The article on today’s women’s race will be up tomorrow. Thank you for your patience.
WHISTLER OLYMPIC PARK, Whistler, B.C. — Luke Jager grimaced his way across the finish line after a race to forget and immediately made his way over to his friend and teammate waiting in the finish area. “How’d you do?” were his first words to Gus Schumacher. Zanden McMullen went backwards a little after a torrid start, but took solace from looking up ahead of him in the middle parts of his race to see Schumacher crushing. On a day when the young Americans flashed both their potential and some growing pains, their evident care for each other and for their team was operating at full force.
Tuesday afternoon brought the U23 men’s 20-kilometer mass start classic, the final race in the first four days of competition here at 2023 FIS Junior & U23 World Cross Country Championships. The string of atypical Whistler weather continued; there was a dusting of fresh snow overnight, but temperatures have remained below freezing over all of the first eight races, and the tracks have stayed firm. If more snow comes in over the latter half of the week — and some form of precipitation is certainly forecast — at least Thursday and Friday bring skate races, and half of Saturday’s relays will be skate legs.
A field of 62 men left the stadium today at 12:35 p.m. All four Americans were at the sharp end of the chevron start, reflecting their low distance points and high seeding: Gus Schumacher (USST/Alaska Winter Stars), bib no. 103; John Steel Hagenbuch (USST/Dartmouth), bib no. 106; Zanden McMullen (USST/Alaska Pacific University), bib no. 111; and Luke Jager (USST/University of Utah), bib no. 112.
Roughly four kilometers later, going up the final large climb before dropping down to the stadium, it was McMullen at the front leading a thoroughly unbroken lead pack, the top 32 men all within seven seconds of the lead. Take a moment to review the course profile, specifically the descent from the top of the course starting at roughly the 2.75-kilometer mark:
“After the first lap, I sort of knew that [people would come back together], because that downhill was so long,” as Schumacher said in his post-race comments. “I think everyone else saw that too.”
When the pack lapped through the stadium for the first time, 5km into the race, it was Schumacher in first, McMullen in third, Jager in 11th but only 3.2 seconds back, Hagenbuch in 32nd but also still within eight seconds of Jager in the tight-knit lead pack. When the men crested the high point of the sprint course and headed under the bridge to embark on the course’s main climb, McMullen and Schumacher were 1–2 in the race.
Unfortunately for McMullen, the race did not end there.
“I was hoping for better,” McMullen candidly said after the race.
“I was hoping for better, shooting for top-10 on the day, but I just don’t think I quite had the kick in my body to stay with the front pack when they made the move. And then pretty much from early in the second lap on, I was just kind of fighting to get back in it. There were little glimpses of hope, and glimpses of the other way around. But overall, I was happy. I think it was a good result, getting top 20.” (McMullen finished 18th, which is hardly a poor showing and left him as the second American on the day.)
McMullen was asked about the opposite of the hope to which he had alluded here, which admittedly may be an unfair philosophical query to put to a man only recently removed from stretching his body to its absolute limits for nearly an hour straight.
“That’s a good question,” McMullen gamely answered. “My brain’s a little foggy right now. ‘Dread,’ I guess.”
McMullen felt that he didn’t quite have the desired kick in his body to stay with the leaders in the middle of the race, but he did have enough kick on his skis.
“It was decent,” he said of his kickwax job. “I think it’s one of those things where 18, 19km into a 20km your body is not really wanting to work anyway, so sometimes you’re slipping even though the skis are good. But overall my skis were quick, and were grippy enough. So I was happy about it.”
McMullen was also happy about the way he had “kept my head in the right place throughout the whole race. I was never fighting the bad thoughts of, you know, this isn’t my day. I kept to it and just kept trying to look ahead and pick people off if I could, and I was really proud of that.”
Okay, now back to Schumacher. The Anchorage native — all of Schumacher, McMullen, and Jager grew up skiing together in Alaska’s largest city, and have trained with or raced against each other for roughly half their lives now — was 1.7 seconds off the lead when he came through the stadium a second time at 10km. At this point he was in fifth, and was one of twelve men in a pack within four seconds of the leader. Again, as Schumacher later said, the lead pack could pretty well sense at this point how the course was going to ski and how the race would play out.
In which vein, fast-forward to 15km: Schumacher was 2.3 seconds off the lead, and eleven men were still in the lead pack. To 15.8km: eleven men still all together. To 17.5km: Still eleven men. To 19km: Still eleven men within four seconds of the lead. There are only three spots on the podium. Something was going to have to give.
Go to the 1:08:55 mark of the livestream replay to watch the end of the race:
Long story short, Jonas Vika of Norway won the race on the final climb. He had the most left at this point and exploded up this ascent. He opened up a gap of several ski lengths by the top of the hill, and the race for first was essentially over.
Schumacher was in fifth coming over the crest of the hill, above the iconic Olympic rings overlooking the stadium. The race for the podium played out immediately in front of him, as Vika led out his countryman Edvard Sandvik in second, and Julien Arnaud of France in third. Schumacher finished in seventh, 6.3 seconds off the win and 2.7 seconds off the podium, as the top eleven men, nearly 20 percent of the field, all finished within ten seconds of each other. Tuesday brought a mass start, but also a mass finish.
According to data on Schumacher’s publicly available Strava page, his heart rate hovered between 163 and 182 beats per minute for 54 minutes straight during the race. Here’s what the aftermath of such an effort looks like:
Some time after this, Schumacher, now upright, spoke with Nordic Insights. He was eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat bread as a recovery food. While Schumacher has wasted no opportunity to praise the diligent and skillful work of Team U.S.A. support staff, it is also the case that at World Juniors/U23s, unlike on the Tour de Ski, athletes make their own sandwiches.
“I’m not quite as pampered here,” Schumacher noted between mouthfuls. He did give an on-the-record shoutout to McMullen for giving him the bread.
“The race was good,” Schumacher said when he was done being asked about his sandwich.
“It was really fun, kind of the type of racing that I love so much, like skiing in the front and thinking about what tactics you can do instead of just pushing as hard as you can the whole time, like on the World Cup. There’s some tactics with that. But this is definitely more fun, and I haven’t raced like that so much in the last few years. So I really enjoyed it.”
While Schumacher was prepared to be adaptable as the race progressed, he did come in with some ideas about what might happen. “My main one,” he noted, “just from watching the other races, was that it was gonna reward whoever was the least tired and who was able to set the fastest pace. Those other races got really spread out. And ours ended up not getting spread out as much. That was maybe good, because I was definitely more towards the limit than some of the Norwegian guys; I think they were just really strong.
“And I was still able to do what I thought about and ski relaxed and try to go as easy as I can, while going as fast as I can — like every race. But in this one it was nicer because I was going a little bit easier than normal, like just a little below the limit. And then there was a long downhill to recover. And I had good skis, so I could really trust that.”
Back to that long downhill. Schumacher cited that feature of the course, at least as it skied today, by way of explanation for why he was not surprised to approach the finish as part of such a large pack:
“I haven’t raced this course yet, just skied it easy yesterday. And after the first lap, I sort of knew that was what was gonna happen, because that downhill was so long. And you know, it strung out a little even on the first lap towards the top. We weren’t going that fast, but it really came back together. I think everyone else saw that too. And so the reason it was 10 people and not 30 was because we were going, like, honest pace up the hill, but nothing that was really breaking a ton of people. … I think I felt good, but didn’t quite have it enough to really push the pace today. But I think in that case it played to my strengths, kind of, today.”
Schumacher, as noted, was 7th at the finish, and McMullen 18th. John Steel Hagenbuch followed in 23rd, roughly 18 seconds back of McMullen and 1:35 off the podium.
Hagenbuch pronounced himself “moderately content” with the day and with his result, “like a six out of ten.” He spoke candidly and insightfully about his limitations on the day:
“I think for classic skiing historically, and in this season as well, it almost seems as if I can ski threshold pretty well,” Hagenbuch said, “but as soon as the pace picks up a little bit faster than that I’m not super sustainable and kind of get frantic. And that’s just a function of, I find classic skiing much, much harder than skate. And I would say also, this season, I haven’t quite had enough time classic skiing because we haven’t had that much snow out East to set a track and whatnot. But I feel like the fitness was pretty good. I had great kick, but maybe the skis were a bit draggy, but that’s a tradeoff you make. I felt like I was reeling people in well throughout the race, and so I’m moderately content with it. I think that the skate race will be better for me.”
For anyone reading this who has found classic skiing difficult to master — and at the risk of projecting, I feel like this may describe many people out there — here are some honest thoughts, from a man who just finished 23rd in the world in a classic race, on why classic skiing is harder for him:
“I think technically, I’m much less refined. And I just think muscularly I find classic skiing much, much harder and less natural. And I think that’s probably just what I gravitate towards naturally. But also, I’ve probably spent much more time in my life skating than classic. So it’s always a bit of a work in progress for me.”
Finally, and speaking of honest thoughts, here’s Luke Jager, who crossed the finish line in 33rd, roughly three minutes off the win and a large distance off his pre-race expectations.
What were some positive things about today, Jager was asked.
“I mean, it’s done,” Jager said. “That’s definitely a positive. And, you know, it wasn’t like the most miserable thing ever.”
Jager then added, “It was just fun to be out there. It’s a legit race, fun atmosphere. And even when it sucks, it’s nice to just feel what the level is and be like, alright. Not that I felt like I needed a lot of humbling today, but I managed to get some more anyways, which is always good for you.”
On a day that Jager described as, “Dude, it was not that good,” the performance of his teammate was a source of solace.
“Actually in the middle of the race,” Jager recounted, “because I saw him coming back, I asked [the coaches], I was like, Oh, is Gus up there, because it looked like he was, and I couldn’t tell. And he was actually the one pinning the pace on the second lap a little bit. So he’s obviously one of the best distance skiers out there, and I knew he could put it together on a good day.”
(Jager knows whereof he speaks; he has previously identified himself to the Anchorage Daily News as “probably one of the leading experts in the world on the subject of Gus skiing fast.”)
“You know, he was Junior World Champion,” Jager said of his friend, “and then the U23 years are, not that they’ve been super challenging, but it’s definitely an adjustment for a lot of people, and he’s handled it really well. And I thought he deserved a win today, and I thought he was maybe gonna get it, but it sounds like it just was a jumble in the end and he was just about there, so you’ve got to feel good about that still. It’s really a game of inches at this point.”
Racing resumes for the U23 men with the 10km interval-start skate on Friday, then the mixed relay on Saturday.
— Gavin Kentch
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