Caldwell wrote.
The camp also coincided with the Merino Muster, a 42 k freestyle marathon that is part of the Worldloppet series, and the Winter Games NZ, which doubled as the Australia/New Zealand Cup FIS races and included three days of nordic racing this year at the Snow Farm: a 5/10 k freestyle individual start, a freestyle sprint, and a 10/15 k classic mass start..
Defending their 2017 Merino Muster titles last Saturday, Sept. 1, were two SMST2 and USST members, Diggins and Hamilton.
Diggins finished a minute and 21 seconds faster than the second-place woman, Aurelie Dabudyk of France, while Hamilton edged Craftsbury skier Adam Martin by 3 seconds for the overall win.
“The day of the Merino Muster was gorgeous and sunny, with fast conditions,” Diggins wrote. “I loved getting the chance to race a long race, and starting with the men as one big field is really exciting! I hope to get to race the 42km race every year. Huge thanks to the volunteers and organizers for making it such a fun day.”
Crossing the finish line in 1:52:34 hours, Diggins placed sixth overall. Dabudyk was eighth overall and Alayna Sonnesyn (SMST2) was the third woman, 11th overall, 5:30 behind Diggins.
Meanwhile, Hamilton finished in 1:39:46, beating his time of 1:40:33 from last year’s race. Martin followed 3 seconds later, while Kyle Bratrud (SMST2) finished 24 seconds after from Hamilton in third, followed by Tomoka Satou of Japan in fourth (+45.0).
“The Merino Muster is always an awesome race,” Hamilton wrote in an email. “It actually lends itself to the type of intensity we are still mostly focused on in August/late September because the terrain and snow conditions usually make for a really good chance to get in about 1.5 hours of level 3 effort followed by a few minutes of really hard skiing in the last km before the finish. It’s a very rolling course and if you ski it in a pack with people switching leads it’s basically impossible to go much harder than level 3.”
Also on Saturday, Americans also took the top spots in the 21 k Snow Rake. Ben Saxton (SMST2) ran away with the overall win by more than 12 minutes in 47:48, while Paralympic sit skier Dan Cnossen placed second (+1:12:13) nine seconds ahead of Petr Sykora of the Czech Republic in third (+1:12:22).
Ogden was the fastest woman and second overall with a time of 50:29. Her SMS and USST teammate Kern finished 56 seconds later as the second woman, and Elizabeth Martin of the University of New Hampshire (UNH) followed in third, 7 minutes and 30 seconds behind Ogden.
With about 300 participants between three different races at the Merino Muster, Hamilton described the atmosphere as “super fun and light.”
“But the grooming always rocks and it’s just a really fun course to ski,” he added. “I think that in this day and age of social media being so huge and cross-country skiing gaining more attention in the US and world-wide, we’ll start to see more and more people showing up for the marathon. I feel like in the last few years alone their has been noticeably more attention and attendance each year. The quality of skiing is a small part of the race atmosphere here… New Zealand’s south island is one of the most beautiful parts of the world and the culture is so welcoming and comfortable.”
Many of the American skiers in New Zealand also competed in the Winter Games NZ races this week.
“The New Zealand Winter Games are also a huge opportunity to get back into racing mode and test out all the technique work we’ve been putting in so far!” Diggins wrote. “And if you know me, you know how much I adore 5km individual skate races, and we no longer get to do those on the World Cup. So I’m so grateful to the Snow Farm and race organizers for keeping such a fun and hard, fast race alive! I forgot how much it can hurt to go so hard for 5km, but it was fun to really get that lung burn back for the first time since last winter.”
Three days after her marathon win, Diggins won the 5 k skate at the Snow Farm in 15:02.6. The U.S. swept the top five with Sophie Caldwell finishing 10.5 seconds back in second place, Caitlin Patterson (CGRP) in third (+16.7), Sargent (USST/CGRP) in fourth (+1:02.6), and Kelsey Phinney (SMST2) in fifth (+1:16.6) out of eight women.
In the men’s 10 k skate on Tuesday, Bratrud took the win in 27:48.1, 21 seconds clear of Kaichi Naruse of Japan in second, while Craftsbury’s Ben Lustgarten and Martin (CGRP) followed in fourth (+23.0) and fifth (+44.0), respectively. Eight men competed.
Wednesday featured 1.1 k skate sprints, which saw Sophie Caldwell take the win in a field of 10 women, ahead of Sargent in second and Phinney in third.
“The sprint was a short and tactical race that was awesome practice for what’s to come this winter,” Caldwell wrote. “It was really fun toeing the line with my USST and SMS training partners. On one hand, that final could have been any day of summer training, but it also could be a World Cup heat! It’s pretty cool to be pushed by so many strong training partners and friends and we were psyched to throw on a bib and put in a race effort.”
In the men’s final, Bolger landed the top spot on the podium, ahead of Saxton in second and Satou in third. Eleven men competed in the sprint.
“I really enjoy these early session races it gives us as races a chance to get in the mindset and practice real race strategy,” Bolger wrote in an email. “I wanted to go out there test myself, I approached every round like a final and attacked from the start getting out in front and leading into the finish, and was very happy to end the day on top, especially after a long camp down here with the US crew.
“… Coming down here and having a good result in the sprint is of course a huge confidence booster heading into the September/ October training months, but there is still a ton of preparation to be done,” he added.
On the final day of Winter Games NZ racing, Diggins continued her undefeated streak (after skipping the sprint), winning the 10 k classic mass start, while Patterson placed second and Sargent placed third. Saxton picked up his second win of the week, while Martin took second and Lustgarten third.
Complete results will be posted once they’re available.
“We have been incredibly lucky with weather and conditions this year,” Hamilton noted. “Usually, when you’re here at the Snow Farm for 3 weeks in the winter, you’re bound to get an extended period of really nasty weather and wind. But this year we’ve basically had sunshine and cold night time temps every single day, making for amazing skiing for pretty much 3 weeks straight. There is about 40-50 km of trails to ski when everything is groomed, so it’s essentially impossible to get bored. The highlight of our camp every year is a big crust ski up to and around Mt. Pisa. We are planning on getting out tomorrow [Friday, Sept. 7] because the crust hasn’t been great yet while we’ve been here, but conditions for tomorrow look promising. But even when we can’t get out for a huge adventure like that, it’s just one of the best and most fun places in the world to train.”
Sept. 1: 42 k Merino Muster /21 k Snow Rake
Winter Games NZ