Last year Heidi Weng felt that she didn’t quite pace it right on the Lysebotn Opp, a grueling seven kilometer rollerski race that rises 2,000 feet in southwestern Norway.
With a nine percent grade lasting the entire race, going out too hard can result in a lot of pain – even more than nailing the pacing, which is a world of hurt in its own right.
So this year, Weng started a bit more conservatively in the first competition of the Blink Festival, an annual nordic sports extravaganza. That allowed the Norwegian cross-country ski star to pick up the pace partway through and float away from her nearest competition, Finnish biathlete Kaisa Mäkäräinen, who finished 30 seconds back.
“I opened a little better this year,” Weng told Norwegian news service Dagbladet. “I didn’t have the ‘Duracell bunny’ [Therese] Johaug here. She tends to go fast from start to finish. The rest of us have to start a little more sensibly to get ourselves into the race.”
Indeed, her teammate Johaug, routinely the best climber in the final ascent of the Tour de Ski, was sitting out with a broken hand. Also absent was last year’s winner, Liz Stephen of the U.S. Ski Team, who recently returned from a training camp in New Zealand and chose not to venture a few more time zones in the opposite direction after arriving home.
Weng’s time was a minute and 20 seconds slower than Stephen’s winning pace from last year, but it was almost a minute faster than Weng’s own fifth-place performance from 2014.
That made her happy.
“The body functioned clearly better this year than last year, so the question is whether it is a good sign for me,” she told Aftenbladet. “I hope that all the training I’ve put so far should give good results when the ski season begins.”
Weng finished third in the overall World Cup last season behind teammates Marit Bjørgen and Johaug. With Bjørgen taking the upcoming season off to have a baby, Weng is looking to improve on her 13 podiums from 2015, and maybe to take her first World Cup win.
Mäkäräinen, who won the Lysebotn Opp in 2013 and finished third last year, was on the podium yet again. The biathlete, who finished second in the overal World Cup rankings last season, led a group of Finnish skiers across the line: Laura Mononen finished third, Kerttu Niskanen fourth, and Aino Kaisa Saarinen fifth.
Sprint specialist Ingvild Flugstad Østberg was the next Norwegian, finishing sixth.
A trio of North Americans also competed: Canadian biathletes Rosanna Crawford and Megan Heinicke, and American Susan Dunklee. All three have been in Norway for the last week for a shooting camp of international athletes, including Makarainen, organized by Canadian coach Matthias Ahrens and Norwegian shooting specialist Joar Himle.
Dunklee finished 21st in the hill climb last year.
“This year I was familiar with the course layout, including landmarks like the kilometer-long tunnel and the switchbacks in the last 500 meters,” she wrote in an email Thursday evening. “It still felt like a pain cave, but a controlled pain cave. I tried to think about keeping my weight on my toes, switching a lot between V1 and V2 and only looking ahead to one switchback at a time.”
This year Dunklee finished 15th in 38:49, outsprinting Finnish skier Anne Kylloenen at the line.
The Canadians had not previously made the trip to the Blink festival.
“The biggest shock was the 1km long tunnel, that took about 9 minutes I think, dark and slippery and hard to pass people,” Crawford explained in an email.
Crawford and Heinicke finished 30th and 33rd in 41:44 and 42:16, respectively.
“Makes me happy we don’t have 40 minute straight uphill biathlon races!” she wrote. It’s a lot harder than our Norquay races, which is about 5k and average 7-8% I think. Much longer than any hill climb we could find around Canmore. I’m always working on my climbing so I looked at it as a great opportunity to keep getting fitter!”
Racing continues Friday and Saturday, and the North Americans plan to race through the festival.
Not so for Weng.
“I’m going to a wedding on Saturday and then I simply can’t do several races this weekend,” she told Aftenposten. “It’s a little silly, because I like it so much here at these competitions in Lysebotn and Sandnes. But sometimes different worlds collide.”
But even at Blink, ostensibly a race festival, social time collides with sport.
“I especially enjoyed the boat ride [back across the fjord] today, it was a great opportunity to socialize,” Dunklee wrote. “In general all the athletes are very relaxed compared to the winter and happy to chat.”