HOUGHTON, Michigan — If you’re reading this website, you probably have training partners. And if you have training partners, you’ve probably fantasized, during a grinding, hours-long OD workout or an extended drive to some frozen outpost of American skiing — Houghton, say, or Fairbanks, or West Yellowstone — about racing your training partners head to head with a national championship on the line.
Friday morning, around 10:10 a.m. local time, 6:10 a.m. in Alaska, dreams became reality for Luke Jager, David Norris, and Zanden McMullen, as the trio headed out on the fourth and final five-kilometer lap of the men’s 20-kilometer mass start classic race at 2023 U.S. National Cross-Country Championships. Three men, three podium spots, thirteen minutes to glory.
(Spoiler alert that is probably actually more helpful than just a lengthy, overwritten riff on the glory of Alaska: Jager would take the win, in 51:14.3, with Norris second and McMullen third, both just a few seconds back. But now let’s learn more about our three contenders.)
Norris is 32, and one of the best domestic men’s distance skiers of his generation. He came into today with nine national championship podium finishes to his name, all of them in distance races. After a career of working and grinding and near-misses for Olympic or national-team selection — the meme below is not not about him — Norris left his longtime club, Alaska Pacific University, after last season.
Norris, who was born and raised in Fairbanks, now coaches with Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, and describes himself as retired from full-time racing. Norris was one of just three men in the field of 96 athletes over the age of 27; as he wrote to Nordic Insights following Monday’s race, “I completely understand why so many incredible American skiers stop pursuing racing at the highest level each year.”
Norris is a technically beautiful skier, with some of the smoothest glide of anyone you’ll ever see (also one of the biggest engines), and, at his best, an unparalleled ability to combine power with relaxation. He is also no one’s idea of a sprint specialist.
Jager, who grew up in Anchorage, is 22, and at the vanguard of the youth movement in American men’s skiing. He is a difficult man to beat in a doublepole finish, as witness his result on Wednesday that brought him into today’s race as the reigning classic sprint national champion. He skis collegiately for the University of Utah, and indeed raced here in a Utah suit all week, but described APU as his “home club” to the Anchorage Daily News earlier this week.
APU coach Erik Flora could be seen offering feeds to both Norris and Jager, as well as to men currently wearing APU suits, during the race, suggesting that he still views them as part of the fold.
McMullen is 21, and joins Jager in the American men’s youth movement. He describes himself as “a distance guy,” but was also on the podium in Wednesday’s sprint. McMullen, who also grew up in Anchorage, is a current APU skier.
(Disclosure, I train with the APU Masters team, but have essentially no interaction with Flora or with APU Elite Team athletes on a daily basis.)
The three men have raced each other for eons — consider, as just one example among many, the U14 and U16 3km classic results from this January 2015 Besh Cup Alaska JNQ race, featuring both Jager and McMullen — and have trained together for a cumulative thousands of hours.
And they have spent long weeks together on Eagle Glacier in the summer. If you train together in the demanding environment of Eagle Glacier, a place given to long hours and raw emotions, you will come away either friends for life, or never wanting to see that person ever again. Norris, Jager, and McMullen chose the former.
So: three men, three friends, three proud Alaskans; three podium spots; a slight gap back to fourth, expected top contender Andreas Kirkeng having been taken out by an unfortunate lap-two fall; and one lap still ahead of them. As noted, Jager would close the lap by winning a sprint finish, ahead of first Norris and then McMullen.
Let’s let the athletes take it from here:
Jager, who spoke with Nordic Insights after the race: “Right off the gun, Andreas was just freaking pinning it. I kind of thought, Alright, he’s just trying to make a little gap in the parade loop, keep out of trouble. And we went to the first hill, and he was still pinning it, and the second hill and still pinning it, and we went through the lap and he was still pinning it, and I was like, Jesus Christ, it’s gonna be a hard race.”
But midway through the second lap, Jager and Kirkeng both swung wide at the same time to set up for a turn. “And he clipped the back of my skis and went down pretty hard. I think he took a couple other people out. … It was a huge bummer. Because he was fifth in a Scan Cup a few weeks ago; he’s like undoubtedly, probably the strongest skier in the field. And one of the best U23s in the world right now. So for him to be out of the race so early, because that was definitely a big bummer.”
Jager, a true competitor, was hardly celebrating another’s misfortune and early exit. But he also had to figure out what to do next, with nearly three-fourths of the race yet to go.
“But that left me in a bit of an odd predicament,” he notes, “because after the crash David and I developed a little bit of a gap … very early on in the second lap, where we have like five or a little more seconds back to” some chasing athletes.
“And I was like, Dave, we got a little gap. Thankfully, Dave and I know each other pretty well. So we were able to chat a little bit. And I was like, what do you want to do here, we have a gap, I can lead us downhill and kind of see how things shake out if you want.”
But, Jager reasoned, “skiing 15km alone is gonna be pretty damn hard.” He and Norris then slowed slightly, letting the group catch back up to them. At that point Jager’s approach became more, “I’m gonna try and stay out of the lead and make it as easy as possible for myself until the end. And thankfully, it worked out that I had enough left to give in the very end.”
Fast forward to the final lap. Here’s Norris, via email: “By lap three it was myself, two former teammates, and Peter [Wolter of Sun Valley]. … These guys are skiing well.”
Here was Norris’s strategy at this juncture: “I knew Luke would would be a tough guy to beat if he was in the group coming into the final climb. He’s so strong in doublepole and was striding just as well.”
Here’s McMullen’s approach, in a post-race interview with Nordic Insights: “I didn’t quite have that spark. So I was just like, okay, I’ll push the pace a little bit, but nothing crazy, and just kind of see how it pans out. I think if I could go back, I would maybe put it down a little earlier on and spread them out, because I think Luke was hurting a little bit. And I think I could have used my endurance to my advantage. But I’m overall happy about it.”
And here’s the man who won, Jager: “I definitely was like, Alright, I got good skis. … And I can tell I’m feeling good. But you know, a classic mistake is kind of underestimating what your opponents are capable of. So I decided not to be too gung ho, and kind of leave it as late as I could, really. And with maybe a km to go, in some of these like rolling flats, I decided to kind of do a little test, and push pretty hard in the doublepole. And it’s thinned out a little bit, maybe we got rid of Peter, I don’t even know.
“But Zanden and David were still right there, and it was just kind of like, well, the finishing straight is going to decide this.
“So David made a really strong push into the last sprint climb. And there was definitely a minute there where I was like, I can’t do this, like, this is too hard. Thankfully, the sprint was pretty fresh in my mind. So I had some kind of memory of the line I wanted and everything, and just was able to get out of the track really quickly at the bottom, and just save myself from bogging down and just run off as fast as I could. And I’ve done this enough times now to know how important it is to push into the finishing straight out of the top of the hill. So I really pushed hard there.
“And it was sunny enough that I could see everyone’s shadows, thankfully. And there was a minute where I was, like, Damn, this shadow of David is really getting closer. So I was thankfully able to find one more gear and hold him off until the finish, but I was sweating until it was done, that’s for sure.”
And finally, what was it like for the three native Alaskans, until recently all teammates at APU, to find themselves alone on the final lap?
Norris: “It was really fun racing with these guys and special to fight it out with my APU teammates to the final seconds.”
McMullen: “It’s so nice, just skiing around with those guys. I mean, summer after summer training with them, all in a line doing L3 workouts and all that stuff. It’s just, it feels familiar. And it’s nice. It’s not foreign territory. And yeah, I love it. It’s fun racing those guys.
Did he have any valuable intel about the way his teammates ski, or vice versa? “I think nothing blatant. But you know, I know where their strengths and weaknesses are, and trying to assess how they’re feeling in the race is always important. So it’s an advantage, but they also know my strengths and weaknesses as well. So it’s a double-edged sword.”
Jager: “It honestly felt very familiar, which was nice. And, not that anyone is, you know, malicious at all out there, but we were kind of looking out for each other. … With those guys, I was like, alright, we’re all friends here and we all kind of just want to succeed together here. So I felt like we were pretty respectful of one another, which was really nice. And it was nice to get to kind of chat a little bit. … It kind of felt like we were just doing a pacing project workout or something.”
At the end of the day, as Jager notes, “I think we all kind of knew what everyone’s game plan was a little bit. And thankfully, there wasn’t quite enough work for them to be able to get away. But on a harder course, different conditions, it would have panned out a lot differently. But this ended up being a pretty good course for a sprinter just because the work was just short enough that you’re kind of able to not be too anaerobic, and back off for a little bit.”
So what’s next? U23s in Whistler, for some of the podium. But for the athlete who aged out of that a decade ago (here are Norris’s results from the 30km skiathlon at 2011 U23s in Otepää, won by a young Alex Harvey), Norris has somewhat more catholic interests:
“I’m looking forward to racing some big 50kms the rest of the season. World Champs, the American Birkie, Tour of Anchorage would all be focus races for me — work schedule and qualification allowing. After coaching Junior Nationals in Fairbanks I hope to race some events at spring nationals as our team will have some athletes racing in Vermont.”
It should be noted that Norris sent along these comments by email late on Friday; he was unavailable for hours after the race, as he was on his feet helping coach and wax for the three other races that day.
* * *
Jager has referred to having a love–hate relationship with Houghton, and Hailey Swirbul, who has won every race here so far this week, has candidly said that Houghton is “not her favorite place.” (The preternaturally kind Swirbul added that she is glad she is here this week.) But on a truly perfect day for classic skiing, a clear and cold night having created bomber tracks that were not softened on a brilliantly sunny day, athletes and spectators alike were feeling the love. Ski racing is always hard — one courseside look at the heaving lungs and gasping breaths of the athletes made that clear — but sometimes it is a hard sport that happens alongside your friends at 22° F and sunny in perfect conditions, and that makes it a little less hard.
Racing wraps up in Houghton tomorrow with the skate sprint, which is technically a SuperTour event rather than a national championship. Expect slightly smaller fields, and a somewhat reduced prize purse (first place will pay out $750 instead of $1,200, though prize money will also go six-deep rather than to just the top three), but a full day of sprint racing otherwise. Articles will be up late tomorrow.
— Gavin Kentch
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