The first day at the Toppidrettsveka race festival brought something rarely seen in cross-country ski racing: two events is one day. Thursday morning featured the Fonna Up — a 5.3-kilometer uphill running race that ascended 650 meters — in Aure, Norway, and two Americans were the third fastest to the summit.
Liz Stephen and Noah Hoffman, both of the U.S. Ski Team (USST), placed third in the women’s and men’s hill climb races, respectively, after starting together: the entire field left the start at once.
“The hill climb started on a fairly flat/gradual up road for 400 meters or so before taking a hard left hand turn and heading up a steeper pitched gravel road for the first 3k,” Stephen explained in an email. “Then the trail took a left onto a technical and rocky, steep trail for another 2.2k to the top of the mountain.”
Crossing the line first overall was Norwegian climbing specialist Didrik Tønseth with a time of 28:53.5. His effort was fast enough to break the course record by nearly a minute. Thirteen seconds after Tønseth was Martin Johansson, an orienteering competitor from Sweden. Johansson injured his collarbone earlier in the summer in a bike crash, but recovered enough to race to second overall.
Hoffman crested the top third, 1 minute and 2.5 seconds after Tønseth, and 34.1 seconds ahead of France’s Maurice Manificat in fourth. U.S. assistant coach Jason Cork posted a video of Hoffman racing to third; he also posted one of women’s winner Therese Johaug of Norway, who was 10th overall, reaching the Fonna Opp summit as well.
Johaug clocked in at 31:18.8, beating most of the men and finishing more than a minute and a half ahead of second-place finisher and fellow Norwegian Heidi Weng. Stephen was 2:42.3 back in third.
“It’s fun to be here and give the guys a little [run],” Johaug told NRK at the finish, according to a translation. “I’m made for uphills and have always been good at it.”
Johaug also put down a dominating performance in the Storsylen Up earlier this summer, but said she didn’t plan to switch to elite mountain running anytime soon as she remains committed to skiing.
Stephen explained that the race required finding the most efficient route through rocky sections.
“I pushed hard on the road, knowing I would not be as fast on the trail as others, but pushed the whole way, for sure,” she wrote. “I was so nervous before it, so I am happy to have it behind me now!”
After the morning competition, athletes had just enough time to return home, eat some lunch, take a quick nap, and then depart again for the classic rollerski sprints in Aure. All of the USST women competing — Stephen, Sophie Caldwell, Kikkan Randall, Jessie Diggins, and Caitlin Gregg — went on to qualify for the heats, as did U.S. men Andy Newell and Simi Hamilton. Caldwell went the farthest in the heats, all the way to the women’s A-final, where she finished fifth for the best American result.
“I had some trouble pushing through the tired feelings in my prologue,” Caldwell explained in an email. “I was still pretty exhausted from the uphill run and did not feel great, but I was happy to qualify.”
She qualified 21st and went on to edge Germany’s Denise Herrmann in the quarterfinals, advancing in second behind behind Norway’s Kathrin Harsem, the prologue winner. Caldwell was fourth in her semifinal, just ahead of Johaug, and earned a lucky loser spot in the finals.
“I felt significantly better in my quarter final most likely due to the added time to rest and the hard effort of the prologue to wake me back up,” Caldwell wrote. “I knew my strength was the final uphill into the finish, so my strategy was to try to maintain contact with the leaders while conserving as much energy through drafting on the double pole sections and downhills early on. This left me in a good position to attack at the end of each heat and it paid off.
“It was fun to be in a place where I was fighting for the podium,” she continued. “I was really happy with how the day ended up and am psyched to come away with it knowing what I need to improve on before the season starts.”
After winning her quarterfinal, semifinal and ultimately, the final, Weng led a Norwegian sweep of the women’s podium. Harsem placed second and Barbro Kvåle was third.
“It was really fun to win. It is not often that happens,” Weng told Dagbladet after her race.
In the men’s sprint, Norwegian Petter Northug made up for his 81st-place finish in the hill climb (out of 86 men) by finishing first ahead of teammate Eirik Brandsdal. In the morning, Brandsdal finished 50th, nearly 7 minutes behind the winner, while Northug was almost 12 minutes back. Six men comprised the sprint A-final and Simen Lanes rounded the podium in third. His Team Jobzone teammate, Timo Andre Bakken was fourth, national-team member Ola Vigen Hattestad rebounded from last in the hill climb to place fifth, and Simen Østensen (Team United Bakeries) was sixth.
Among the Americans, Randall finished 15th overall after qualifying 18th and placing third in her quarterfinal. The top U.S. female qualifier in 11th, Diggins placed fourth in Caldwell’s quarterfinal for 16th overall. Stephen and Gregg were sixth in their quarterfinals for 26th and 29th, respectively.
Newell placed 15th in the men’s sprint and Hamilton was 39th, after Hamilton finished 13th in the morning hill climb (where Newell was 40th). Canadian Devon Kershaw placed 16th in the climb and narrowly missed qualifying in 34th in the sprint.
“Today was a tiring day to say the least,” Newell told USSA. “I think this is one of the few times in my life when I’ve had to do two races in the same day. I tried to take the uphill running stage slightly easier in order to save some energy for the sprint in the afternoon. It was a tough race but I tried to do more hiking than running on the steep sections in order to save the body. A lot of guys were doing that.”
He also noted that this was the first time that most of the USST members had competed in an highly competitive, international rollerski race.
“It takes a little getting used to,” he said. “I was happy with my energy and my sprint fitness is as good as it ever was last season so I’m excited to keep building. I was close to moving on to the semi finals, but was just on the losing end of a lunge.”
The Toppidrettsveka continues Friday in Orkdal, Norway, with a 15 k skiathlon for both the men and the women, and finishes Saturday in Trondheim with 15 k pursuits.
— Alex Kochon contributed reporting