Article text is done; you should read it now, because it’s same-day news. Check back at some point later, probably tomorrow, for the same article with more pictures in it. Thanks for your patience; lots of moving parts here as we approach the end of what has been a long week for all of us.
WHISTLER OLYMPIC PARK, Whistler, B.C. — A championship week, like the individual races it contains, can present ebbs and flows, peaks and valleys, high points and lows. If Thursday was a high point for the American junior men at 2023 FIS Junior & U23 World Cross Country Championships, as several athletes seemed to surprise themselves by skiing better than they had realized they were capable of, Friday came in somewhere lower than that, as some of the American U23 men did not ski as well as they know they are capable of skiing.
“Definitely disappointed in this result,” wrote Gus Schumacher.
“I’m moderately content,” said John Steel Hagenbuch, for the second race in a row.
“Hoping for more,” wrote Zanden McMullen on Instagram.
In skiing, as in life, those peaks are enjoyable precisely because of the valleys that you have to overcome to reach them.
Gus Schumacher had the highest result today for a hirsute American men’s team. Schumacher skis for Alaska Winter Stars, and is on the U.S. Ski Team. Schumacher raced with long, flowing locks scarcely contained beneath a headband. He was in 12th at the 2.8-kilometer timing checkpoint of today’s race, marking the top of the long climb that begins the course; up to 9th at 5km when he lapped through the stadium; in 12th at 7.8km, at the top of the climb in lap two; and down to 14th at the finish.
Schumacher finished in 23:58, over a minute back of winner Martin Kirkeberg Mørk of Norway. Mørk broke 23 minutes (22:52) on the hilly course that was used for the 2010 Winter Olympics, and which clocks in at roughy 10.2 kilometers over two laps of the blue interval-start course. The hills were large, but conditions were relatively fast out there today.
“It was pretty rough honestly,” wrote Schumacher to Nordic Insights after the race when asked about his day. “Felt like my pacing was solid, but didn’t really have the energy I needed to step on the gas towards the end. On the bright side I felt like I was skiing well technically. It felt pretty smooth and relaxed but ended up feeling like I was having to fight too hard on the uphills to really be in it. I think I did everything I could do, but just didn’t have it today. Kinda been a bumpy season and this week reflects that I guess.”
“Definitely disappointed in this result,” Schumacher candidly added when asked about the time and place by his name.
“I don’t want to sound like an ass, and really appreciate that a bad day is still solid, but it was tough. I think if I’d felt better, even like I did Tuesday, I could’ve been on the podium. That was the goal and I fell short and that kinda sucks a lot!”
Zanden McMullen was three seconds and one place behind Schumacher, finishing in 15th (+1:09). McMullen skis for Alaska Pacific University Nordic Ski Center, and is on the U.S. Ski Team. McMullen was recognizable, even at a distance, for not only his smooth technique, but also the tasteful man bun protruding from above his headband.
In his post-race remarks, McMullen said that he tried to take the first of two five-kilometer laps relatively easy, so as to be in a position to push harder on the second lap. “And I think how I felt my second lap considering that I went easier on the first one, I’m certainly happy that I didn’t go any harder,” he said.
His standings from throughout the race reflect this strategy: 22nd at 2.8km, up to 20th by 5km, up some more to 17th at 7.8km, up yet again to 15th at the finish.
“We were chitchatting as a team yesterday,” he said, “just trying to figure out how to race this best. And we kind of all decided, like, the first couple km, you’d want to go easier than you’d normally go in a race. And that’s kind of what I did. And I’m happy about it.”
Mørk’s winning time of 22:52, or McMullen’s hardly slow time of 24:01 being a minute-plus back over 10km, suggest that the course skied quickly today.
“It’s a fast course for sure,” McMullen confirmed. “I think like, despite all the working terrain, you think it might be a little slower, but with the conditions and everything today, it’s quick.”
There had been light snowfall overnight, with a high moisture content; conditions at the start time of the men’s race hovered around freezing for the air temperature, but felt far warmer than that. “It’s packing pretty well,” said McMullen of the course conditions that resulted. “It’s pretty firm. So I definitely felt it in my legs a little bit. I typically prefer some of that punchy powder snow, being a smaller guy. But it’s ripping conditions, and fun skiing.”
Next for the Americans was John Steel Hagenbuch, just seven seconds back of McMullen, but also four places in the tight field — that’s what ripping conditions will get you. Hagenbuch was 19th (+1:16). Hagenbuch skis for Dartmouth College, and is on the U.S. Ski Team. Hagenbuch raced with Prefontaine-era hair, a pencil-thin headband to keep sweat out of his eyes, and a mustache of great eminence.
Hagenbuch’s splits followed a similar trajectory to those of McMullen, with whom he was in fact tied at the first timing checkpoint: 22nd at 2.8km; 26th at halfway; back up to 22nd at 7.8km; up again to 19th at the finish.
Hagenbuch pronounced himself “moderately content” with his day, for the second race in a row.
“It was all right,” Hagenbuch noted. “I think I’m lacking a bit of sharpness this week, which isn’t that surprising after a fair amount of racing in the past couple of weeks.” (Hagenbuch raced extensively at FIS University Games in Lake Placid in the second half of January.)
“I would say I felt like I was skiing well and skiing smoothly, and thought that I ramped it up well throughout the race. It’s a bit of a bummer that I did end up going down on the fast downhill. But I think today it was really important to be pushing through those transitions well, and sending those downhills as well. And so I think I was just pushing the envelope a little bit too much in that first one. But once again, just like the classic race I think I’m moderately content.”
Looking to the future, Hagenbuch added, “The good news is there’s still quite a bit of racing to come. And I think I still have a chance to get into better shape for the rest of the season. And it was a fun race out there, and obviously a very, very competitive field.”
Hagenbuch noted that, while he personally prefers skate skiing to classic, he thinks that the course itself “skis a bit better for skate than for classic as well.”
Here’s why, quoted in full because I think this is really interesting: “I just think in classic there’s a bunch of terrain out there that’s a little bit tougher for striding in, that’s a little too steep. But also a fair amount of terrain that’s a bit too steep for doublepole, but not quite steep enough for striding. But I think for skate that lends itself to carrying transitions really well and rewarding that. … These are great courses, obviously they’re Olympic courses, and always fun to ski here.”
The final American starter today, and final finisher, was JC Schoonmaker, in 29th (+1:43). Schoonmaker skis for Sugar Bowl Ski Team and Academy, and is on the U.S. Ski Team. He raced with shaggy hair protruding from a TahoeXC headband.
Schoonmaker is no Sophia Laukli, vis-à-vis any of gender, body type, or preferred ski discipline, but he consciously tried to ski like her today.
“What I thought about today,” Schoonmaker explained, “was, since I knew I wanted to use my power on the second half, I was trying to ski the first part without using kind of like my sprint muscles, per se. So I was trying to ski in like a higher tempo and just keep it really light, so that I wasn’t using too much muscular capacity on the first part, so that I could save it for the second. Which is kind of a different way than I normally ski. Like normally I’m a very slow-tempo, muscly skier. So today, I was kind of playing around with just maybe skiing more like Sophia a little bit, just tempo and trying to keep it quick and light.”
Schoonmaker was pleased with how this approach worked for him. “It was good,” he said of his race. I felt pretty good and kind of executed my plan well, I think. I haven’t seen any results or anything, but just, after the race, I felt good about my my performance, so that makes you happy.”
(We spoke at a moment when neither of us knew Schoonmaker’s results on the day — the races this week have been of high quality, and live timing is accessible to anyone with the FIS app and an internet connection, but there is also no electronic scoreboard at the finish with live results or anything — so our interview was conducted purely on the plane of process goals. For the record, Schoonmaker moved up from 43rd, to 35th, to 29th over the course of the race, so the process he adopted did lead to good results.)
The team dynamic this week has also made Schoonmaker happy.
“It’s been amazing,” he said of the team. “This is my first time meeting some of the junior girls and junior guys, and they’ve all been awesome. So much fun to hang out with. And of course I know the U23s pretty well, so we’ve just been having a great time. But it’s just been a really, really strong-knit group. And I feel like everyone just has each other’s backs and is rooting for each other, and it’s just been a really, really good energy.”
* * *
Speaking of team energy:
U23 athletes conclude their race week in Whistler tomorrow with the 4 x 5km mixed-gender relay, which will be run in the following order: classic woman–classic man–skate woman–skate man.
As I wrote in the article on today’s U23 women’s 10km skate, my personal prediction is that Sydney Palmer-Leger will take the classic scramble leg and Sophia Laukli will take the first skate leg for the American U23 relay team, but I honestly see arguments for multiple different starters on the guys side and so don’t want to commit myself to a prediction there.
Relay starts at noon local time tomorrow. Hopefully the weather is not frightful. Stay tuned.
— Gavin Kentch
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