WHISTLER OLYMPIC PARK, Whistler, B.C. — To watch a nordic ski race live is to give yourself a front-row seat to voluntary misery. Athletes, the best in the world at this niche sport, make their way up steep hills, steeper yet with every lap, trying to make the kick stick even with tired legs and tired minds. Frozen breath billows around athletes’ heads, forming an ephemeral corona (not that corona) in the cool air. Effluvia flows freely. Buffs become drenched with frozen sweat, and skis with droplets of spit, or snot, or energy drink, supporting small stalagmites by the end of the race. Glamorous it is not.
Mathias Holbæk of Norway was the most glamorous on Monday, or at least was non-glamorous for the shortest amount of time, finishing first in the junior men’s 20-kilometer mass start classic race at 2023 FIS Junior & U23 World Cross Country Championships in 53:05.7. Niko Anttola of Finland was second (+7.7), and Kristian Kollerud of Norway third (+28.1).
It was perhaps some measure of redemption for the two Norwegians, who were in podium position until late in Saturday’s classic sprint final, only to fade near the end and finish fourth and sixth, respectively.
Xavier McKeever of Canada was the highest non-European in the race in 13th, a bit of a rough day for a local favorite who was seeded as the fourth-fastest skier in the field.
Luka Riley (University of Colorado) led the Americans in 34th in his first race at this year’s championships. It was the race of the day for Team U.S.A. per the metric of seeded start position versus finishing position, as Riley moved up from 55th at the start to finish 20-plus spots above his bib number.
Behind him, Adrik Kraftson (Northern Michigan University) was 39th, followed thirty seconds later by Jack Lange (Dartmouth College), also making his first start this week, in 41st. Max Kluck (Bridger Ski Foundation), who would be the first to say that he is having a race week that falls below his expectations, was 57th.
Let’s hear from Riley first. Moving up was the theme of his day; the lanky, 6’4″ freshman at Colorado was 55th to start, and 54th midway through lap one. He was 46th at the 5km mark, skiing alongside Lange. He was up to 39th by halfway, 10km into the race, having caught up to a somewhat fading Kraftson.
By the 11.2km mark, Riley had put 12 seconds on Kraftson, and was in 36th place, firmly established as the day’s top American. He was up to 35th at the 15km mark, then 34th at the finish, within sight of 31st. Many athletes say that they want to start slow and controlled, work into a race, then move up as the race unfolds. This is sometimes easier said than done, but Riley executed this tactic well on Monday.
“It was a good race,” Riley recounted soon after his finish. “I started pretty close to the back of the pack. And it’s just kind of a bummer in the mass start that people are tripping over each others’ skis, so you just kind of have to be patient. So coming around that first corner [leaving the stadium], people just stopped, I was on the inside and it just stopped, and then I had to get around that. And then I was pretty close to the back after that.
“But I just realized that I have to be a patient. And it’s a long race; you’ve got lots of places to make up spots.
So I started my first lap pretty easy, just kind of relaxed, trying to get into a groove. And then second lap, I started pushing it a little bit, and trying to catch rides and pass by people. And then by the third lap I started hurting, but then I had a little group going, [bib] number 145, a French kid, and 115, a Swedish kid. And that was great. It was good to have a couple kids just to stick with as we passed through the field. … And then they dropped me by the finish. But I was still happy with how it went.”
Riley was clear-eyed about the technique challenges that he can encounter when classic skiing, and spoke to how he deals with this:
“One problem of mine is that I always, like, droop my shoulders. So I’m trying to keep upright, keep my shoulders up, and obviously keep hips forward. And then making sure that my arms, when they’re swinging, are relaxed. And that I’m not unnecessarily tense, because a lot of energy goes into that, and it’s just not worth it. And then up a lot of the hills, it’s pretty common, at least for me, to just kind of not trust my skis and try to like muscle it with my arms. So just trying to really press down into the kick pocket, and know I have the kick there, I’ve just got to find it. So that was kind of my big thing. And it worked; I was able to kick up almost everything.”
Finally, while everyone here this week is unambiguously representing Team U.S.A., it feels statistically notable that a healthy five out of twelves athletes on this year’s World Juniors team hail from the Centennial State. Riley, who grew up in Boulder and now skis for, well, the University of Colorado, was asked what might explain the current bumper crop of high-level Colorado junior skiers.
“I just think that Colorado has a really supportive group of kids coming out of it,” Riley said, “and everybody’s kind of pushing each other to be their best. And I think that that has really gotten kids to the top level. I think that having a great, great support system — like beyond the skiers, I mean the coaches and the parents and staff, everybody has been super, super supportive, and that also really helps.”
Kraftson had a somewhat more mercurial race than his teammate: 27th at the start, 36th at 5km, 38th at halfway, 39th at 15km, 39th at the finish. He finished slightly over five minutes back of Holbæk in first.
“I just pushed my body really hard,” said Kraftson afterwards. “I tried to ski with a good pack out there for most of it. Towards the end I wound up a little bit by myself, but I was trying to work as well as I could with the guys around me.”
Everyone would like to feel great and control their pack in every race, but that doesn’t always happen in real life. Kraftson was asked what he thinks about when he finds himself skiing alone:
“Just keep my technique together,” he said. “Keep the striding going, trying to just not freak out and be frantic, and try to catch the next pack; just stay relaxed where I am and then try not to get passed by more people.”
Kraftson credited his ability to avoid becoming frantic with his technique and to keep from “burning myself out in the first 10km trying to hang on” as high points on the day.
Lange’s positioning was more consistent: 40th at the start; 48th at 5km; 40th at 10km; 42nd at 15km; 41st at the finish.
“it was good,” said the Dartmouth freshman, before expanding on some aspects of his day that were more challenging.
“It was fun to get out there with a bunch of really fast guys, but also a humbling experience to get dropped. I guess it was also, like, humbling and inspirational. And it was pretty easy to go out there and get overwhelmed, just, Whoa, I just got dropped. But I think the takeaway is just to be a little more confident. And I guess I’m motivated to come back next year. And I’m also excited for the skate race in a couple of days.”
Lange was surprised by “the level of racing,” he candidly said. “I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I knew it was gonna be really fast, and no one was gonna be leaving anything out there. … The race spaced out really fast. It was like, it spaced out, but the pace never slowed down. It just was constantly fast.”
Finally, here’s more real talk from Lange on what he would say to junior athletes who had had a rough race:
“It’s important, when you have a bad race, to just analyze it, figure out what you did well and what you could improve, and move on to the next one. Figure out what you can do better. And not let the disappointment — don’t let it follow you to the next performances.”
Finally, Max Kluck persevered through a rough day to finish a hard-earned 57th. In post-race written comments to Nordic Insights, he showed that the capacity for honest self-reflection is not limited to the U23 men on this team:
“As I’m sure it was pretty obvious it was just not my day. I really tried to will myself into a good result today, but lately I’ve just been feeling a bit burnt out. I think the mix of a limited off season last spring, due to going straight into bike racing, and then a very busy training camp schedule throughout the summer and fall, I am just very fatigued, and unable to deliver the results I should be able to.
“Today it really took absolutely everything I had to make it around the four laps and reach the finish. There were many points where I wanted to just call it, but I kept going and enjoyed this very special experience of being here in Whistler at the world championships. I can’t thank the coaches and techs enough for the support today with skis, and the cheering that got me through the hardest points of the race. Now I think I will get some rest, and hopefully come into spring feeling fresh enough to deliver some good results.”
All of the juniors now get two days off, as Tuesday brings the 20km mass start classic race for the U23 athletes, and Wednesday has no cross-country races scheduled. Thursday sees the 10km interval-start skate for both junior men and women; four Americans will start each race.
— Gavin Kentch
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