HOUGHTON, Michigan — There can sometimes be the sense of a race within a race at U.S. Nationals. There is the winner of the race in a traditional sense, viz., the athlete who covers the course in the shortest period of time. But then there are the other winners of the national championship, viz., the three fastest Americans on the day. This is not a matter of xenophobia but rather of team selection; while the cosmopolitan nature of NCAA skiing is typically viewed as a good thing, U.S. Ski & Snowboard is only in a position to award international race starts and team selections to American athletes.
All of which is to say that the winner of the men’s 10-kilometer interval-start skate race, held on the Michigan Tech trails Monday afternoon on the first day of 2023 U.S. National Cross-Country Championships, was foreign national Andreas Kirkeng, shown here racing in a Scandinavian Cup competition last month:
Kirkeng was by far the strongest skier on the day, covering two laps of the 5.3-kilometer course in 24:27 on a day when no one else in a field of 256 athletes broke 25 minutes. He was followed by the top three Americans of John Steel Hagenbuch (USST/Dartmouth), 33.3 seconds back; David Norris (Steamboat Springs), 35.8 seconds back; and Skylar Patten (Michigan Tech), 40.6 seconds back.
Notably, current NCAA skiers made up seven out of the top ten spots in the men’s field, with Kirkeng, Hagenbuch, and Patten joined by Mike Ophoff (Alaska Fairbanks) in fifth, teammate Joe Davies in sixth, Florian Winker (Montana State) in eighth, and Bernhard Flaschberger (Denver) in tenth. In total, there were six different countries represented in the top ten.
There was relatively little drama at the front of the field; Kirkeng set the fastest time through halfway, then extended his lead substantially over the second lap to win by over thirty seconds. It was a dominating performance that deserves praise, but it doesn’t do much for scoreboard watching.
Behind him, however, Hagenbuch was out on course in bib no. 226, with Norris two bibs and one minute behind (30-second interval start) in bib no. 228. Patten, a relative dark horse, started another two minutes later in bib no. 232.
It was all Norris (among the Americans) over lap one of the course. His halfway split was 11:47.0, within 6.7 seconds of Kirkeng for first overall. He was 16.9 seconds up on third, Ophoff of UAF, and 17.3 seconds up on Patten and Hagenbuch, at the time tied for fourth overall and the second American. Through 5 kilometers (strictly speaking, one lap, or 5.3 kilometers), Norris was well on his way to victory (domestic division).
But the race is 10 kilometers long (or 10.6, if you want to be a pedant about it), not five. Norris skied his second lap in 13:15.8, Hagenbuch skied his in 12:56, and Norris’s halfway advantage of 17.3 seconds became a finish-line deficit of 2.5 seconds.
It was the 21-year-old Hagenbuch’s first national championship podium finish, let alone his first national championship. Norris, 32, first raced at national championships in Houghton in 2008 (where he was 72nd in this race, the 10km skate, in a race featuring Ivan Babikov, Leif Zimmermann, and Kris Freeman on the podium). Monday marked his ninth national championship podium. Seven of them have come in the 30km or 50km mass start, both skate and classic; the eighth came in the 15km interval-start classic, back when this was a race format featured at U.S. Nationals (2011).
Behind them, Patten skied the race of his life (so far) to make the domestic podium in third. Here are Patten’s three best finishes at a national championship coming into today: 19th, 55th, and 59th. He was 108th in the skate sprint qual at Soldier Hollow a year ago today. Sometimes what looks like a giant breakthrough is really just the accumulation of years’ worth of hard work.
“I am honestly pretty astonished,” Patten said in a Michigan Tech press release earlier today.
“I was nervous coming into the race but I know how to ski our home course very well so I just focused on that and the positives. Being around my teammates before the race raised my spirits and confidence to go out and have a good race.”
Ahead of him, Norris shared some lengthy and thoughtful comments with Nordic Insights via email.
“We had a lot of coaches and spectators on course,” the quasi-retired Norris wrote late Monday after wrapping up a coaching meeting with his athletes at Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, “making today a great experience.”
Norris continued, “I had several splits given to me each lap and was well aware that I was down on the leader at 5km and up on third. I pushed really hard lapping through and in the first half of my second lap. I probably paid for that effort in the end as I faded and bled time in the last couple km. I was definitely giving it everything racing for the win rather than being conservative in any way. I love racing and skiing so I was really stoked to get the opportunity to race today. Working with the Steamboat Winter Sports Club and this week partnering with Ski and Snowboard Club Vail has been a massive learning opportunity and I really appreciate that the two staff groups here are allowing Jessica [longtime partner Jessica Yeaton] and I to jump into the races.”
When asked about the profile of this course (see the recent article on the women’s race for like 500 words on this), Norris wrote, “As you mentioned this course does not have any monster climbs, but the work adds up. Compared to years past I think I did a great job of relaxing on the longer climbs and focusing my effort on all the flat and rolling terrain. It was actually really fun searching for seconds in all the turns and transitions compared to just hammering the hills.”
Norris added, insightfully,
“Coaching is actually helping me realize some of my own negative race habits and I think I am making improvements as I think about the best way to advise my athletes.”
Finally, Norris had been asked about the fact that there were only two competitive athletes over 30 in the entire field, a question prompted in part by 38-year-old Brian Gregg’s post above (the Instagram version is embedded; you can find the Facebook post that Norris cites here). Norris wrote:
“Brian Gregg made a great post on the Team Gregg facebook relating to exactly that. (give it a look!) Distance skiers obviously ski at their peak well into their mid 30’s. We see it all the time on the World Cup. We don’t see it in US skiing very often and I completely understand why so many incredible American skiers stop pursuing racing at the highest level each year.”
And at the top of the domestic podium, albeit the bottom end of his 20s, Hagenbuch spoke first to the nature of this course, via text message to Nordic Insights, likening it to “almost … an interval set.”
“A course that’s mostly sustained work versus short, punchy climbs and rolling terrain is a bit of a different challenge,” Hagenbuch wrote. “It requires a lot of smooth, sustained V2 — as opposite to dynamic skiing with a lot of transitions. I knew that I really wanted to be able to push through the climbs towards lapping on the first lap and the climbs towards the finish on the second lap. A course like this almost skis like an interval set: it has tiered climbs as working sections and fast downhills breaking them up.”
He also addressed what happened on the second lap, where he was able to make up just enough time on Norris to take the overall win.
“I was not getting back splits,” Hagenbuch noted. “I knew my skis were not as rapid as they could’ve been on the downhills, so I was really trying to push the V2 on the climbs and transitions. I’m usually pretty good at closing fast at the end of the race, so it was nice to be able to do that today.”
Racing continues in Houghton on Wednesday with a classic sprint, although the primarily-here-as-a-coach Norris will not be contesting it. The rest of today’s top four are all entered.
— Gavin Kentch
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