HOUGHTON, Michigan — On the one hand, every race is different and every athlete is their own individual. On the other hand, there were some pronounced similarities among all three podium finishers in today’s race, the opening event of this year’s U.S. Nationals. When it came to how they felt about the day, how they skied the rolling course, and why they were pleased to have turned down Tour de Ski starts to race domestically instead, the top three women today had a lot in common.
Here are the basic facts before you go any further: Hailey Swirbul won the women’s 10-kilometer interval-start skate race on the Michigan Tech trails today, the first race of 2023 U.S. National Cross-Country Championships, held Monday morning in benign, near-ideal conditions. Swirbul’s time for two laps of the 5.3-kilometer course was 27:32.5. She was followed by Novie McCabe, 18.5 seconds back, and Sydney Palmer-Leger, another 10.2 seconds back.
All three athletes are members of the national team, and turned down World Cup start rights they had earned for the Tour de Ski in favor of racing domestically. Swirbul races domestically with APU Nordic Ski Center; McCabe and Palmer-Leger ski for the University of Utah.
There is relatively little drama to unpack within the mid-race split timing. Swirbul had the fastest split at the halfway mark, good for a lead of six seconds over McCabe, then stretched that out over the second lap. McCabe had the second-fastest split 5 kilometers through; she lost a little time over the second lap, but still took second by an even ten seconds. And Palmer-Leger had the third-fastest halfway split, then finished third overall.
Palmer-Leger’s margin ahead of fourth, Sarah Goble of Bridger Ski Foundation, was nearly a full minute, as the podium finishers implicitly showed — and I mean this in the most respectful way possible to places four through 182 in the women’s field; I myself placed 241st in the men’s race, so lord knows I am not criticizing anyone who finishes off the podium in a national championship — the gap that can exist between the country’s top domestic athletes and some of its World Cup skiers.
Today marked Swirbul’s fourth national championship, all of them coming in Houghton (she won all three national championship races at 2020 Nationals). It was McCabe’s first national championship podium, and Palmer-Leger’s second, after finishing third in the skate sprint at Soldier Hollow a year ago today.
Okay, those are the results of what happened. Here are some interesting thoughts from the athletes about how they feel about what happened.
Regarding the course
The 5.3-kilometer FIS course at Michigan Tech is hard precisely because it is not that hard. There is no single monster V1 wall that gains 55 meters in a single A-Climb; there are instead a series of rolling climbs. After an initial descent — crucially, a rolling descent, not a steep, sit and tuck descent — over the first 1.5km of the course, there is a rolling uphill that is the course’s sole A-Climb. This skis as far more of a rolling climb than this elevation profile may suggest (at least in today’s stable, fairly fast conditions); this reporter was, as noted, 241st in the men’s race in a field of 256, and even he could V2 roughly half of it. At least on the first lap oops.
The A-Climb is followed by a, well, rolling downhill, then a series of steeper but fairly short V1 climbs, then a long, well, uh, how can I put this, rolling climb back up to the stadium. On paper, it doesn’t look that bad, and the total climb of 156 meters, over 5+ kilometers, is admittedly on the low end of permissible climb for a 5-kilometer homologated course.
In practice, the strained facial expressions and suboptimal V2 technique of athletes embarking on the 250-meter long false flat that begins the second lap — yes, right off the stadium, where everyone can see you — suggested that the course skied harder than it looks on paper. That’s why you play the game.
So how did the fastest women in the field approach this course?
Here’s Swirbul (all comments in this article were made in finish-line interviews with Nordic Insights):
“I think this is a really interesting course. It starts out downhill for a long time. So it’s kind of interesting to start off with. I think it skis almost like an altitude race, because it’s really continuous, steady, grinding the whole time. I tried to pace it that way, and really save something for the last two or three kilometers, because it’s a lot of rolling hills. And it worked out.
“Before the start I asked for advice from my coach, Erik Flora. He pointed out that there’s a lot of gradual uphill into flat into gradual downhill over the top of every hill. It’s not like you’re at the top, and then you’re immediately going down. So I think that there’s a lot of working time in those sections that lasts quite a long time. I tried to ski all the working sections really well and try to relax and think of the steep uphills as rest. So a V1 mindset of rest that really allows me to mentally reset and try to push over the tops of the more gradual climbs, really, I think is important on a day like this.”
“I honestly really like courses like this; I’m a big fan of kind of grindy V2. And I feel like we do a lot of that in the summer, with rollerskiing and stuff. And so I think today I was kind of thinking about, like, settling in on the hills and pushing hard on the flats. And I kind of hit a wall on the second lap; that plan kind of fell apart, and I was going a bit slow. But it was — I don’t know, I feel like I tried to execute it that way. And I think ideally that’s how I’d want to ski it, like really just push hard on the flats and be controlled on the uphills.”
And here’s Palmer-Leger:
“It is pretty rolly. There’s not a lot of like — there’s rest, but not a lot of rest, because you kind of have to tuck skate. So staying relaxed and powerful up those hills, because they’re not like super steep so you can’t just like run or like, jump up it. So it’s just like smooth and gliding a lot. And then pushing the doublepole on every little flat and over the hills and just trying to get every second that you can on little corners or curves.”
Regarding racing domestically rather than in Europe
All three women on today’s podium were nominated to start the Tour de Ski, which began in Switzerland on Saturday. All three of them turned down these start rights, opting instead to race in Houghton this week. The three athletes took different paths to arriving at this same conclusion, but they were all thoroughly pleased with their choice, and quite happy to be at U.S. Nationals this week rather than contesting seven races in nine days through central Europe.
Again, here’s Swirbul:
“I am so happy to be in the U.S. and to have started here this year. I went into this year with the plan being to race in the U.S. through Nationals, no matter what happened. And I think that security and that peace of knowing where I was going to be when through the beginning of the season has been huge for me.
“I think that being part of the ski community in the U.S. is amazing, and it’s helped me fall in love with skiing again, I’m still working on loving the racing aspect of it all because racing is hard, and painful. But I think all the pieces around that difficult, painful piece are necessary for that. So I’m just enjoying a slower start to the year, like being really grounded and reminding myself why I’m doing this.”
“I kind of struggled with being sick a lot during Period 1; I didn’t really race as much as I wanted to, and felt like the shape was not super good over there. And I just kind of thought it would be better to come here and get in some good racing as well as a good chunk of training before U23s, because that’s kind of my main goal for the season. So I kind of just figured that doing the Tour and going straight back to do more college racing would maybe be too much for me with where my shape is at. So that was kind of why I decided to.
“And also, to be top-three at Nationals is very fun. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten top-10 at Nationals before. And it’s fun to be here and to actually kind of be fighting for some of the top-five positions. And in a really competitive field of girls.”
And here’s Palmer-Leger:
“I got Tour de Ski starts, and I chose not to go over to Europe. I am still a U23, and I want to go to Whistler [for World Juniors at the end of this month]. And so my coaches and I had a discussion, and we decided that it just doesn’t make the most sense to travel over to Europe, race seven races in 10 days, and you’re traveling to three countries, and then come back. So I really wanted to focus on some of the races over here and be fresh for the rest of the year. I’m still only 20. So I have a long time to race Tour de Ski and World Cups. So kind of just having fun racing in college and the SuperTours over here. And then if I make more World Cups later this year, then I’ll figure if I want to do that instead.”
Regarding the race itself
Okay, there are some differences here, as you might well expect from three different women who ended up in three different positions on the podium.
Palmer-Leger acknowledged that “Our skis were not the best, so it was kind of tough out there,” but was nonetheless pleased with her race overall. McCabe noted that she “wasn’t feeling like my absolute best today, to be honest,” so she was “proud of myself for pushing hard,” but was also “really happy with it” overall. And Swirbul had the most positive feelings on the day, observing, “I had really good energy today, which was nice. I feel well rested, which doesn’t always happen, and I had responsive energy, which was really great.”
To close on some notes in common, however, Palmer-Leger had “a really good race,” McCabe was “really happy” with her day, and Swirbul thought that having good energy was “nice.” Emotions were therefore positive across every step of the podium.
Racing continues in Houghton on Wednesday with the classic sprint. It is forecast to be stormy tomorrow, with some snowfall, but, thankfully for athletes and techs, to have largely wrapped up by Wednesday morning. Live coverage of U.S. Nationals will continue on Nordic Insights all week, but should be posted earlier on each race day going forward because this reporter will be 100% reporting rather than also racing.
— Gavin Kentch
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