HOUGHTON, Michigan — In early December, Hailey Swirbul and Sydney Palmer-Leger were going head to head in ski races in Period 1 of this year’s SuperTour. Kendall Kramer, while she was getting plenty of time on snow in her native Fairbanks, was also logging a top-ten finish at NCAA D-II Championships for cross country running.
One month later, all three women were on the domestic podium in the classic sprint at 2023 U.S. National Cross-Country Championships. As Luke Jager observed yesterday in regards to differing approaches to ski choice, there’s more than one way to skin the cat of championship-level classic sprinting.
Wednesday morning in Houghton dawned a little more, well, Houghton-y than the preceding days in this year’s Nationals week. Temps were still right around freezing, as they have been for several days now, but a light snow began to fall. And there was some wind.
The snowfall was never particularly heavy, and winds were “just” in the range of 10-15mph (at least at a weather station on the Michigan Tech campus, within a kilometer of the venue), but moist snow at temperatures right around freezing is never a welcome sight on a classic race day. Even less so on a classic sprint day, where multiple hours elapse between the qual and the final, and multiple different types of ski and ski preparation may all be used.
Refer to yesterday’s story on the men’s race, held in equivalent conditions, for a full discourse on the range of ski tech out there. But suffice to say that many, many different options were on the table. As a friend and training partner has been heard to mutter, “I’ve got thirty different things in my kickwax box, and 90 percent of them are for temperatures within one or two degrees of freezing.”
It appears that only a handful of women chose to doublepole the qualifying round on Wednesday and few did so in the heats, Mariel Pulles being a notable exception. On the one hand, that simplified things, insofar as the initial question of stride vs. doublepole was now off the table for most athletes. On the other hand, that meant that techs were charged with finding a workable kick solution.
In practice, you could see stuff really go down, kick-wise, at the inflection points of the hills, when athletes had to shift technique from one mode to another. If klister, or klister cover, was going to catch, this would be the place for it to happen. Unless it happened somewhere earlier, or later, wholly unpredictably. Ski racing!
Turning to the results: Mariel Merlii Pulles, of University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), set the fastest time in qualifying on the 1.2-kilometer, two-lap-ish course (ski the middle loop twice, including twice up a steep hill with a classic-technique zone), finishing in 3:18.53. The rest of the top five in the qual were Tilde Bångman (Montana State), Hailey Swirbul (APU), Kendall Kramer (UAF), and Weronika Kaleta (Colorado).
All five women won their quarterfinal heat, in most cases by well over a second, so with all respect to the rest of the field I will fast forward to the semifinals. Pulles and Kaleta won the first semifinal, which was fast, taking both Palmer-Leger (who had begun the day by qualifying in tenth) and Kramer to the final with them. In the second semifinal, Swirbul won by over a half-second over Bångman.
Notably, Swirbul opted for the fifth and final quarterfinal to start the rounds, giving herself twenty minutes less rest than if she had made the more typical choice of opting for the first quarterfinal. She also raced in the second semifinal, although that one starts only five minutes after the first. Candidly, I had told myself during the race to ask Swirbul about this strategy choice, and simply forgot to do so when I was interviewing her afterwards. That’s on me; I apologize.
On to the final, which you can find starting at the 1:48:00 mark of the truly well-done livestream (thank you, CXC for the tech and Adam Verrier for the call. You can send CXC a donation from this screen if you like what you’ve been seeing.) From left to right in the starting grid, it was Kramer, Kaleta, Bångman, Pulles, Swirbul, and Palmer-Leger. Relevant for purposes of determining a national champion from this race, Pulles is Estonian, and Bångman is Swedish.
(Kaleta is listed in the results as being an American, but is coded as Polish in the FIS database and raced on the Polish women’s relay team at the Beijing Olympics, so the accuracy of this aspect of the unofficial results is unclear.)
Bångman led the field out of the stadium and down the descent for the first time, Kramer and Swirbul right behind her. Bångman led through the sweeping lefthand curve and into the base of the hill, but then had to switch to a herringbone while the rest of the field adopted more of a run.
Pulles reached the top of the climb first, with Swirbul close behind her, as the field made a sharp left turn to go round the central loop a second time. As they reached the base of the climb for the second and final time, it was Pulles in the lead, Bångman and Swirbul right behind her, Bångman having clearly opted for glide over kick and so able to catch up on the long downhill.
Swirbul exploded up the climb to take a substantial lead into the approach to the stadium, Pulles immediately behind her in her draft. The pair was roughly 20 meters clear of the rest of the field by this point, and barring disaster were going to be the first two across the line, in some order.
Pulles, in the blue and gold of Alaska Fairbanks, and Swirbul, in the blue of Alaska Pacific University, came into the finish stretch, a distance of roughly a hundred meters that at this moment in a race skis more like a thousand. Each woman briefly transitioned from doublepole to a few quick, short strides coming up a small rise, then went back to doublepole and drag raced to the line.
Swirbul’s advantage was never more than a ski length, but it was also consistent and unyielding. She appeared to have slightly firmer snow to work with (for poling) than Pulles, who was in the direct-line inside track in the stadium that had likely been chosen by virtually every athlete in qualifying and so had seen the most traffic on the day. Swirbul crossed the line in 3:22.56 to take her second win of the week, followed close behind by Pulles, 0.48 seconds back.
Bångman came across the line three seconds later for third overall. But Bångman is Swedish, and Pulles is Estonian, so the final two spots on the domestic podium were still up for grabs.
One second behind her, Palmer-Leger had been leading Kramer through the stadium in the race for second and third. Kramer made up a significant amount of ground over the final 200 meters of the race — in the photo earlier in this article, Kramer is skiing last in the final, with Palmer-Leger third at that point, several ski lengths ahead of her — but never quite closed the gap, even after adroitly staying in Palmer-Leger’s draft until around 10 meters to go and only then stepping out to try for a final lunge from the adjoining track. Palmer-Leger took fourth in the final, and second American, 0.20 seconds ahead of Kramer. Kaleta was another four-plus seconds back in sixth.
All three women on the domestic podium were pleased with their result, while reflecting on the different paths they had taken to get there.
“Today was an interesting day with the weather and the two-lap course,” Palmer-Leger reflected via email “Three years ago I raced the same course so I knew that the last stretch was going to feel pretty long.”
She continued: “Going into the semi-finals and finals I believe I played it strategically well. I sat in third or fourth the first lap then tried getting towards the front on the last climb. The finals went pretty well considering it was snowing and high winds. Going into the last climb I was sitting in third. We had a really good kick so I was able to run up the hill without any hesitation. The final stretch however with a little too much kick felt a little draggy. I ended up going into fourth the last bit of the course. I am so appreciative of all the supporters, my family, and coaches out there all day no matter what the weather was like.”
Kramer was pleased going into the day, she told Nordic Insights after her race, citing the running or herringbone sections of the course as strengths for her given her high-level running background. Kramer, who as an Alaska Fairbanks athlete competes on the RMISA circuit and so typically races at altitude throughout the western United States, also found it “so nice to be able to get full breaths and feel really good.” And she gained on the athlete who started ahead of her in the qual, which is always a good sign.
Even so, none of this prepared her for the experience of seeing her results from the qualifying round.
“But then I looked at the results,” Kramer noted. “And I’ve been like around the 20s [in qualifying]. And I wasn’t seeing my name there. And so I thought that I finished below that, because I wasn’t going to be surprised by finishing below [the twenties].
“But then I saw my name at number four, like tied with Hailey, and my mouth was open and I was looking for someone around that I knew, so I could be, like, Oh my gosh with them. And so I was really surprised, but I was really, really excited about that. That would have been cool if the races had stopped then, because I would have been happy with that. But that was really cool to see.”
Kramer is, as noted, a college athlete, and so typically does not contest sprints as part of her typical college racing circuit, certainly never at NCAA Regionals or Championships. College kids are, like, certainly capable of sprinting — notably, five of six athletes in today’s final were current NCAA skiers, with only one, Swirbul, being a pro skier with a club team — but they also seldom do so.
Kramer suggested that this rarity actually brings with it excitement, and contrasted this with her experience as one of the country’s top junior skiers.
“There’s an excitement thing above all else” now for sprints for her, she noted. “Because we do maybe two or three sprints a year, we’re really excited for them.”
As a junior athlete, when nearly every weekend brought both a sprint and a distance race, Kramer found herself thinking, “I just hope I don’t qualify, so I don’t have to do the freaking heats.” But now, she noted, “when you only have a few a year, you actually get excited to sprint because it’s like a little treat, because most of your races are like you’re going for 30 minutes. And it’s really nice to have like a three-minute one put in there. So I think it’s just refreshing and it keeps you mentally more engaged.”
Finally, Kramer is one of dozens of college skiers on the RMISA circuit, but she is the rare athlete who also competes at the highest levels of the sport in cross-country running as well as skiing. Kramer won nine state titles in high school in running, in both track and cross-country, an impressive achievement to be sure but also not an unparalleled one for a top American skier. (She also won a race at Mt. SAC by 34 seconds, if you are, like this reporter, enough of a high school xc running junkie that that means something to you.) But, unlike most college skiers, she has continued running at the highest levels as well.
Put another way, on December 2 Kramer was eighth at NCAA D-II Cross Country [Running] Championships outside of Tacoma, Washington. On January 4, Kramer was third American at U.S. National Cross-Country [Skiing] Championships in Houghton. That’s some range.
Doing both sports at a high level “reminds me that the sport of skiing is more simple than I think,” Kramer noted. “I think if you’re going to ski camps and you’re kind of doing that, and that’s your focus for the entire summer and fall, you can of feel like it’s complicated because of all the equipment and all the different races that you do… but it’s really just about fitness, just base fitness and you’re going to be fine if you just have that. And I think running reminds me of that because I can do a running race and do well in it and then the next weekend do a ski race and I do equally as well, and it just really simplifies it for me.”
Kramer also noted the logistical ease of running, and the ability to do a given intensity workout on foot rather than on skis if she wants to: “I can just run for an hour, do my intervals in an hour with just my shoes,” and not have to wax her skis or drive to a trailhead for skiing.
Kramer praised her coaches at her hometown program of UAF for working with her to let her do both sports at a high level.
The athlete on the top step of the domestic podium, Hailey Swirbul, may also have been the happiest. Swirbul, who has spoken openly about her experience with depression and anxiety and the value of finding a good therapist [and so many other things — seriously, go listen to her podcast with Voice in Sport some time, you will learn something], was asked if she was happy this week, and if she was having fun here.
“I am,” Swirbul said.
“Really,” she continued, “I wake up every day. And even though Houghton is not my favorite place in the world, I am really glad to be in Houghton. I think that I’m stoked to see my teammates in Europe crushing it. And I’m also really glad to not be there right now. And to be here, following the plan that I’m confident works for me, and chasing different goals like finding love in skiing. So it’s been good.”
Again, I apologize for not getting this article up until today. I didn’t have the bandwidth last night to give this story the attention it deserved after a long day at the venue and editing or writing lots of other articles. I hope that these three athletes’ thoughts were worth the wait.
— Gavin Kentch
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