(Note: This article has been updated to include comments from Noah Hoffman.)
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — It was a day of homecomings and returns at snowy Kincaid Park for the first day of the 2018 U.S. Cross Country Championships. Scott Patterson returned to his childhood training grounds with a convincing victory, Noah Hoffman returned to racing at U.S. nationals with second, and Matt Liebsch returned to the nationals podium with third in the men’s 15-kilometer freestyle individual start on Wednesday afternoon. All of them overcame notably difficult conditions to do so.
While there were several strong contenders in the field of 181 starters, many had tabbed Patterson, of Alaska Pacific University (APU), and Hoffman, affiliated with Ski & Snowboard Club Vail (SSCV), among the favorites coming in. They weren’t wrong, given both the pair’s recent World Cup experience and their domestic history at this distance.
For both athletes in the top echelon of U.S. men’s distance skiing, the 15 k race has long been their bailiwick. Coming into this week’s races, Patterson, of the U.S. Ski Team B-team, had reached the podium in six of his last eight 15 k races at the SuperTour or national championships level (plus wins in two competitive Alaskan 15 k FIS races in that time). While Hoffman, a former U.S. Ski Team member, has raced in this country less frequently over the past several years, he had achieved that mark in three of his last four domestic 15 k races. For a pair of high-training volume athletes with remarkable aerobic capacity, there is clearly something about this distance that lets them do well.
On Wednesday, Hoffman did well, but Patterson did better.
“I was impressed by him and happy to see him skiing so well, I mean he handled the condition and that course really well and…he has trained a bunch, but you know I also think that I can ski at that level and I didn’t do that yesterday,” Hoffman said on the phone on Thursday. “In that sense there is more out there, but I am definitely satisfied with second place, I think it sets me up well for going into Sunday in terms of like qualifying for the Olympic team or just having a good week in general.”
Starting in bib 215 in the middle of the A-seed group, nine spots after Hoffman in bib 206, Patterson led wire-to-wire throughout the six-lap race. After one lap, his time advantage over Hoffman was 7.9 seconds. After two laps, it was up to 11.8 seconds. Patterson’s edge grew steadily from there – 24.1 seconds at three laps, then 41.4 seconds at four laps, then 52.2 seconds through five laps.
Patterson received an early clue he was having a good day when he passed Kyle Bratrud, of Central Cross Country (CXC), during the first lap.
“The full confirmation came from my coach, Erik Flora, just after the first lap when he gave me a split that I was leading,” Patterson wrote in a post-race email to FasterSkier. “From there it was mostly just building time against the clock rather than any competitor specifically.”
Patterson finished in 36:33.7. Hoffman was 55.2 seconds back in second.
Hoffman was similarly in second each time he came through the stadium on the 2.69-kilometer lap course. (The race may therefore have been closer to 16.1 k than 15 k, according to the map published on the U.S. nationals website.)
The first lap saw more variability for several skiers, with some eventual top-10 finishers ranking as low as 28th after their first time around the course. Liebsch, representing Pioneer Midwest, was in seventh after Lap 1. But by the end of Lap 2, Liebsch was up to third overall, and he held that position all the way to the finish.
Liebsch finished 21.3 seconds back from Hoffman in second, and 1:16.5 behind Patterson in first. Liebsch nipped fourth-place finisher Rogan Brown (Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation) by 3.7 seconds for the final podium spot.
The rest of the top 10 went to Tad Elliott (SSCV) in fifth (+1:24.4, Gus Schumacher (Alaska Winter Stars) in sixth (+1:27.7), Brian Gregg (CXC/LNR/Team Gregg) in seventh (+1:31.3), Jack Hegman (SVSEF) in eighth (+1:36.0), Benjamin Ogden (Stratton Mountain School) in ninth (+1:42.1), and Adam Martin (Craftsbury Green Racing Project) in 10th (+1:44.2).
Conditions for Wednesday’s race were markedly different from the “firm and fast” courses observed last week. Temperatures above 40 degrees Fahrenheit during the day on Tuesday softened the top few inches of manmade snow on the snowmaking loop and left two to three inches of soft slush on the course’s first main uphill. Above-freezing temperatures Tuesday night, some light rain and a steady snowfall at temperatures hovering around 31.5 degrees all day Wednesday, made for a challenging race.
For the men, that came after 147 women did four laps each in the day’s first race. Then the men skied a cumulative thousand-plus laps in the day’s second race. By the end of the day on Wednesday, the day’s final starters pushed to glide through four to five inches of slush on the first climb, Gong Hill.
Despite the conditions, or maybe even because of them, U.S. Ski Development Coach Bryan Fish said that Wednesday’s race courses were a worthy test for American athletes being chosen for international championship teams.
“I think it was actually good that it snowed,” Fish told FasterSkier in person after the race. “Not only for the long-term of the whole week, but also the fact that the course – just due to the fact that the limited amount of snow, they weren’t able to run it on a fully homologated course. So what I think this did, at least from my perspective, is that it was much harder because of the snow conditions. And I think that creates a better environment to pick the right athletes to go onto these championship courses that they’ll be racing in Europe and in PyeongChang.”
“The conditions were definitely tricky,” Patterson observed. “Yesterday for our prerace training we had crazy ice and wind in classic Anchorage Chinook style, but even then the forecasts were calling for something different today. Looking out the window in the morning, I knew it was going to be interesting with snow rapidly accumulating and a temperature around 35 degrees.”
“There were definitely some rough patches with soft deep snow,” Patterson wrote, referring to Wednesday’s race. “Also in many places, maintaining speed meant staying in the skied-in lane. Thus passing was difficult in some areas. Overall, racing fast was about getting through the tough areas quickly but not burning too much energy. Then really focus on the other areas where I could ski hard and put time into people. These conditions didn’t make the skis feel super fast, but I think the APU techs did a great job with the conditions out there to give me some of the fastest skis in the race.”
Patterson was the only athlete in the men’s race whose overall pace exceeded that of the fastest woman’s lap in the day’s first race, as continued snowfall made the course ski harder for everyone.
Despite the weather, Patterson wrote to FasterSkier, he felt confident going into Wednesday’s race.
“But I was also expecting a tight battle with Noah Hoffman and maybe some others,” he wrote. “We had been racing at quite a similar level on the World Cup, but I think the combination of home course advantage and a bit of rough travel for Noah tipped the scale in my favor.”
(Hoffman recently posted, in a series of Instagram video updates chronicling his travel misadventures, that it took him over 24 hours to successfully leave Hartford as he attempted to fly to Alaska, and that it ultimately took him 56 hours to travel to Anchorage from Putney, Vermont, by plane. “16 hours short of the drive time,” Hoffman wrote.)
“Scott was world-class today,” Hoffman said, according to a U.S. nationals press release. “I hope he can bring that back to Europe and I hope to be there with him.”
“You know I continue to feel that I am really looking for my skiing to click,” Hoffman later said during a phone conversation with FasterSkier. “I am really looking to figure out how to ski as well as I had in the past and as I know how… if I am skiing the way that I can, I am going to have all the opportunities I want…everything else really falls into place if that goal does.”
Hoffman hopes to qualify for PyeongChang, but still remains most concerned with his skiing, believing that performances will follow once he clicks in.
“I am just focused on trying to put together a representative effort of my fitness because I continue to believe that I am one of the fittest athletes in the world, and that the skiing that I did in 2013-14 wasn’t some miracle or some fluke, I want to give myself more opportunities to prove that, but that’s the goal,” Hoffman continued. :So making teams, and the politics of all of it, is really not, not what I am caught up in. I am focused on trying to ski as well as I can and as I have. I skied best in the world I know I can do that, its been a long time, and its been extremely frustrating, but that continues to be the focus. You got to focus on skiing fast and that’s all you can control.”
“Overall I felt quite good,” Patterson wrote. “I was getting a lot of good information and splits from my coaches so I had a good understanding of the race the whole time. I kept the pace steady throughout and made sure to work with the conditions instead of fighting against the tricky snow.”
Patterson had more support out there than just his coaches, on a day when the large parking lots at Kincaid filled to capacity and parked vehicles lined the road up the hill from the stadium at some points.
“Racing at home is always special,” the 25-year-old Patterson wrote, “both in terms of fans and having the home-course advantage. I have raced at Kincaid more than any other place in the world and I feel like I know how to ski well there. It does have its tricks that take some time to learn. In addition to that, there are the fans. The first time up to the course high point or the Gong Hill, I felt like every person on the sidelines was cheering for me. There were several instances where I would recognize someone’s voice and start to try and figure out who it was before going back to focusing on the race. It’s even more special with all the Olympic hype today.”
It was his second national title after winning the 15 k classic two years ago in Houghton, Michigan. Patterson, who attended high school in Anchorage, had more experience at Kincaid than anyone else on the podium, but Liebsch is also a fan of the city’s biggest cross-country ski area.
“I’ve always raced really well here,” Liebsch, 34, told FasterSkier on the phone Wednesday evening. “This is my third time up here, and I’ve had a third, a fourth, and a third. So I like racing at sea level; Kincaid seems to be good to me. So when I saw that Nationals was here this year, I was like, ‘Oh, I gotta go to that for sure.’ ”
Liebsch most recently made a U.S. nationals podium in 2012 at Rumford. This was also the last time, before Wednesday, that Hoffman raced at the full-fledged U.S. nationals in January; he has competed at U.S. Distance Nationals (an annual 50 k mass start) in the spring several times since then. (This season, Hoffman raced Period 1 of the World Cup. After not being offered a start spot in the Tour de Ski, he chose to come to U.S. nationals instead. Patterson was offered a Tour de Ski start spot, but declined that in favor of coming to nationals.)
These days, Liebsch works full time at Pioneer Midwest.
“When I saw that [nationals were in Anchorage] I got really excited to try to train well this summer,” he said. “I never really stopped training. Sometimes I’m exercising, sometimes I’m training. I actually trained this year. Last year I exercised.”
(He later mused, “I’m less than 20 months removed from World Cup racing, so everyone thinks that I just rolled over and died. But I kept training, and I kind of had it in the back of my mind that I may take another swing, see what happens.”)
Liebsch came to Anchorage “with the expectation to win today,” he said. But he was quick to credit Patterson for his dominant performance: “Obviously Scott just sent it,” Liebsch said. “Scott was on his own planet today.”
For “everyone else” in the race, Liebsch said of the challenging and variable conditions, “it was kind of like you had to ski relaxed, and just kind of let the ski scoot along on the snow. Because there were like trenches, and then there was like mashed potatoes, and then there was like new snow. It was kind of weird.”
So what happens next? Short-term, Liebsch does not plan to contest Friday’s sprint, so he’s going to go skiing at Hatcher Pass instead.
He also has big technique plans, with an eye to qualifying for the upcoming Olympics in PyeongChang.
“I have a chance to probably go ski in Korea, potentially, after the points reshuffle from today,” Liebsch said. “They’re going to have to take a bunch of domestic guys, I think, and … I think I’m in the mix. If I can figure out how to classic ski between now and Sunday, it could be real exciting.”
Patterson has comparable goals in advance of Sunday’s 30 k classic mass start.
“For PyeongChang, today’s race feel like it puts me in the driver’s seat for the distance spots. Through the early season SuperTour, no one really stood out above the rest for distance races. Today, Noah Hoffman and I showed that we might not have scored many World Cup points, but we are still forces domestically. The 30k classic on Sunday will be my other big focus to get an Olympic spot.”
Two Juniors in the Top 10
While there was a separate podium ceremony on Wednesday for the top-three junior boys (after athletes of all ages raced together), you don’t have to go too far down the results sheet to find the top-three finishers under age 20: Gus Schumacher (Alaska Winter Stars) was sixth overall, Ben Ogden (Stratton Mountain School) was ninth, and Hunter Wonders (APU) was 21st. Schumacher and Ogden are still U18 skiers; Wonders is a U20.
Schumacher’s sixth overall is a quantum leap from his previous best finish at a U.S. nationals: he was 43rd in the 15 k classic at Houghton in Jan. 2016.
“I guess I wasn’t expecting this specific result,” Schumacher, 17, wrote to FasterSkier, “but I knew that on home snow I could possibly put up a pretty fast time and be competitive with the seniors.”
As for his mindset in conditions like those found on Wednesday, Schumacher wrote, “I guess my approach is that it’s the same for everyone and as long as I don’t get freaked out I can race as well as normal. So the goal is really to stay calm and try to adjust my technique in warmup to be more efficient.
“I was super stoked about today’s race,” he continued. “I think it is a great sign for the future, hopefully I can keep this pace up!”
Count Fish, the development coach, among those also stoked about Wednesday’s race. Fish is attending U.S. nationals for a number of reasons, he explained, including to help support the naming of various international championship teams (Junior Worlds team, U23 team, and the U18 Nations Trip team). And while he looks at results, to be sure, it’s more than just that.
“We’re also looking at results versus age as well,” Fish said. “And not only the result itself, but what were the times, and what were the time gaps. … Really exciting to see a couple of young men, like Gus Schumacher and Ben Ogden, sixth and ninth. And those two were back and forth. And I had Ben as high as eighth, and Gus in 10th, and Gus had an incredibly fast last lap, to put time not only into the other juniors but into the whole field, to finish sixth overall. So that was really exciting to see, to have two young athletes like that finish that high.”
— Gabby Naranja and Ian Tovell contributed