Tyler Kornfield: From World Cups to Worldloppets


More of this in his future? APU’s Tyler Kornfield (bib no. 126) exults as he wins an eight-man group sprint to take the men’s 30-kilometer mass start classic race at 2018 U.S. Cross Country Championships in Anchorage, January 2018. (photo: Gavin Kentch)

By Ryan Sederquist, special to Nordic Insights

From Koch to Kikkan, the tapestry of U.S. cross-country skiing has always been woven by innovators and trailblazers. This season, new fabric has been added to the canvas, as 2018 Olympian Tyler Kornfield prepares to become the first American male skier to go all in on the Ski Classics, Europe’s big-time doublepole marathon scene.

“I think the Ski Classics is this unexplored circuit,” the Team Robinson Trentino athlete said on a phone call after joining many of the nation’s top skiers for a fall training camp in Park City earlier this month. “And so it’s just exciting to me to do something new and to take my skiing to a different place. … Who knows what will happen from this.”

Growing up in Alaska: Anchorage, Fairbanks, and back to Anchorage

For those unfamiliar with Kornfield’s progression, the Alaskan native began his journey with Anchorage club team Alaska Winter Stars (aka “Gus Schumacher’s club”) as an ambitious, disciplined nine-year-old. Even in grade school, Kornfield made every single decision based on how it would impact his skiing, “which speaks a lot about me,” he reminisced. “There was never a moment where I didn’t want to be the best skier in the world.”

Alaska Winter Stars, or AWS, catered perfectly to Kornfield’s uncommon vision and dedication. “Once you show you want to go all in, they (AWS) support you,” Kornfield noted.

Against Anchorage’s Olympic backdrop, the general influence and literal presence of athletes like Kikkan Randall, Nina Kemppel, James Southam, and Lars Flora spurred Kornfield to great heights. As a freshman at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, he won his first national championship in the classic sprint, at Anchorage’s Kincaid Park. He was 18 years old.

“I grew up with the full expectation that I was going to be the best skier in the world and I thought I was doing my best to train like it and that was my first kind of result that indicated like, ‘Ok, I think I can do this,’” he said.

After another national classic sprint title two years later, Kornfield moved back to Anchorage full-time to join Alaska Pacific University Nordic Ski Center, or APU, following his college graduation. “I always knew I wanted to ski professionally and it just so happened that a bunch of really solid guys were joining APU, so I followed them,” recalled.

A few years later, he whetted his appetite for long-distance doublepoling when APU teammate David Norris, surfing the FIS website after a collectively disappointing 2017 U.S. Nationals — “we didn’t crack the wax,” Kornfield remarked — suggested the pair fly over to Italy and race the Marcialonga.

(Disclosure: Norris now works for Nordic Insights, and will be producing a podcast for this site. –Ed.)

“In my peripheral vision, I had paid attention to doublepole racing because I thought it was intriguing how well they were doing against World Cup guys,” Kornfield said. “There was this thing that we in the U.S. weren’t paying attention to … like, how are these are doublepolers skiing so well against the likes of Sundby. So I had paid attention to it.”

The 70-kilometer distance of the Marcialonga fascinated the teammates, who scrambled to register, booked flights, arranged for lodging, and secured support from a Rossignol pro team. After competing in the following weekend’s Super Tour, they flew to Italy, arriving three days before the famous loppet, now christened as one of the Ski Classics four “Grand Classics” along with the Jizerská Padesátka in Czech Republic, Vasaloppet in Sweden, and Birkebeinerrennet in Norway.

“We had a lot of beginner’s mistakes,” Kornfield laughed, thinking about his first foray into long distance racing, where he would finish in 44th place, 5:48 back from winner Tord Asle Gjerdalen. The first 20 kilometers of the course were axed due to snow shortages, meaning Norris and Kornfield’s starting-line lodging plan was doomed. Then, in the first 100 meters, Norris lost his waterbottle; Kornfield said that his friend, who finished in 64th, 11:20 back, paid the price in the race’s iconic finishing climb. 

“I had a great time, and I skied pretty well. I had a great experience. I don’t think David’s done a ski classic since … that might be why, but you know, there’s always time,” Kornfield laughed.  

Kornfield would go on to make the 2018 Olympic team after logging three podium finishes at 2018 U.S. Nationals, placing 70th in the 15km interval-start skate and 44th in the 50km mass start classic in Pyeongchang. Heading into the Beijing Olympic cycle, the 31-year-old looked poised to make a second team. He led the SuperTour sprint standings in December 2021 going into the second weekend of the 2021/2022 season, when he tore a ligament in his thumb in Cable, Wisconsin.

“That kind of derailed the season,” Kornfield summarized. He still finished fourth in the Soldier Hollow classic sprint post–U.S. Nationals, and he gutted out the rest of the season, using a splint to stay on snow through the Olympic qualifying period.

In his words, he “didn’t get eye-popping results,” but he was proud to simply persevere to the end. After what had been the best early-season start to his career, missing out on the Beijing Games stung, but the veteran’s spirit wasn’t thwarted indefinitely. 

“I’m at an age where I was able to absorb it,” Kornfield said. “It was obviously frustrating and a shock — I’ve never had a significant injury like that, [had] never had surgery — but at the same time, I’ve grown to appreciate that there are ups and downs. I didn’t really overthink it. Just, this is what it is, and keep moving.”

It feels appropriate that the longtime boyfriend of Rosie Brennan — the poster child for patiently ascending to the pinnacle of one’s competitive career — has internalized that peaks and valleys are part of the deal.

“I’m pretty passionate that when I give advice to those who are seeking pro skiing, [I tell them] don’t just do it for a year,” he said when asked about his general thoughts on progression. 

“You can’t learn what you need for your future. If you’re in it for having fun, I’m not going to knock that, but if you really want to learn something, you have to go through the ups and downs. Learning to deal with that frustration and failure is really important. I think that’s been the biggest benefit of going as long as I have. I’ve gone through some big ups and downs and I’m confident I’m a stronger person because of it.”

After Kornfield had surgery this March, he and Brennan were scheming about long-term plans. “We started playing around with this idea, throwing it back and forth, of, ‘What if we join a Ski Classics team?’” Kornfield said. Of course, Brennan wasn’t as positioned to leave the World Cup quite yet.

“Rosie’s seasons the last couple of years speak for themselves and she’s progressed so well,” Kornfield said. “Like, okay, I think the Ski Classics is great, but the World Cup is still the pinnacle of cross-country skiing. So, for her to make the change when she’s undoubtedly at the peak of her career is a little tough.”

They started looking at different options, attracted initially to the knowledge that a Norwegian team could provide. Overarching Kornfield’s calculus was taking a backseat to Brennan. “She’s the superstar, I’m just tagging along,” he laughed. When the war in Ukraine canceled the final World Cup weekend in Russia, the door was opened for Americans to fill Russian vacancies in the Ski Classics start list at the Birkebeinerrennet. Brennan and Kornfield shot out cold-call emails to several teams.

“We asked Team Robinson Trentino if they were interested, and they were,” Kornfield chronicled. “That’s kind of how it happened.” APU teammates Rosie Frankowski and Scott Patterson joined Kornfield and Brennan for the legendary race from Rena to Lillehammer. Afterwards, Kornfield stayed in touch with Robinson Trentino coach Bruno Debertolis. He also chatted with Petter Eliassen, the 13-time Ski Classics champion and hall of famer, whose wife also went to UAF. 

“We kind of had a connection the last couple of years; David’s pretty close with Petter,” Kornfield noted, adding that Elliassen raced for Robinson Trentino at the Marcialonga back in 2017, placing 10th. 

Of the team, Kornfield said Petter told him, “They’re a great group of guys. … I think you’re going to have a lot of fun.”

Making the transition

“The idea in my head of never pushing towards a World Cup is difficult, but I think it’s somewhat realistic,” Kornfield said regarding his decision to switch gears professionally. (Kornfield has logged six World Cup starts over parts of three seasons.) “This next crew of guys are really, really fast and you have to be on your game to stay with them and beat them and not that I’m shying away from that, but it’s more just a change of pace and a change of scenery.” 

In making his decision, fellow APU skier Holly Brooks, another American with ski classics experience, offered helpful counsel. 

“She’s kind of talked to me quite a bit about the Ski Classics and racing for them,” he said. “But it’s still pretty unexplored to designate, like, ‘I’m going to do every single race.’” The jump is dramatic, and could send some shockwaves down the U.S. Ski Team pipeline — more on that later.

Kornfield hasn’t joined Robinson Trentino for training camp yet; he’s admittedly had to approach this venture somewhat self-coached. “And I have the convenient support of one of the best skiers in the world in Rosie, but granted she’s not a doublepole expert… but we can bounce ideas off of each other,” he said.

In a Strava-saturated scene of shared workouts and data, Kornfield, after resuming his doublepole training in July post-surgery, caught the bug of senselessly chasing after some of the Ski Classics athletes’ notoriously mind-numbing methods. He attempted to emulate one skier who used a single loop for his daily three-hour doublepole sessions. 

“I tried that for a little bit and then I was like, you know what, this isn’t me,’” Kornfield said. “I need to remember that I know how to train; I don’t need to try to copy them.” He did put Strava files to use, however, analyzing .gpx files to create gradient profiles from each Ski Classics event. He then structures his workouts based on the length and steepness of the most critical climbs. 

“I think the climbing is going to be really important because that’s probably going to be my weakness, but I just can’t say,” he prognosticated. Perhaps surprisingly, Kornfield recalled actually getting dropped during an overspeed, flat portion of the 2017 Marcialonga. “They were going unreasonably fast,” he recollected. “Like, I’m going all-out sprint and getting passed.”

The foreign experience served as his introduction to the vast intricacies of gradient-dependent doublepole form. The Ski Classics is a totally different world than the World Cup, and though Kornfield is fully aware of the importance of the technical minutiae, he’s refraining from going full nordic-nerdom — say, installing a rollerski treadmill facing a brick wall in his basement à la Anders Aukland — and is instead keeping his cues and self-talk relatively simple.

“It’s a lot about rhythm, just maintaining a solid rhythm,” he said. “The more time you spend doublepoling, the more you learn. And I’ve just tried to spend as much time as I can doublepoling and tried to pick up these little things that I see these guys doing, and [tried] to differentiate between ‘Is this actually going to make me faster or am I just doing it because I’m jumping on the bandwagon?’” 

After flaming out on the three-hours-around-the-same-cul-de-sac-plan, he shifted to simple prioritization of a daily two-hour (minimum) doublepole session. Very rarely, he’ll extend it as far as four, far from Aukland’s current method of five hours, five days per week.

Kornfield also removed the ratchets from his rollerskis. 

“A lot of it, in my theory, is mental,” he said. “Just, ‘How to get over this hill, how do I start this race knowing there’s no backup plan?’” Beyond that, he’s blending traditional, no-nonsense L3 training, L4, and speeds into the potpourri. 

“Nothing too complicated,” as Kornfield described his training.

“One of my theories is that everyone is following one guy who succeeded last year, and I don’t believe — that’s not going to be the thing that makes it for them,” he said. “There’s so many other variables that go into training and racing. I’m doing my best to just be confident in what I’m doing.”

Kornfield admitted this season will be a bit experimental. “You have to take what I say with a grain of salt because I haven’t raced most of these circuits,” he acknowledged. Still, his mass start and sprint credentials suggest it isn’t farfetched to believe that Kornfield has the makings for a true Ski Classics contender. 

“I definitely feel like it suits me,” Kornfield said. “A lot of the other races (other than Marcialonga) align to my strengths.” 

From national champion wunderkind to veteran guile

But it won’t be his physical strengths he’ll lean into in the heat of the moment. When he’s in the lead pack of the Vasaloppet, Kornfield, now 31, believes he’ll derive his competitive confidence more from his tactical awareness. 

“I don’t know how my fitness is and the first couple weekends will tell me a lot about how I stack up in that way, but I am confident in my tactical abilities. I think that has gotten me really far in the last few years,” he said, noting that over the course of his career, he’s noticed a vast chasm between the way Europeans and Americans view marathons.

“It seems like for a lot of people, the goal is just to finish and cross the line,” he said of the U.S.

“And I soon realized that people were kind of just zoning out for these major marathons and like coming towards them, they would dread them. I don’t feel that way at all.”

Kornfield continued an analysis revealing his potential Ski Classics acumen, dissecting his approach to three-hour races with tidbits valuable for everyone, right down to the Wave 8 Birkie rookie. 

“If you’re in the pack — which these are pack races for the most part — [I’m] playing games throughout the whole time,” he said. “Like, where can I save energy here, where can I practice coming around this guy here, learning about the other guys’ skis, feeling the other people’s strengths, listening to their breathing, whatever it is — I think that’s where my strength is.”

“If I’m in that pack, I’m going to be confident that if a tactical decision needs to be made, I’m going to be ready for it.”

Trailblazing TK

Kornfield and Brennan will base themselves out of the small northern Italian town of Toblach for this season, allowing both athletes a respite from the standard toll of international travel for North American athletes. Kornfield plans to pair his skiing with part-time remote engineering work, hearkening back to his belief that success over the long haul connects to a proper work–life balance. 

“As I’ve gotten older, I think that’s more apparent to me,” he said.

The idea of grounding permeates Kornfield’s philosophy on both life as a whole and his new skiing venture. 

“They’re long races — two to four hours — so you’ve got to be grounded in some way,” he explained. “You can’t be overly focused, you can’t be hyper-aware because that’s going to drain you. But you gotta be just generally aware and grounded for that whole time. That’s a lot of what I’ve been practicing, even away from sport: just trying to be grounded and trying to be appreciative of where I am and not get caught up in too much other than that.” 

When asked if he felt Americans might pay more attention to the Ski Classics scene now that one of their own is participating, Kornfield answered, “I hope that people look at it.” 

“I think Ski Classics is only moving forward so I think it’s going to become a bigger and bigger thing,” he continued. “And this next generation of American skiers is … I mean we’re getting quite a bit of depth, so if these guys want to try something new, I think going and doing the same thing David and I did — throw in a race here and there — these are incredible places, beautiful places. … You can make it affordable.” 

Even though Kornfield said the long-distance scene is not a common discussion topic among domestic ski clubs like APU, he wouldn’t mind seeing a shift. 

“I would love if the Ski Classics were to have a race over here because I think that would be an eye-opener to Americans, but that might take some work,” he said. “I’m looking forward to meeting everyone in the Ski Classics and hopefully they are interested in getting more Americans involved. And I’d love to talk with them about ideas because there’s definitely a lot of hurdles.”

At the recent Park City training camp earlier this month, Kornfield said he was flooded with positive support for his decision.

“Every person has been so excited and so encouraging and they want me to succeed, and that’s really exciting and motivating,” he said. “And I hope that the lessons that we take — even finding a place in Europe, living there as a European would do, which I think in terms of longevity while skiing is pretty important — I think all these lessons [are things] that I hope we can take, we can pass on.”

As far as goals, Kornfield isn’t setting quite the same standard he did when he was a youngster. 

“I understand that it’s really hard to be the best skier in the world, and I’m glad I wasn’t told that at age 10 because I wouldn’t have tried,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that the spark has gone from my eyes, but I definitely know this might be really challenging — there might be some races that I’m off the back.”

Objectively, he’s gunning for top-30 finishes. Process-wise, he’s hoping to absorb each event physically. “If I can do that, I can keep improving,” he said. “If I can do that, the season’s going to roll well.” 

Only time will tell if another “K” name should be added to Koch and Kikkan in the lineage of breakthrough USST figures, and that’s okay with Kornfield.

“I’m excited to see where this goes and I appreciate the enthusiasm that I’ve received,” he said. “I hope people follow me as I go about it and I hope they’re proud of what I’m able to accomplish.”

About the author: Ryan Sederquist lives, trains and invents oatmeal recipes in Leadville, Colorado, with his wife, Christie; daughter, Novi; and puppy, Ajee. His main gig is sports reporting for the Vail Daily — where he rarely misses an opportunity to refer to Pete Maravich or wax poetic, skinny-ski-related metaphors — but in his spare time, he hosts the Seder-Skier Podcast, which he unverifiably claims is the fastest-growing Nordic ski–specific show in all of Lake County, Colorado.

You can find his website here, and his podcast here or here. The most recent episode, from October 23, features a long interview with Tyler Kornfield about his move to racing Ski Classics.

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