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GOVERNMENT PEAK RECREATION AREA, outside Palmer, Alaska — On a day that had a decidedly old school feel, one of the state’s newest racing venues took center stage, as Government Peak Recreation Area successfully hosted the opening Besh Cup races of the 2018/2019 Junior Nationals qualifying series this past weekend on less than a week’s notice.
Saturday morning saw U18 boys and up cover 15 kilometers, on a hilly two-lap course; U18 girls and up raced 10 k, on an even hillier two-lap course. It was classic technique, it was interval start, it was cold, and the trees were draped with fresh snow. It felt like a World Cup race circa 1990.
The comparison isn’t totally bathetic, given the overall leaderboards for Saturday’s races: Rosie Frankowski, Hailey Swirbul, and Kendall Kramer for the women, and Gus Schumacher, Luke Jager, and Hunter Wonders for the men. That’s an Olympian and a three-time World Juniors medalist for the women, and three-fourths of this spring’s breakthrough World Juniors silver medal relay team for the men. Oh, plus the 16-year-old Kramer, who was third in the junior women’s 5 k classic mass start at 2018 U.S. Cross Country Championships and who may have a pretty bright future in this sport herself.
Saturday: distance classic races
Male racers set out at 11 a.m. Saturday morning from the compact stadium at Government Peak Recreation Area (GPRA), a labor of love by the Mat-Su Ski Club and the Palmer and Wasilla ski community over the past ten years. They headed out on a course that is a poor man’s Davos distance course, with consistent climbs and V2-able false flats for the first two-thirds of the loop, giving way to a working downhill and a sharp drop back to the stadium. Or to just below the stadium, actually; the course ends with a grueling B-climb immediately before the finish (see next picture, below right). The obvious challenge is to pace the uphills easily enough the first time to ski the downhills and flats efficiently, then do the same thing a second time in lap
After roughly 80 racers had covered two 7.5 k laps in the day’s first race, leaving the stadium at 30-second intervals, it was Schumacher who had done this most efficiently, covering 15 k in 43:23.11. Jager (+12.36) and Wonders (+26.53) made up the overall podium. The top three senior athletes were Wonders, Logan Hanneman (fourth overall), and Tyler Kornfield (fifth).
The top three U20 racers on the day were Schumacher, Jager, and Ti Donaldson, who was seventh overall. Leading the U18 racers were Zanden McMullen (15th overall), Everett Cason (16th), and Max Germain (19th). 50-year-old Adam Verrier, a 1994 Olympian, was the top Master in 47th. Behind Schumacher, who skis for Alaska Winter Stars, in first, Alaska Pacific University (APU) showed its depth by putting six skiers in the top 10 and 10 in the top 16.
The day’s second race saw 43 women, age U18 and up, take on two laps of the Davos-lite 5 k course described above. Two laps of 5 k at Government Peak is in many ways harder than two laps of 7.5 k, as the longer course adds 2.5 kilometers of gently rolling terrain near the end of the homologated (or perhaps homologation-pending) 5 k course. The 5 k course has no such recovery intermezzo, and the final climb of the first lap segues into the first climb of the second lap for a difficult extended climb with negligible recovery.
After two laps and 10 k classic, the day’s last starter, Rosie Frankowski, posted the fastest time, finishing in 32:28.01. (While snow conditions are obviously extremely variable from one venue and race to the next, making time comparisons unreliable, and Frankowski did not have World Cup skiers in front of her to chase on Saturday, the fact that Frankowski has previously skied a World Cup 10 k classic in 27:44, on a homologated course in Falun with 365 meters of total climb, suggests that the new Government Peak comp loop deserves respect.)
Frankowski’s APU teammate, Hailey Swirbul, was second on Saturday, 22.39 seconds back. Kramer (+1:42.15) was third, ahead of a top-10 otherwise composed of skiers from the University of Alaska Anchorage and local Dartmouth College skiers home for winter break.
The top three senior athletes were Frankowski, Swirbul, and Lydia Blanchet, who was fourth overall. The U20 podium was Jenna Difolco (seventh overall), Molly Gellert (17th), and Maggie Meeds (23rd). Somewhat ahead of them were the three fastest U18 skiers: Kramer, Adrianna Proffitt (11th), and Ivy Eski (14th). M4 skier Alison Arians, in 18th, was the top Master.
Next out on the course were 51 U14 and U16 boys, who did a single lap of the comp loop. U16 skier Aaron Maves, like Frankowski before him, lived up to his top seeding, finishing one lap in 16:35.99. Second and third went to Konrad Renner (+18.99) and Eli Merrill (+36.83), also both U16 athletes. The top U14 skiers in this race were Skyler Amy (22nd overall), Murphy Kimball (23rd), and Aven Elsberg (26th).
Moments later came the start for the first of 49 U14 and U16 girls, as organizers efficiently put roughly 250 total athletes out on course at a venue that is a one-hour drive from Anchorage and sees a mid-December sunrise some time after 10 a.m. U14/U16 girls likewise did one lap of the 5 k comp loop.
Quincy Donley had the highest seed and final start position for this race, but 5 k later it was penultimate starter Marit Flora who took the victory. Flora finished in 18:23.47. Donley was 22.78 seconds back in second. Meredith Schwartz (+48.59) was third.
All three podium finishers were U16 girls. The top three U14 finishers in the race were Heidi Schumacher (12th overall), Sammy Legate (15th), and Zarah Laker-Morris (24th).
Sunday: distance freestyle races
After the U12, U10, and U08 skiers finished up the first day’s races, and the afternoon’s sunset time of 3:33 p.m. threatened, volunteers took down the course, coaches packed up waxing equipment, and tired racers began the trek back to Anchorage homes or Mat-Su hotel rooms. The first volunteers were officially on site by 7:30 a.m. Sunday morning to assist with parking, although doubtless some people had returned to the venue by long before then.
Day two of racing brought some differences – freestyle instead of classic, shorter distances, and slightly warmer temperatures – but more repeat podium finishers than not across the day’s races.
The first division on course was again U18 boys/U20/Seniors/Masters men, this time with 78 starters going out at 15 seconds apart. Sunday’s skate race was 10 k freestyle interval start, twice around the 5 k comp loop (precisely the same as the senior women’s 10 k classic the day before). The top three overall were unchanged from Saturday’s 15 k classic: Gus Schumacher, then Jager, then Wonders, the World Juniors silver-medal relay team united once more. Schumacher’s time on Sunday was 26:17.07. Jager (+15.56) and Wonders (+42.74) were the only other two athletes to break 27 minutes on the hilly course.
The U20 leaders on Sunday were again Schumacher, Jager, and Donaldson, who was fourth overall. The senior podium was Wonders (third overall), Thomas O’Harra (fifth), and Forrest Mahlen (sixth). Best times for U18 skiers went to McMullen (seventh), Cason (11th), and Germain (16th), precisely the same U18 podium as in the 15 k classic. Much as on Saturday, behind Alaska Winter Stars skier Schumacher in first, APU placed seven athletes in the top 10.
The first Master, among eight Masters finishers on Sunday, was M1 skier Cody Priest, 30, a former skier and runner at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, in 25th overall.
Soon after the last of the Senior men collapsed across the finish line, the first of the U16 boys headed out for one lap of the 5 k course. (All races on both days were interval-start.) First on Sunday was Renner (15:21.27), improving on his second-place finish from the day before. Josh Baurick (+9.17) was second, with Maves (+17.20) staying on the podium but moving down to third after his victory on Saturday.
Next up were 43 U18 girls/U20/Seniors/Masters women. Neither Frankowski nor Swirbul raced on Sunday, but their APU teammate Jessica Yeaton, who skis domestically with APU but competes internationally for her native Australia, did after not racing on Saturday. Yeaton was seeded third in the 5 k skate but ended up first, covering one 5 k lap in 14:47.25. Kramer (+26.15) moved up to second overall on Sunday, with Emma Tarbath (+46.32) third, barely a second ahead of Lydia Blanchet in fourth. Anna Darnell was the fifth and final woman to break 16 minutes on the hilly course.
The senior women’s podium was Yeaton, Tarbath, and Blanchet. The top three U20 finishers were Jenna Difolco (seventh overall), Molly Gellert (ninth), and Emma Jerome (21st). The top three U18 finishers were, again, Kramer (also second overall), then Ivy Eski in eleventh overall, barely ahead of Annika Hanestad in twelfth. Arians (15th) was again the first Master.
U14 boys were the next race out on the course. Sunday brought a 3.75 k skate, on a course that covered most of the 5 k comp loop used throughout the weekend, but elided one major climb and the only rolling section from the top part of the course. The technique and the distance were different, but the U14 podium was precisely the same as on Saturday: Amy (13:29.76), then Kimball (+2.05), then Elsberg (+7.19).
Finally, U14 and U16 girls headed out on the same 3.75 k loop. Marit Flora took her second victory of the weekend by a substantial margin, finishing in 12:13.98. Katey Houser (+30.59) and Victoria Bassette (+32.64) collected their first podia of the weekend.
The overall podium was again all U16 racers. The U14 leaders were Legate (tenth overall), Heidi Schumacher (16th), and Nora Hulse (24th).
Reflecting the depth of skiing in southcentral Alaska, the roughly 250 entrants for the weekend’s races included a healthy six former Olympians (Rosie Frankowski, Logan Hanneman, Tyler Kornfield, Adam Verrier, Casey Wright, and Jess Yeaton) and four World Juniors medalists (Gus Schumacher, Luke Jager, Hailey Swirbul, and Hunter Wonders), as well as additional senior national championship podium finishers, most of the rest of the APU Elite Team, a dozen or more NCAA skiers, and scads of past Team Alaska Junior National members.
Both races were FIS races, as well as certified for National Rankings List purposes by U.S. Ski & Snowboard. FasterSkier unofficially calculates the USSA penalty at a healthy 41.99 points for the men’s distance races.
Thoughts on the weekend
Two common themes emerged after talking with a handful of the weekend’s podium finishers: One, these races are a good introduction to the season and to bigger races still ahead. And two, the new Government Peak courses are great. But hard.
As two-time U18 champion Zanden McMullen told FasterSkier Sunday afternoon, “Yesterday I was definitely hurting in the race, but I was proud to come out on top. I definitely felt a lot better today. I’m pretty happy going into the season, where I am; I still have a little work to do before Senior Nationals, but I’m super excited.”
Two-time overall champion Gus Schumacher expressed similar sentiments, telling FasterSkier, “I wanted to use [these races] to get into racing more, and get some more races under my belt, so I felt better at the bigger races. But obviously, to get into good racing shape, you want to be trying to race as best you can, so that was kind of the goal, to be able to start getting my racing speed to its top level.”
Schumacher, who is undefeated in five local races this year, including the Race to the Outhouse #1 hill climb at Hatcher Pass the preceding weekend and a sprint and distance race in Fairbanks in the Alaska Nordic Cup in early December, described his current shape as “pretty good.” He elaborated that he plans to add some more intensity soon, but thinks that he is “coming into my race form, and it looks pretty good. Good to have these fast boys around me to push me every day.”
Schumacher plans to do some trials with Alaska Winter Stars, possibly collaborating with APU, before flying to Craftsbury on December 29th for senior nationals.
Two-time U18 champion (and double overall podium finisher) Kendall Kramer sounded similar notes, but was somewhat more introspective when asked what her weekend results told her about her current fitness and the upcoming race season.
“I got invited to a lot of national camps this summer,” Kramer said to FasterSkier, “and I think being exposed to so many different training groups and training styles – I really diversified how I trained this year, and so I’m happy that it’s working out for me. It’s less stressful, and I’m putting less pressure on myself.”
Kramer, who had never previously raced at Government Peak, described the new courses as “really, really tough.” She seemed to recognize that the course profile was advantageous to her, while stopping short of actually saying that she had enjoyed them when asked if she had liked the courses: “I mean, yes, being super small and light and getting up hills – I wouldn’t pick this venue, necessarily. But I think it was good for me.”
Ivy Eski, who claimed a pair of U18 podium finishes on the weekend, was more effusive.
“I love it,” she told FasterSkier. “It was really fun. I definitely want to race here again. The courses are amazing.”
Eski also praised the “really good snow and super good grooming,” calling it “overall really a great weekend.”
And McMullen, who had also never raced at this venue, similarly said of the new courses, “They’re tough, but I like them. You definitely have to be on top of it to be able to push it and go fast.”
Are they as hard as a nationals course? he was asked. “I definitely think they could be,” said McMullen, who has raced throughout the U.S. as well as in Finland. “Because if you don’t ski it correctly, you could be hurting.”
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The overall success of the weekend is noteworthy only in light of two facts: That the Mat-Su Ski Club had never hosted an event at this level before, and that it did so on less than a week’s notice, as poor trail conditions throughout southcentral Alaska forced governing body Cross Country Alaska (CCAK) to have a series of competition committee meetings and teleconferences during the week of December 3 to decide where in the state to send 250 athletes and their parents for a weekend of racing. (Anchorage and Fairbanks are a six-hour drive apart, nearly the twice amount of daylight in Fairbanks in mid-December; the decision to move a race weekend is not made lightly.)
On Sunday evening, December 9, CCAK announced the decision of the Competition Committee to have the opening Besh Cup weekend at the Government Peak ski trails. Six days later, skiers were pouring into the carefully managed, not-really-large-enough parking lot for the weekend’s first race, with overflow parking stretching hundreds of yards down one side of the access road. Notwithstanding the venue’s youth and the Mat-Su Ski Club’s relative inexperience, all races on both days appear to have gone flawlessly. (Full disclosure, this reporter contributes money to Mat-Su Ski Club for grooming each year, but was not otherwise involved in organizing or supporting these races save for paying an entry fee for both days to race as a Masters athlete.)
The Mat-Su Ski Club, which pulled off two days of impeccable grooming without the aid of large-scale grooming equipment, is currently fundraising for the purchase of a PistenBully groomer.
Besh Cup racing for Team Alaska selection continues with two more weekends of racing, currently scheduled for Soldotna on January 19-20, 2019, and Fairbanks on February 2-3. There are traditionally two interval-start distance races, two mass start distance races, and two sprint races throughout the six-race Besh Cup series, three races each of skate and classic. CCAK will announce future race details in advance of upcoming race weekends, after atypically starting the season with two consecutive interval-start distance races due to the last-minute move to Government Peak.
2019 Junior Nationals will be held at Kincaid Park in Anchorage from March 9-17, 2019. Recent snowfall has brought the trails there from, as CCAK recently described them, “ice/grass rinks” to skiable within the past week (that is, after the decision was made to move the races).
While relatively warm temperatures hindered the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage (NSAA)’s ability to make snow through the early winter, leading to NSAA running the snowmaking system for only 48 hours through November 28, the snowmaking system did survive the 7.0 earthquake of November 30 unscathed, NSAA Business Manager Erin Beam told FasterSkier in an early-December email. “NSAA has tested it since the earthquake, and there are no apparent damages or problems,” she wrote at the time. “It’s certainly incredible it wasn’t worse.” NSAA has made some snow at Kincaid within the past week or so, in addition to grooming the natural snow on most trails.