HOUGHTON, Michigan — The official race poster for 2023 U.S. National Cross-Country Championships, by local artist Christopher Schmidt, has a decidedly wintry theme. Skiers approach the viewer into the teeth of a strong wind, buffeted by snow blowing into their faces. The scene evokes common meteorological conditions at a venue situated amidst a narrow peninsula jutting out into Lake Superior, and the lake effect snow and wind that that proximity typically portends.
The poster is lovely, but through the first four days of this year’s U.S. Nationals, one race day and three training days, it was more notional than descriptive.
Wednesday, however, saw life start to imitate art, as snow began to fall and a steady wind blew it into the faces of athletes waiting on the start line for the day’s classic sprint heats. It was nowhere near as bad as the memorable 2016 championships at this same venue, marked by strong winds and temperatures around 0 F (see also 2020 U.S. Nationals, when the winning time for this race was over one minute slower than it was today), but it was not exactly warm or pleasant out, either.
Oh, and it was also right around freezing today, with light but moist snow falling, on a day when the first qualifier went out at 9:30 a.m. and the last junior final ended at 3:50 p.m., over six hours later. Pour one out for the wax techs (who were probably at the venue as of 5 or 6 a.m.).
Turning to that 9:30 a.m. qualifying round, in which roughly 200 men and 200 women skied the two-lap, 1.2-kilometer course at 15-second intervals:
Luke Jager (USST/University of Utah) set the day’s fastest mark in qualification, 2:48.42, 0.04 seconds ahead of Monday’s winner from the 10km skate, Andreas Kirkeng (Denver). Zanden McMullen (APU), Graham Houtsma (BSF), and Michael Earnhart (APU) made up the rest of the day’s top five in qualifying.
Magnus Bøe and Will Koch, who, spoiler alert, both made the final, qualified in 22nd and 23rd, respectively.
Reflecting the variable conditions throughout the day, athletes made a range of ski choices for the qualifier and the heats. Doublepoling on skate skis seems to have been a more prevalent choice for men in the qual than in the heats, but that is just my strong sense rather than a documented statistical observation.
Other ski choices included, but were probably not limited to, zeros, old-school hairies, klister, and klister cover. If you’d like to find out detailed specifics about what an athlete or team used today, ask a wax tech. Off the record. Once this week is over.
“My coach told me to be sure to put my skis down right away at the start so that no one could see what was on them,” as one athlete candidly observed in their post-race comments to Nordic Insights. There are some insights that even we can’t bring you. (Although all three athletes on the domestic men’s podium did divulge their choice of skate vs. classic, so read on for more on that.)
The quarterfinals brought relatively few surprises, although there were some unfortunate stumbles. Logan Diekmann, who began the season on the World Cup and was as high as 32nd in classic sprint qualifying in Ruka, suffered a broken pole approaching the climb the second time, and did not advance out of a stacked quarterfinal one. Houtsma, who had qualified in fourth, was disqualified from his quarterfinal two for a classic technique violation.
And Kirkeng was skiing quite well in quarterfinal four, but stumbled and fell coming up the hill (see photos above). Had it happened on the first time through, he just may have been able to catch back up, but in practice it was too much ground to close and his day ended there.
Tom Mancini was a narrow fourth in the third quarterfinal and failed to advance.
The semifinals brought tight skiing throughout. Jager and Kristoffer Karsrud (NMU) advanced out of the first semi; Jager led much of the heat, and set a relatively leisurely pace to start before pouring it on at the end, meaning that both lucky losers came from the other semi.
In semifinal two, Koch and Bøe led the way. McMullen and Christopher Kalev (UAF) advanced as lucky losers. Last place in this semifinal would have been third in the first semifinal, 0.12 seconds out of advancing. That’s sprint racing.
Six athletes toed the line for the men’s final at 1:30 p.m., over four hours after they had begun their day. From viewer’s left to right (start at the 1:39:00 mark of the superb livestream presented by CXC and announced by Adam Verrier), it was Christopher Kalev of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Zanden McMullen of APU (and the USST), Luke Jager of the University of Utah/USST, Will Koch of University of Colorado/USST, Kristoffer Alm Karsrud of Northern Michigan University, and Magnus Bøe of Colorado.
Karsrud and Bøe are Norwegian and Kalev is Estonian, which is relevant for determining a national champion. The first skier across the line wins the race, but the first American to finish wins the national championship. Ask a jury member what happens for the domestic podium if there are fewer than three Americans in the final.
The men got out cleanly, six skiers narrowing down to three lines within the stadium, Jager leading the way. The men skied with relative leisure down the descent out of the stadium, Jager leading one line of skiers, Bøe on his left leading another.
Koch and Bøe were leading by the time they swept around the long lefthand curve and hit the climb for the first time, with Jager following just of Koch’s right shoulder. Jager then exploded with a dominant run up the climb, taking the lead around the corner.
Jager’s lead at the top of the hill was substantial. By the bottom of the downhill, it had evaporated, consistent with a choice to prioritize kick over glide on his classic skis.
It was more of the same up the hill for the second and final time. Jager ran up the hill with alacrity and appeared to potentially be pulling away for victory, with Karsrud tailing him a few meters behind.
Unfortunately for Jager — and for many, many other athletes today, whose skis, triceps, hopes, and/or dreams died on that looooong false flat into the finish — there were roughly 200 meters yet to go in the race. (“The biggest thing was, I just had to keep reminding myself, Damn, that finishing straight is so long. And it’s always so windy and so slow,” as Jager told Nordic Insights soon after the race.)
Karsrud got the inside lane into the finish, and began inexorably pulling away for the win. Bøe, behind him, gained some daylight and dug for second.
Jager at this point found himself in the finishing straight of the Michigan Tech stadium in a classic sprint in a Utah suit, one meter from the line, doublepoling for all he was worth, the overall victory out of reach but a first American national championship all but assured.
*pause for a history lesson*
Luke Jager has been here before. In the classic sprint at U.S. Nationals in 2020, Jager was roughly one ski length from the line, closing hard on Julien Locke of Canada, likely on his way to winning the race overall but assured of being first American regardless, when his skis simply iced up, or caught, or some other vagary, and he fell to the ground. He could nearly touch the finish line at that time; you can’t quite see the finish in this fine photo from Reese Brown, but it is just out of the frame. Jager told the Anchorage Daily News that he was “eight inches from the finish line” when he fell.
(In that 2020 race, Jager immediately righted himself to flop across the line. APU teammate Hunter Wonders came by to take the domestic title, with Jager third overall and second American. “‘It was like slow motion, but that’s life. I can’t be too unhappy. I got beat by one of my best friends,’” a notably magnanimous Jager, at the time still just a teenager, said in the ADN article linked above.)
“I had some demons to overcome from Houghton,” Jager opened his post-race comments to Nordic Insights by observing. “So to stay on my feet was definitely a good start. It was a good accomplishment.”
Jager spoke at length to his thought process surrounding ski choice on a day when both skate and classic skis were a defensible choice, and the men’s final was split 50–50 between the two options.
“It was fun to have it be so kind of up in the air between skate skis and classic skis,” Jager said. “And I went back and forth a couple of times. I did the qual and my quarterfinal on skate skis, and felt like I was maybe rolling the dice a little bit in terms of, you know, not being DQed [for a classic technique violation]. And it’s just kind of not that fun a way to do a race, because you just have to go so hard the whole time. So I switched to classic skis for the last two.”
While this worked well for Jager, the choice was not without its perils. He credits some last-second tech work from Utah coach Miles Havlick for giving him good skis to work with.
“I decided I wanted to go on classic skis, and I went out and tested a little before my semifinal,” Jager recounted.
“And I was like, Oh man, these are really sticky. So Miles real quick grabbed them and changed the kick wax, literally minutes before the start, and I was like, Alright, what am I getting myself into. And it ended up being super, super good. So yeah, I rolled the dice, and it worked out.”
Finally, Jager, who, like the entire women’s podium in Monday’s 10km skate had begun the season racing in Europe, was asked about the differences between World Cup and domestic racing, and what he had learned from starting Period 1 in Europe. I’m going to quote his answer here in full, because it is interesting:
“Heats in this context are a lot different. And a lot more relaxing.
“And honestly, in some ways more stressful because there’s kind of that pressure, but not really. I’ve gotten a lot better at managing qualifying nerves, and figuring out what a good qualifier feels like, and kind of just realizing, like, it can come from a lot of different ways, and look and feel a lot of different ways.
“And I’ve just really worked at just being at peace with whatever ends up happening and however I’m feeling that day, and just knowing, like, you can be successful no matter how your mind is feeling that day or your body.
“And just being exposed to that level [of World Cup racing], and seeing so many people at that level, makes you realize, there’s a lot of ways to skin the cat. And that’s why I was like, I’m gonna go to classic skis, I know I can do well on classic skis, I’m gonna start with skate skis, I know I can do well on skate skis. I just wasn’t sweating the little things quite as much.”
APU skier Zanden McMullen, who finished fifth overall but as the third American on the day, sounded similar notes when asked about his race.
“I was going into the day not having high expectations,” he told Nordic Insights. “I really wanted to have a good qualifier, and I was able to put that together. And then from there I just went through the motions, and it worked well for me. So no complaints.”
McMullen described the course as “fast,” observing, “it’s scrappy out there.” He added, “You can try going into it with some strategy, but it goes out the window kind of right when you hit the trail.”
McMullen joined Jager, his summer training partner with APU (Jager is representing the University of Utah in this week’s races), in opting for classic skis over skate. “I just kind of rely on my running and striding in classic sprinting,” he said. “And I just thought that was the move and didn’t want to risk a DQ, and so overall, I think it was a good call for me.”
Will Koch, by contrast (fourth overall, second American), forewent skate skis for the qual, and classed that as his only regret on the day.
“I felt like it went well and everything,” he said. “But I went on hairies, and looking back on it, I wish I had just doublepoled the qualifier.”
Koch was 23rd in the qual, which he called “disappointing,” but switched to doublepoling on skate skis for the rest of the day, up to and including the final.
“And I found that in the technique zones, where everybody was striding and where I had to herringbone, I was able to herringbone just as fast as the others were striding and not really lose any time there,” he said. “And then, as the snow picked up throughout the day, I think that people on klister, their wax started hitching a little more and slowing down. So I think that my advantage by doublepoling increased where there was that soft snow.”
The qualifier aside, Koch was quite pleased with his day. “I think I gave it my all,” he mused, “and ending up second American is something I never would have thought that I could have done in a classic sprint just a year ago.”
Finally, Koch was asked about his process goals for the rest of the championships. I am once more going to quote his answer in full, because Koch spoke candidly and, well, insightfully, and I think there’s a lot to learn from this:
“This week, and just in general, I’ve really been focusing on my strategy in sprint races.
“And that’s something that I’ve come a long way with this year in sprint racing, especially classic, is the strategy part. And so what I’ve been doing is going a little notch slower from the start, because that way, I can maintain really good classic form the whole time. And when I’m able to maintain good classic form, that’s when it’s fast. Not when I’m doing my absolute hardest; then I get sloppy and slow. And that’s been a bit of a mindset shift for me.
“And so I’ve done a good amount of visualizing that throughout the week. And before I go to bed, I have been visualizing what the perfect qualifier would feel like, what the perfect heat would feel like. And I think that process has helped me a lot in terms of imagining that and then trying to execute exactly how I imagined.”
Athletes have a day off tomorrow. Racing resumes on Friday with classic mass start races, 20 kilometers for men and women and 10 kilometers for juniors.
The writeup on the women’s race will not be posted until Thursday morning, for which I apologize. This decision has nothing to do with prioritizing one gender over the other. It has everything to do with still needing to get today’s second Tour de Ski article up in a relatively timely fashion, and the late hour at present. Thank you for your patience. I got some really interesting thoughts from the top women athletes; I promise that it will be worth your while.
— Gavin Kentch
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