Note: This article has been updated to include comments from Liz Stephen and Caitlin Patterson.
Therese Johaug dared anyone to match her as she drove a punishing pace from the gun of the 10-kilometer freestyle mass start on Sunday in Falun, Sweden. But five other women, including American Jessie Diggins, took her up on the challenge and the race was on.
The fast pace from the gun strung out the 72 women in the field quickly and within minutes, a lead group of six was formed. Johaug was shadowed by her Norwegian teammates Heidi Weng, Ingvild Flugstad Østberg , and Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen as well as Diggins and Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla as they ascended the infamous Mörderbacken climb in the first two kilometers of the race.
There was no trading of leads as Johaug churned away with her characteristic high tempo in the front. By 3.2 k, Johaug, Weng and Østberg had a five-second gap on Jacobsen and Diggins. Kalla fell back to the chase group, ceding the potential to repeat on the podium after she won the 10 k freestyle at Falun World Championships last year.
However, a day after notching fifth in the 5 k classic, Diggins was not going to let the Norwegian trio ski away without a fight. She took advantage of her strengths on the gliding sections of the rolling terrain the second half of the 5-kilometer lap. She overtook a fading Østberg and caught Jacobsen who tucked in behind her. She continued to hammer, bridging to Johaug and Weng.
Coming through the stadium after the first lap at 5 k, Diggins was just 3.6 seconds from the lead pair. However, when Jacobsen took her turn leading, she shifted gears to a pace Diggins couldn’t match. In pursuit of her teammates up the trail, Jacobsen put 11.2 seconds on Diggins in 1.7 k.
In contrast to Johaug’s usual untouchable domination, Weng shadowed her stride for stride for over half of the race. However, at 6.7 k, the second time up Mörderbacken, Johaug delivered an attack that Weng could not match.
Johaug entered the stadium clear of Weng, winning in 23:28.0 for her 14th World Cup win matching Norwegian Bente Skari’s record for the most wins in a season. Weng secured second place, 8.8 seconds back, and Jacobsen placed third (+13.9).
Meanwhile, Diggins skied alone in fourth place trying to hold off a charging chase pack. She made it to the line just four seconds ahead of the chase pack to secure fourth (+29.0). Norway’s Maria Rydqvist and Ragnhild Haga led the group behind her into the finish in fifth (+33.3) and sixth (+34.0), respectively.
Despite skiing in the lead pack early, the early pace took its toll and Østberg faded to ninth (+35.0).
After the race, Johaug explained she pulled off her race plan perfectly, although Weng held on longer than she anticipated.
“My goal was to go my own race, and go hard and smoothly from the start,”Johaug told NRK, according to a translation. “I would ‘punch’ to the last part of the hill, and it finally succeeded … I was a little nervous, for Heidi hung so well.”
According to Weng, Johaug “started like it was a sprint so there weren’t many of us from the beginning,” she told FIS. “I tried to stay with her as long as I could but my legs started to get stiff and I just focused on my technique to make sure that I still got to the finish in second place.”
Jacobsen described her battle with Diggins as mostly amicable. “We actually had some cooperation on the first lap. I have never really had that before,” she told FIS. “She told me that she would take the lead on the big downhill and then we start to catch Ingvild in the stadium and Jessie went by her quickly. I hesitated and Jessie got away, but I was able to catch her on the Mörderbacken and I pushed again on the final climb to stay ahead of her.”
Fewer than 10 seconds behind the chase group, American Liz Stephen finished 14th (+43.7), and 26-year-old Caitlin Patterson, of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, placed 25th (+1:14.6) for her World Cup points in 11 starts.
Diggins ‘Going for Broke’
One year after Diggins and Caitlin Gregg claimed their historic podium finishes at the Falun World Championships, Diggins had her sights set high for the 10 k freestyle event.
“My strategy for the day was — I had a good race yesterday, I know I am in good shape — I am just going to go for broke and see what happens,” she said on the phone afterward.
“I knew it was a little bit risky, but I was trying to hang with that lead group as long as I could,” Diggins said.
As long as she could turned into more than half the race as she trailed Johaug by just 3.6 seconds at 5 k.
“In a mass start, I’ve never been in this position before, it was so exciting,” Diggins said.
Although she was in contention for a podium at 5 k, she soon realized the effort wasn’t sustainable and decided to cut her losses.
“I was totally pegged, I was going as hard as I possibly could,” she recalled. “I thought I could try to hold on to Therese and Heidi but then I might blow up and lose twenty spots, but if I can race smart I could for sure get top five.”
Keeping her position meant holding off a charging chase pack of 15 skiers who were able to draft each other. Despite this advantage, Diggins was confident she could hold them.
“I wasn’t too concerned because the last couple kilometers are my strength and I usually close down a race hard,” she said. “I felt like I would be able to hold it, but still it was still motivating and I knew I just couldn’t make a mistake.”
U.S. Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb commended Diggins’ gutsy racing.
“She gave herself a chance to win today, she believed that she could, and she did everything she could and fell just shy,” he said on the phone “But this is the kind of approach to racing that we just love to see — aggressive and full of the belief that she could make it happen.”
For Diggins, Falun remains one of her favorite places to race. “I’m so happy — I love racing here, the crowds are great, the atmosphere is fun, and I had wonderful skis,” she said.
In a World Cup schedule with few mass starts, Falun was the first freestyle mass start of the season so far. Although Diggins still considers individual starts to be her favorite format because it is just “you, your mind and the course,” she considers mass starts a fun change and a great learning opportunity.
“In some ways, it was more fun to ski it with other people because you can see where the leaders are and you can see where they are putting time on you,” she said. “It is a really good way to learn about your style of racing and how that fits into the field.”
Stephen Navigates Mass Start for Season Best
Although there are advantages to the immediate feedback in mass starts, they can also pose challenges for skiers starting farther in the back in the field. The congestion on the course presents frustrating, but surmountable challenges for skiers like Stephen.
Starting in the middle of the field in bib 23, Stephen had to navigate the field on a narrow course and look for openings. However, when the field opened up, Stephen delivered as she moved from 21st place at 5 k to finish in 14th for her best World Cup result this season.
“It is really good to see Liz looking like herself again,” Whitcomb said. “I think had today been an interval start race, you would have seen a really impressive result out of Liz. She struggled a bit with a later start, getting swallowed up, the course is a little bit narrow and she spent a lot of time waiting for an opening.”
“Today was a really good feeling to leave Europe on and take home with me to prepare for Canada. I had the best energy I have felt all year today,” Stephen said in a USSA press release.
Patterson in the points
Another highlight for the Americans included Patterson’s 25th place, her first World Cup top 30 and best result since placing 36th in the Holmenkollen 30 k classic mass start last weekend.
“We are really excited for that,” Whitcomb said. “In many ways, that is one of the real successes of the day when you see a new athlete score her first World Cup points. It’s not even one point, it is a handful of them with a really solid 25th place.”
Patterson’s aggressive start paid off as she was able to establish a position in the top 20 within the first three kilometers. “My game plan was to start fast and aggressively, always on the offensive to move up rather than getting shuffled back, cling onto packs or other skiers whenever possible, and ski efficiently but not afraid to push hard,” explained Patterson.
“I was actually astonished to find that the pace up the Morderbakken the first time seemed within reason, I could hold with people, and actually even still see Johaug way up ahead, which was exciting!” Patterson said.
The depth of the U.S. women’s field has been illustrated this year as Patterson was the seventh women this year to score points in a distance race. This is a testament to the progress of the U.S. women’s cross country skiing and bodes well for the future.
As Patterson shared, “I think now that I’m over here in Europe, it helps that I have trained with Ida, and with other USST women at fall camps, and to have seen that my fitness is close to theirs in training sessions, to help me convince myself that if I can ski with them, and they can ski with the best in the world, then maybe I can ski with the best in the world too.”
Rosie Brennan and Ida Sargent also represented the U.S., taking 48th (+2:05.4) and 67th (+3:26.3), respectively.
Canadian Emily Nishikawa was 14 seconds out of the points in 39th (+1:34.9) and Andrea Dupont (Rocky Mountain Racers) placed 69th (+3:46.5).
“The pack with the top 30 was just over 10 seconds ahead of me on the last lap, so it was a little frustrating that I didn’t have a little bit more in me to push and bridge up to that group,” Nishikawa wrote in an email. “Overall, it was much better than yesterday [in the 5 k classic], and I’m looking forward to going home to recharge before the Ski tour Canada where I hope to have my best races of the season.”