Ruka Skate Pursuit (with full video): Frida Karlsson Dominates for the Win; Brennan 6th, Diggins 10th


Race: Women’s 20-kilometer skate pursuit, Ruka, Finland

Is there embedded video you can watch? Once again, yes. Thank you, Finnish YouTube user!

What happened at the front of the race: Well, two Americans in the top 10, for one. Rosie Brennan skied a steady and tactically solid race that saw her squarely in the hunt for third at several points late in the race, ultimately coming up short in a finish-line group sprint and finishing sixth, 0.7 seconds off the podium. Brennan skied virtually the whole race in a large pack, conserving energy when possible but also not hesitating to move to the front and drag the entire group with her when the pace slowed mid-race and no one else was willing to try to chase down the front-running Swedes. As we all saw during the Olympic 30km, Brennan is not afraid of hard work.

Jessie Diggins skied a gutsy and aggressive race; if today’s pursuit had been the Tour de France, she would have been a lock for Le Prix de la combativité jersey (combativity award) (that’s a compliment). She was leading the chase pack for third at several points over the final two laps, and was holding third as late as the final approach to the stadium. But she had burnt a lot of matches moving from 19th up to the front, as well as working to drag the pack forward in the middle of the race. Diggins’s legs were good for 19.8 kilometers of the 20-kilometer race (see her quotes below for more on this), but she was not quite able to keep pace with the pack going up the final climb. Diggins finished in 10th, 7.7 seconds off the podium. She logged the second-fastest time-on-day split, behind only Karlsson.

Back to the start of the race and the front of the pack: Ebba Andersson of Sweden headed out first in the pursuit start, in which athletes’ starting position in today’s skate race was determined by their finishing position, and time back, in yesterday’s classic race. Countrywoman Frida Karlsson started second, 6 seconds back, followed by Katharina Hennig of Germany, 13 seconds back. Brennan started 29 seconds back in seventh. Diggins started 1:18 back in 19th. 

(Diggins was 21st in yesterday’s race, but two athletes who had finished ahead of her did not start today.)

Karlsson soon caught Andersson at the front. Hennig was a non-factor on the day. By the end of the first of six 3.3-kilometer laps, the two Swedish women were working together off the front, while Brennan followed in a large chase pack. Her chase pack slowed, somewhat, until Brennan went to the front to push the pace. Diggins’s chase pack sped up, until ultimately some of its athletes merged with the Brennan/Norwegians pack to form one giant amoeba of fearsomely strong skiers.

By the 13.2-kilometer mark the gap from the frontrunning Swedes to third was 49 seconds, and barring utter disaster or equipment failure, either Frida Karlsson or Ebba Andersson was going to win.

Midway through the final lap, Karlsson made sure it was going to be her. She dropped the hammer, instantly opening up a sizeable gap over Andersson (who, to be fair, may well have shut things down, relatively speaking, and skied with an eye to holding onto second once she realized that she could not stay with Karlsson). Andersson ultimately finished second, 33.3 seconds back but also well ahead of her pursuers.

Behind them, there were 12 athletes fighting for one podium spot.

First Diggins, then Brennan, made gutsy attacks within the final kilometer to attempt to get a gap and claim third. But Diggins was swallowed up by a Norwegian wave of red going up the final hill, and Brennan, while in a stronger position within the stadium, didn’t quite have the legs to contest the final sprint. (Again, this is all relatively speaking. Another way to state the results would be to say that Brennan was 0.7 seconds off the podium after 50 minutes of strong racing.)

The distance from the podium is the distance from Weng, far left, to Brennan, far right, after 20 kilometers of racing. (photo: screenshot from YLE broadcast)

Tiril Udnes Weng led the pack across the line to finish third, 1:11.6 back from Karlsson. Heidi Weng was 0.4 seconds back of Tiril Weng for fourth, with Silje Theodorsen 0.2 seconds behind in fifth. Brennan was another 0.1 seconds back in sixth.

For perspective, a single blink of a human eye takes from 0.2 to 0.4 seconds, depending on your source. And your eyes.

Diggins was 10th, 7 seconds back from Brennan and 7.7 seconds off the podium.

Notably, only 49 women started the race; five of them were lapped on the multi-lap course, so only 44 athletes finished. Among the finishers, of note was the ageless Masako Ishida of Japan, who finished 22nd. Ishida was born in 1980, and is 42 years old. She raced in the World Championships at Val di Fiemme in 2013. She also raced in the World Championships at Val di Fiemme in 2003, when Helene Fossesholm (who was also in today’s race) was one year old. Racing in a 2001 World Cup, she competed against athletes such as Bente Skari and Stefania Belmondo. Remember Anita Moen? Hilde Pedersen? Kateřina Neumannová? Ishida has raced against them.

Also of note, the top two Americans’ skis seemed to be running extremely well, with both Diggins and Brennan repeatedly regaining contact on descents. (The other Americans presumably had a comparable wax job, they just got less air time so I have no take on their ski speed.)

Update: Here’s Jason Cork on today’s skis for the Americans:

What happened for the Americans: Brennan and Diggins got the headlines, deservedly so. But behind them, every American woman in the race moved up from her starting position over the course of the 20 kilometers. Novie McCabe finished 25th, 4:10.5 back of Karlsson. Alayna Sonnesyn, Sophia Laukli, and Julia Kern made up an American sandwich in 33rd, 34th, and 35th, all five-plus minutes back.

What do the athletes think about today? As always, great question. We have an answer from six (!) different women who raced today. Thank you so much to all the athletes for their time.

Here’s Rosie Brennan, in an email to multiple media outlets:

“Today was a big day for equal distance racing! I enjoyed the 20k distance and the pursuit format is always a fun and wild way to kick off the year. With the longer distance, things packed up a lot more so it became a very tactical race for me. I was happy with how I managed in the big pack and happy to be in the sprint for 3rd. I feel I am missing my top gear, limiting me in the finish, but my fitness feels good so I think the speed will come as the season progresses. It was a great day for everyone on the team and that is a fantastic way to close out the weekend on a high note. We are all looking forward to more snow and a few more hours of daylight next week.”

Here’s Jessie Diggins, via transcribed audio:

“It was a really great day. First and foremost, I was really proud of the techs for our skis. I felt like my skis were on par with the best in the world. And that was an awesome feeling, because it gives you a fighting shot at whatever you want to do. So you go forward with confidence, and I’m just really grateful and really proud of them for that.

“And it was a great confirmation of where my overall fitness was. I went out charging really hard with just the goal of simply hunting people down, and if I got myself somehow, miraculously, into a podium position, I would worry about tactics then and only then. But we did get there. So I had a great time working together with Ingvild Flugstad Østberg; we skied up to the pack of a lot of people … vying for third place. And when we made the pack, we looked at each other, and we were like, Sweet, we did it. So we had a cool, like, friendship moment out there in the middle of the race, so that was really neat. But then, to be totally honest, it was quite frustrating. That pack was moving pretty slowly. I tried hard to make a move, but no one wanted to work with me, so it didn’t stick.

“But I knew, like, Hey, this is too big of a pack. We do need to tire some people out, and my energy felt good. So going into the final lap I went to the front because I reasoned, at the very least, if there’s a crash, I won’t be stuck behind people. I kind of learned from what happened to me on the sprint day. So I thought at the very least I’m gonna get myself tactically into a very good position. And I felt like my fitness was there and that I could keep pushing.”

However, at the start of the final lap, I did start to feel the twinges in my legs that meant cramps were coming on, which made me a little nervous. And I was hoping it would hold off just 3.3 km… and they held off for 3.1 km.

“And so unfortunately on the final climb, my legs started cramping up really quite badly. I actually had to throw in some doublepoles at the top of the climb because my legs were locking out stiff, and I felt that I couldn’t control them and it was better to doublepole than to stumble and fall. So to be totally honest, I’m not completely satisfied with that race. I felt like my energy and my heart were there, and I wanted more. I set myself up tactically really well for the final climb, and I’m a little bit annoyed at my body for betraying me a little on that final climb, but that’s okay. I think it’s it’s good to be not satisfied when you know that you can do more. So overall, I think today was just incredibly encouraging. It left me feeling good but also with a lot of fight left.”

Diggins also noted that she would continue focusing on recovery, and was getting very excited for the next set of races.

Here’s Alayna Sonnesyn, via email:

“Today was so fun! I knew the wave was going to go out fast to chase people down and that with such a large crew we could really move through the trails quickly. I found myself in a train with Sophia and Julia and we worked all 20k together, taking turns leading and drafting to keep pushing it; we were able to find some ground.

“I’m very happy with my race today because not only was it a personal best result on the world cup (33rd overall and 30th time of day) but I also felt like my body and mind were in a good space. I was able to push myself physically despite having a ‘building’ feeling the past few weeks and I was also just having a ton of fun! By far the most fun I’ve had in a World Cup race because of the teammates, cheering, atmosphere and my own attitude.”

I have often found myself on the start line of a World Cup feeling dread about the upcoming pain, hot pace, and sense of defeat. But today, I felt grateful to be there, excited, curious about my ability, and ready for whatever the race brought me.

“I’m excited to see what else Period 1 has in store.”

Here’s Novie McCabe, via text:

“The races this weekend were pretty good for me. I think a positive from yesterday was that I think I skied with better technique than usual, and I had really great skis which helped a lot. Today was also pretty good, and I had a great pack to ski with which made it really fun! I felt slightly flat on Saturday, but I think that’s kinda just how it goes this time of year, so excited to get in some more racing in the next few weeks and get more into the swing of things.”

Here’s Julia Kern, via transcribed audio:

“It was super fun to have a USA train out there skiing with Alayna and Sophia the whole race. Today was definitely a day where you didn’t want to ski alone. There was quite a bit of wind, and the Ruka course definitely has some drafting sections and working sections. So it was really helpful to have a group, and we alternated leads and were trying to push the pace and catch some people. We started out pretty fast and were making some good headway, but the 20km is definitely a bit longer than the 10km from last year, so we definitely had to pace it a little bit, and the alternating leads helped that.

“I thought it was really exciting to try a 20km. I wasn’t really sure how it would go for me, it’s definitely a lot longer, but I’m excited to see how the future 20 km’s go. And the Ruka one is definitely quite hilly. So I’m curious to see how maybe a mass start shakes out, or other pursuits.

“My positive takeaway from the opening weekend is that my energy is feeling really good, and I’m really excited to keep building on this opening weekend. And our team had really great results to start off the weekend. So I think it’s gonna be an exciting year for our team.”

Image of Laukli is from roughly two weeks ago, not from today’s race.

And last but not least, here’s Sophia Laukli, via email, with some thoughts mostly about yesterday’s classic race, but also speaking to her overall feelings on the weekend:

“Yesterday’s 10km was definitely a classic first race of the year — essentially not super great but also not the worst. I had a pretty rough race here last year in the 10km, so I was generally hoping to ski better than that, both results wise and technically. I focused more on the technical piece and skiing more confident/smooth (rather than my go-to frantic skiing), and I think this is what helped me have a better race. I don’t think I could have done anything differently in the race so I would say I’m generally satisfied. My skis were good and I felt decent, I just think I’ll need a couple races to really get back to my fastest skiing. I knew coming into this weekend that I probably wasn’t going to be racing at my very best (because I wasn’t the most confident in my training leading up to this), so with that in mind, I was happy, and especially with how I improved technically from last year.”

Results: overall | time-on-day

— Gavin Kentch

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