VERNON, B.C. — Another cold one at Sovereign Lake kept the organizers and athletes scrambling in temperatures around -20 degrees Celsius, but the end result was an exciting day of racing at the first NorAm of the season.
In the men’s 15-kilometre freestyle individual start on Saturday, American Brian Gregg (Madshus/Team Gregg) rose to the top in 41:03.3 minutes, edging out compatriot and friend Matt Liebsch (XC United/Team StrongHeart) by 3.3 seconds, and Canadian Senior Development Team (NST) member Graham Nishikawa in third (+4.5).
Coming off a SuperTour podium in West Yellowstone, Mont., last weekend, Gregg said he was very happy with his pacing plan that allowed him to move up from third his last time around the 5 k loop.
“I tried to stay really controlled, and focussed on making each lap maybe a little bit faster,” Gregg said. “Each lap got a lot harder. It was a good strategy.”
Gregg did a solo time trial on the same course two weeks earlier, and said that experience translated to success on Saturday. After the race, he and Liebsch planned to fly back to Montana to race the second SuperTour distance race of the season — a 15 k classic — in Bozeman on Sunday.
Liebsch was pleased with his result, racking it up as another step towards his season goals.
“There is a 30 k skate [at U.S. nationals] that I want to ski very well and prove that I should be on the Olympic squad and start that 50 k skate in Sochi,” he said.
Nishikawa was satisfied with his day, explaining: “The name of the game today was just staying warm and getting through it alive.”
Asked about his expectations for the weekend, Nishikawa said, “I am just here to race and get into top race shape.” After training with the Canadian Para-Nordic Team throughout the offseason as a potential guide for the Paralympics, his target is on both the Olympics and Paralympics in Sochi, Russia.
Patrick Stewart-Jones of the Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA) took fourth to lead the U23’s, ahead of Kevin Sandau (AWCA/NST) in fifth.
Heidi Widmer (AWCA/NST) led the way for the women, winning the 10 k in 33:14.7.
“Today was a great start to the season,” she wrote in an email. “Even though the weather wasn’t the warmest, it was such a beautiful day on the trails.”
A couple of Ninjas infiltrated the podium, led by Team Ninja’s founding member Amanda Ammar in second (+26.3). One of Ammar’s teammates and training partners in Canmore, Alberta, Zoe Roy place third another 13.2 seconds back. Racing in their ninja suits, Ammar and Roy snuck ahead of perennial favorites Brittany Webster (Highlands) in fourth and Emily Nishikawa (AWCA/NST) in fifth.
“[Usually] I struggle with skating,” Ammar said. “I think that is one of my best skate results in a NorAm.”
Roy was pleased with third, describing her result as “a step in the right direction.”
The unusually cold weather created challenges for race organizers. The jury announced on Friday that the start would be delayed to 11 a.m. PST. When the volunteer crew finished setting up the stadium and course at 9 a.m., the temperature was still -22 Celsius. The jury then decided to cancel the races for younger groups and start the open categories at noon, which resulted in a race at -18 C.
The younger racers’ distance races were rescheduled for Sunday, between the open sprint qualifiers and heats. Sunday’s start was delayed to 10 a.m.
Many of the racers were not fazed by the cold, but others were visibly affected. What do skiers like the Nishikawas and Graeme Killick have in common, besides a certain resemblance to popsicles at the finish line? All were born in cold communities (i.e. the Yukon, northern Alberta), but have lived in more termperate areas for a number of years.