Likely the most prestigious domestic racing in the country this weekend occurred in Sun Valley, where a classic sprint and distance skate race wrapped up Period 1 of the 2022/2023 SuperTour season. I’ll blurb those races soon, but until recently I’d been waiting for the official SuperTour standings to be updated, so I can accurately report who the current leaders are and who is in line for Tour de Ski start rights later this month (spoiler alert: Finn O’Connell and Hailey Swirbul, according to a recent update). Until then, please enjoy this look at the nearly as prestigious Anchorage Cup citizen race series.
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Here are some notable team sprint podiums from now-retired skier Kikkan Randall’s World Cup career: second, Düsseldorf, December 2011 (with Sadie Bjornsen); second, Milan, January 2012 (with Jessie Diggins); first, Québec City, December 2012 (with Diggins). You may also remember Randall’s World Championships gold in this event, from Val di Fiemme in 2013, and her Olympics gold in this event, from Pyeongchang in 2018, both times alongside Diggins.
Hopefully Randall has space on her mantelpiece for some new hardware, because Sunday afternoon, racing in a blizzard at Kincaid Park in Anchorage, she took home a new title that easily dwarfs all of the above in global prestige: First place in the women’s division of AMH Anchorage Cup Race #1, the sprint relay.
Seriously though, yesterday’s citizens race, in which teams of two each did two laps around a roughly 1.5-kilometer course, showcased the cross-country skiing community in this country at its best. Junior Nordic kids in their first-ever race plodded around the course on fishscales. Parents teamed up with children, training partners with training partners, friends with friends. Everyone skied circles in the snow until they were exhausted, then went up to the wax bunker* to eat soup provided by Alaska Winter Stars and receive awards provided by Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage.
(* The “wax bunker” is, quite literally, a bunker. Kincaid Park was used as a missile storage facility during the Cold War; presentations and bib pickups and wedding receptions now take place inside a converted bunker whose walls still bear the stenciled insignia, “Explosive load limit: 10 Nike–Hercules Rounds.” Here is a photo of Gus Schumacher signing autographs in the bunker in early November:)
But before all that could happen, there were races to contest. Holly Brooks was on the scramble leg for what could unofficially be termed Team Retired Olympians And Mothers, leading the field out of the stadium and into the sharp north wind spitting snow into skiers’ faces.
Brooks and Randall both competed in the mixed relay at 2014 Spring Series in Anchorage, but did so for Team APU 2 and Team APU 1 respectively, and Brooks was not named to the American relay team for the Sochi Olympics. It may have therefore been the two longtime APU skiers’ first time on the same relay team since they contested World Cup relays in 2011, 2012, and 2013.
In both the 2012 and 2013 relays, Brooks skied the scramble leg, then tagged off to Randall for the second classic leg. When Brooks did so in late-November 2012, it was in the epochal relay in Gällivare, Sweden, where the American women finally broke through to the podium with a third-place finish. The race serves as the opening scene of Peggy Shinn’s book World Class: The Making of the U.S. Women’s Cross-Country Ski Team, and can be fairly said to betoken much of the success for the American women’s team that has followed.
When Brooks skied that race in Gällivare, she was scrambling against names like Ida Ingemarsdotter, Chandra Crawford, and (a much younger) Heidi Weng. Ten years later, her closest competition on the opening leg at Kincaid was local Masters legend Alison Arians. (Arians brought home four medals from four races at 2022 World Masters in Canmore, and is one of the country’s top age group skiers. She was 32nd in the women’s 10km skate at 2020 U.S. Nationals, ahead of scores of pro athletes at age 49.)
The former World Cup athlete won this round, but it was close, with Brooks coming through the exchange zone only three seconds up on Arians.
Brooks, who was not racing in a national team uniform but who was wearing the famed relay socks, handed off to Randall, who was outfitted in a Sochi 2014 Olympic race suit (sample photo here), and, of course, matching relay socks.
Randall headed out on course into the wind, followed close behind by Meredith Schwartz, also known locally as Alison Arians’s daughter. (As you consider Schwartz’s performance on Sunday, it must in all fairness be noted that she was doing her second race in as many days; she had won a high school classic race on Saturday.) Schwartz is, per the FIS database, an 18-year-old high school senior.
Randall turns 40 later this month. Brooks turned 40 this spring. Arians turned 52 the day before the race, per the FIS database. All three of them are mothers; Randall and Brooks’s children, along with their mothers, may be seen below, and Schwartz’s mother was on the race course with her. “Technically, every mother deserves a gold medal,” as the Washington Post wrote of Randall’s team sprint medal in Pyeongchang, at a time when Randall’s son Breck was not quite two years old.
But on this day, only Brooks and Randall could claim the prestigious gold medal obtainable only through victory in an AMH Anchorage Cup race. Randall put 14 seconds into Schwartz on her leg, Arians skied a notably strong third leg solo to let the gap to Brooks grow by only two more seconds, Randall was again stronger on the anchor leg, and that was that. Victory for the Olympians.
Brooks and Randall’s winning time on the day was 18:18.8; conditions were pretty slow out there. Second and third place were both in the 19-minute range. Places 27 through 29, in the 29-team field, all took 30 minutes or more to cover the same course. I mention this in no way whatsoever to mock the back of the field (lord knows I can find you plenty of race results listing me last), but rather to underscore the fact that cross-country skiing, in this country, is a sport where you can race alongside Olympians, no matter your age.
For one day, even at age 40 (or: almost 40), Randall and Brooks were Olympians again, flying around the course in a low-stakes race in a sport they once dominated at its highest levels. Brooks marked the moment with the following Instagram story late Sunday:
But then Monday came, and the snow piled up to historic depths, and Anchorage schools were closed for the fourth day in a row, and Brooks did not hide the fact that she was once an Olympian, but she is always a mother. And she marked that moment with the following Instagram story earlier tody:
As Brooks described her counseling practice to Nordic Insights earlier this fall, she works with “athletes, high performers, and moms” [when she is able to do her day job around school closures]. Suffice to say that there’s a lot of overlap between those categories; all moms are high performers.
Update: Anchorage schools would open on Tuesday and Wednesday, but then close again on Thursday, and again on Friday, following another foot-plus of snow.
— Gavin Kentch
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