MIDWAY, Utah — On Saturday at Soldier Hollow (SoHo) many of the variables that make cross-country skiing a conundrum were in play: morning fog and early hours, -8° Fahrenheit temps, a reluctant and too timid sun, a mix of artificial and natural snow.
It didn’t take a robust microphone to pick up the all-too-familiar sound of hard-packed, arctic-cold snow — think styrofoam.
For the men’s race, starting at 1 p.m., the morning’s slow snow had morphed into a slightly more efficient gliding surface. The Central Cross Country (CXC) Team’s 23-year-old Kyle Bratrud made the most of it. He gapped the field and won Saturday’s 15-kilometer freestyle individual start in 34:52 minutes, repeating his title earned at 2015 U.S. nationals in Houghton, Mich.
Two-time World Championships team member Tad Elliott of Ski and Snowboard Club Vail (SSCV) placed second (+21.6).
Germany’s Moritz Madlener, a senior at the University of Denver and double podium finisher at last year’s NCAA Championships, took the third podium spot (+30.4). However, only 0.7 seconds back in fourth was Patrick Caldwell of the Stratton Mountain School (SMS). As the next-best U.S. finisher, Caldwell, a U.S. Ski Team D-team member, was the third American in the talent-deep field.
Kris Freeman (Team Freebird) was fifth overall (+36.0) and Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF) Gold Team member John Hegman placed sixth (+37.9). The pair were the fourth- and fifth-best Americans.
Another Title for Bratrud
Where this reporter sat in the SoHo infield — an intersection of the lap/finish lane in one direction and the beginning of a gutting climb in the other — the names Gelso, Patterson, Elliott, and Freeman were being shouted by coaches communicating who was at the sharp end of the leaderboard.
The name Bratrud was missing. Yet his statement was loud and clear, winning by 21.6 seconds over multiple national champion Elliott.
“Two years ago when I had a really good season, I basically started every race as fast as I could and either I blew up or did really well because I had a big lead,” Bratrud told FasterSkier after the podium ceremony.
“This last year, being at altitude for these first SuperTours really helped me feel what a good pace is, especially at altitude,” he continued. “I noticed some heart rates where I could sit for a while. If I went too far above that, then I would blow up. I tried to just stick with that and go off the feel of it, but make sure I was in control. I felt good the entire time.”
Although he lives and trains at low altitude, Bratrud’s month out west for early SuperTours and a seven day pre-race stay near SoHo mitigated any altitude adjustment concerns.
“The breathing was high, but it was manageable,” Bratrud said.
The upcoming World Championships in Lahti, Finland, loom large on the horizon for many skiers at nationals. That’s certainly the case for Bratrud, who also competed in 2015 World Championships in Falun, Sweden.
“[World Championships] has been my objective since the summer began, so this puts me in a position for it,” Bratrud said. “I knew after the SuperTours I was a little out of [the running]. I needed to get on the podium in one or both of these races. So today was a good start. I’m excited about the sprint tomorrow, but the 30 k is my next focus.”
The field should pay attention. Four days after winning his 2015 national title race, Bratrud placed third in the 30 k mass start classic in Houghton.
No stranger to national podiums is the sinewy Elliott.
- First in the 2011 U.S. nationals 30 k skate in Rumford, Maine.
- First in the 2012 national 15 k skate, also in Rumford.
- First in the 2016 national 30 k skate mass start.
Elliott has been second at nationals on five other occasion before Saturday. Take a breather at SoHo’s higher-than-most venue? Not really happening for Elliott: he’s 28 years old and charging.
Upbeat and grateful, Elliott, standing next to his twin brother Evan, mentioned the moment was special.
“It feels good to finish second, for sure,” Elliott said. “I mean, any time you get on the podium, especially at a race like this, it always feels good. My whole family is here except for my sister. But my twin brother Evan waxed my skis. My dad’s here. It’s also my mother’s birthday, she’s here watching, so that was cool, for sure.”
Elliott competed at 2011 and 2013 World Championships. But for a time, he was uncertain of his longevity in the sport as he struggled with fatigue and illness. Incrementally, and as indicated with his nationals win last year, Elliott remains a contender.
“It’s still a long road, I mean, there’s still times where it’s like a rollercoaster,” Elliott said of his gradual return to form. “I’m on the upswing. It’s good in that the symptoms are getting less and less. But I think the main thing today to get on the podium was wisdom: knowing to start slow, knowing to be in control, knowing you can throw down the last lap.”
Elliott also deflected some of the attention and took a moment to reflect on Bratrud’s dominance.
“Huge congrats to Kyle Bratrud, that kid was unbeatable today from the time gap we saw,” he marveled. “That’s quite an impressive effort for him. He’s a young guy too, it’s cool to see. I mean, he came from low altitude, and won here.”
As the third-fastest American, Caldwell stood on the “American” podium on Saturday. The Vermont-based skier has already qualified for U23 World Championships, to be held at SoHo at the end of the month.
“I think going into the day I wasn’t thinking about results as much as just hoping to feel good on the day, and give it my all out there,” Caldwell said after. “And I was definitely really psyched to be in contention for the podium. Bummed to miss [the overall podium] by a close margin, but I was definitely happy with the result overall.”
The race was as much a learning experience as a results oriented end game for Caldwell.
“I’d say the big takeaway is figuring out pacing, it’s definitely tricky up here at altitude,” Caldwell said. “And I think having the chance to race here before U23’s is going to be a huge advantage in figuring out pacing and trying to figure out where you can redline, where you have to keep it under control, and that kind of thing.”
Nationals continue Sunday with a full day of men’s and women’s classic sprints.
— Gabby Naranja and Gavin Kentch contributed