The NorAm series went to Duntroon, Ontario, for the Canadian Eastern Championships: three days of varied weather, new race formats, and new faces on the podium, all hosted by Highlands Trailblazers.
Easterns is possibly the most storied ski race in Canada. Most years, it is the largest FIS event in North America. This year, the Polar Vortex froze out the travel ambitions for many families and lower budgets in the post-Olympic season persuaded many western teams to stay home. Despite these challenges, over 450 athletes braved the difficult road conditions to hit the start line.
Easterns was ringing in the changes this year. This may be the first ever NorAm where the men and women skied the same distance on the same courses in every event. The two-day pursuit reappeared for the first time at this level since 2000.
The two-day pursuit format was introduced in 1988. Based on the Gunderson start in Nordic Combined, there was an interval start classic race on the first day and a free technique pursuit on the second, with medals awarded for both days, but no time-of-day points for the second.
In 2002, the two-day pursuit was replaced with the same-day pursuit, with no medals for the classic portion and a two hour break before the skate. Beckie Scott won all three medals in this event at the Salt Lake Olympics. In 2003, this was changed to ‘continuous pursuit’, sometimes referred to as ‘pursuit without a break’. The format name was quickly shortened to ‘pursuit’, which confused people until 2011 when FIS acquired rights to the name ‘skiathlon’, allowing ‘pursuit’ to be used for the final day of a mini-tour. CCC wrote a history in 2011 to celebrate the new name.
In the summer of 2018, FIS dropped the skiathlon format, which brings us back to a format that most of the athletes racing today will not remember.
The weather also came out to play: -18 Celcius (C) and windy for official training, -12 C and sunny for the sprint heats, -9 C and 37 km/h winds for Saturday’s classic, and +3 C and freezing drizzle and rain for Sunday’s pursuit.
Photo gallery: Bob Smithson
Women’s A final: Zoë Williams (Nakkertok), Laura Leclair (CNEPH), Mia Serratore (Big Thunder), Annika Richardson (TBay), Katie Weaver (Rocky Mountain Racers), Hannah Shields (Nakkertok)
Men’s A final: Julien Locke (CNST), Dominique Moncion-Groulx (Team R.A.D.), Antoine Briand (CNEPH), Andy Shields (Lappe), Étienne Hébert (AWCA), Angus Foster (TBay).
There are no official results or times for the sprints.
Friday started cold and sunny for the 1.5km classic sprints, a welcome relief after cold and windy weather on the official training day.
“After two small running hills at the beginning, the remainder was all double pole,” Julien Locke (CNST) wrote. “While the course was not as demanding as I would have liked, it was a good opportunity to use the upper body strength.”
The course worked well for Locke, as he won the qualifier by over 4 seconds.
Zoe Williams (Nakkertok) won her first career NorAm, two weeks after her first podium and narrowly missing the selection for World Championships.
“Today was very surprising,” she wrote to FasterSkier. “When I skied the course yesterday I wasn’t a huge fan and I didn’t think it played to any of my strengths. My qualifier was really messy but I pulled it together in the heats and felt I was able to get faster as the day went on!”
The women’s A final was chaotic. Each of the three women on the podium had their own view of the action.
“I talked to my coach (Kieran Jones) before the A final and our plan was to stay relaxed in the first half of the course, pick it up in the second half and push it into the finish. It worked out almost perfectly; I got caught up in a fall on the main uphill and lost contact with the leaders but was able to fight back in the second half of the course with Laura and Annika and as everyone jostled for the inside line into the finish I just picked the outside lane and hammered.” — Williams
“Honestly the A final was pretty bad. It was a cool race because everyone in the A final could race but I think we were all a little too excited (or tired). There were a lot of tangles and falls so no tactics there.” — Laura Leclair
“Tactics were pretty important in the final. I started out hard to get out in front to stay out of trouble on the downhill. Managed to make a gap but lost it in the final straight. It was really important to be strong with the double pole at the end.” — Mia Serratore
It was Serratore’s first NorAm podium.
The men followed with tactics that emphasized staying out of trouble.
“Briand set a strong pace in the first 400m up Honey and Sugar Shack hills. I followed him out to the Biathlon range and then hopped in front for the fast/icy turn. From there, I lead up the gradual Chicken Coop climb, through the twists around the wax rooms and to the line.” — Locke
“The final started fast with Antoine putting the pace in front. I think the top three skiers (Antoine, Julien and I) had a little gap after the climbing section of the course. Julien accelerated to pass Antoine before the fast downhill, I stayed in 3rd behind them. I took the inside on the 90 degree corner at the bottom of the downhill and move up to 2nd place. Following the downhill, like in the semi-final Julien put the hammer down double poling on the gradual climb and I was the only skier that managed to stick right behind him. I tried to change tracks and pass him on the last stretch but I could not find enough speed to overtake him.” — Dominique Moncion-Groulx
“I went all out from the gun and Julien took over at mid point. No real tactics from there on to be honest it was full gas racing.” —Antoine Briand
Some of the athletes were feeling the effects of racing the US SuperTour after the Bishop’s University NorAms.
“I had a dynamic first half of the qualifier but felt slow and I did not ski the second half well. I had good energy, change of gears and I felt solid through all the rounds. I’m happy with my speed in the heats and with a good final result. For a 3rd weekend of racing in a row, it’s fun to still feel energetic.” — Moncion-Groulx
“Coming back from a big win in Lake Placid at the US Super Tour last weekend, I was feeling confident for another classic sprint. Had a good qualification with the second best time and being on the podium at the end of the day is always satisfying.” — Briand
Interval Start Classic
Saturday brought in wind and warmer weather for the 10km classic race. The 5km loop had two main uphills immediately followed by downhills.
Williams said pacing mattered because “with only 4 main hills, lots of good rest, and a ton of double pole you had to keep pushing everywhere.”
Williams got her second win of the weekend in 35:46.09 minutes. “Super happy with it: stuck to my plan and had fun chasing people down. Mia started ahead of me and we skied the 2nd lap together which was awesome.”
Serratore finished second, 37.82 seconds back. Leclair didn’t get the benefit of timely splits or good rides, but was able to grab third at 1:18.40, just 0.18 seconds ahead of Annika Richardson.
“Because I was second to start, I was alone the whole race and didn’t see anyone,” Leclair wrote. “That was pretty hard because I didn’t know how fast the girls behind me were going. I had no bunny or rabbit. Anyway, the conditions and skis were good and it was an overall good race.”
Among the men, Alexis Dumas (CNEPH) came the closest to even splits, crossing the line in 30:04.8 for the win.
“I was able to ski really hard in the second lap and that’s where I made the difference. Also, my skis were super good. My wax tech and my coach did a great job today.” — Dumas
Shields was second, 16.67 back, after an error in the unofficial results was corrected.
“I felt flat racing today. Yesterday was a long day with the classic sprints and awards being late in the day so I was carrying fatigue,” Shields wrote. “In today’s race, I knew I didn’t have a great one but was surprised to see how far back I was when the initial set of results came out showing me in 7th place – almost a minute from the win.”
Boucher was happy with his third place, 21.57 seconds back.
“I think my skis and pacing played a lot in the outcome of the race. I decided to sacrifice some kick to have a better glide on the flat sections. Turns out it was the good call for me. I’m a little disappointed that I lost nearly 15 seconds on the leader in the last lap.” — Boucher
Sunday brought freezing drizzle replaced by rain which resulted in significant challenges in picking the right skis for the changing conditions. The start times for the skate pursuit are based on time back in Saturday’s classic race, with no bonuses awarded.
Leclair took her first senior NorAm win, starting third at 46 seconds back.
“My tactics for today were pretty simple,” Leclair wrote. “I wanted to start fast and catch the two girls in front of me. I put my head down, climbed and went hunting.”
“I felt super good and skis were wicked fast. After missing the first step of the podium on the two last races, it is nice to finish on the top.”
Saturday’s winner Williams started first and hung on for second. “Today was tough; didn’t have much left in me physically or mentally and it made the 15km a bit of a suffer fest.”
Annika Richardson moved up to third. “I was pretty hungry for a podium after being 4th the past two days. I have done 13 races in the past month so have felt like I have been running on empty for a little while,” Richardson wrote. “But, I really love skate distance races so was able to give it everything I had left.”
“I started with Laura Leclair who is an amazing skate distance skier. I stuck behind her until the first long downhill but she had really, really fast skis so I wasn’t able to stick with her for the rest of the race (though my skis were quite good) but managed to catch Mia Serratore by the end of the South 3.75 loop on the first lap.”
Jack Carlyle earned his first senior NorAm win as well, as the top four men neatly reversed their start order at the finish.
“Sunday was a great day,” Carlyle wrote. “Had some good jam in the legs and was able to push hard.”
“On the first lap the first four starters (Phil Boucher, Andy Shields, Alexis Dumas and I) came together as a pack, and we skied together for most of the race,” Carlyle wrote. “We took turns taking the lead throughout the race, and on the last lap I attacked with 3km’s to go and that’s when the pack broke up.”
Boucher started slowly in a strategy that earned him second place. “I decided to start easy on the first km. When I got dropped I decided to stay calm and kept skiing at my pace. When I rejoined the lead pack, I think I had more energy left than the other guys. I had awesome skis and that played a good role at being able to save energy. Jack attacked with 3.5km left, I stayed in his skis in the long hill. Only the two of us survived the attack. I died a few meters after the top. That’s how Jack got away with the win.”
Shields was still tired after two top tens and a third at the SuperTour the previous weekend, but felt better than Saturday. “Different weather today for sure. Ski selection was critical and was the main factor in determining who finished in what place – for the top 4 anyway. I felt ok with my race but my skis weren’t quick enough to complete. The wax was fine, just my ski fleet has a weak link in today’s conditions.”
None of the athletes commented on gender equality, but there were lots of opinions on what was, for most, their first two-day pursuit.
“I love skiathlons, but understand they’re tough from an organizational perspective. Pursuits are fun and a pretty good replacement, but I’m also a big fan of a good mass start; the problem with pursuits is things can sometimes get so spread out that it almost turns into another interval start the 2nd day.” — Williams
“I like two days pursuit but I really wish the sprint counted for something so that all race formats would be encountered.” — Leclair
“I’m not a big fan of two day pursuits, I think mini-tour with a sprint on the Friday is way more fun.
I’m missing skiathlon. It was a race I enjoyed and I don’t understand why we don’t race it anymore.” — Briand
“Pursuit starts are some of my favorite races. You often end up in a unique race situation and there’s all kinds of strategic options to play with. Lots of fun!” — Shields
“I really like racing, so I don’t mind. Skiathlon was a fun race but pursuits are fun too.” — Boucher
“I really like 3 day mini tours because it gives an advantage to those who are good at sprint and distance as well as skate and classic. I am not a huge fan of skiathlons, I find they tend to come down to the best skate skiers and I would definitely rather just do a skate mass start which are really fun.” — Richardson
“Love all racing formats, don’t have a favourite to be honest.” — Carlyle
“My favourite moment was seeing my coach Camille holding out a coke feed at 3.75km to go, I really needed the boost of energy.” — Richardson was happiest on Sunday, and not just for her first podium.
“On the non-racing focused side, hanging out with the CNEPH crew! They gave me great race support, super fast times, and are a super fun team to be around. Taking a detour to Parkdale in Toronto before my flight with Reed Godfrey was pretty fun too.” — Carlyle
“It’s been -40 in Thunder Bay so I was happy to enjoy some sun and some warmer weather today.” –Serratore, on Friday’s -12 weather.
“Without a doubt the sprint final. It was such an exciting race and tons of fun. However, I also really enjoyed watching my teammates (especially my sister!!) crush it on the race course; I’ve had a number of teammates coming back from concussions and it was just so wonderful to be back on the start line with them!!” — Williams
“My favorite moment was definitely my win today because I surprised myself. I am happy with the sprint final as well.” — Leclair, who likes surprises.
“I liked the pursuit. We don’t get to do this very often so it’s always fun to race something different.” — Boucher
“It was a surprisingly beautiful day up at Highlands today. After being greeted by howling winds and -18, today’s sunny -12 was a treat to race in.” — Locke