Luke Jager and Mariel Pulles Win RMISA Sprints on Perfect Day in Anchorage


ANCHORAGE, Alaska — On the average winter day, Kincaid Park, at the west edge of Alaska’s largest city, is somewhere between an unpleasant and a deeply heinous place to watch or participate in a ski race. I set forth the reasons for this at length in this article from several years ago, a straight news race recap that opens with 300 words about how wretched the conditions were here and features the race winner saying, on the record, “It’s f–king cold.”

(She also said, “I couldn’t feel my feet, it was so cold. So I had to just, like, doublepole over the hills [in a skate race]; I was so tight in my feet and lost my balance, it was just so hard to keep balancing.” Again, this is the woman who won the race.)

The short version of the Kincaid experience is that the wind always blows from the north, cutting straight through the huge, exposed stadium, and that the venue is less than a kilometer from the shores of the Pacific Ocean, making for a moist, damp, humid cold. People from Fairbanks will tell you, with a straight face, that 20 below in the dry Interior of Alaska feels warmer than 10 above in humid Anchorage. They will probably be right.

Monday was not an average day at Kincaid. The sun was out. The wind was calm. The humidity was high, as is typically the case in oceanside Anchorage, but on this day it didn’t feel too bad. Parents were grilling burgers at the side of the trail. RMISA racing is not, actually, all sea-level racing and perfect conditions — it is in fact typically about 6,000 feet of elevation away from that — but Monday at Kincaid was hard to beat.

“This is super legit,” exulted Luke Jager, one of multiple locals in the field, after the men’s final. “Grooming, organizing, fans, everything — world class.”

Jager currently skis for the powerhouse University of Utah team in the Rocky Mountain Intercollegiate Ski Association, but was born and raised in Anchorage and has raced at Kincaid for years. It was his home course, and stadium P.A. announcer Adam Verrier knew how to correctly pronounce his name.

It’s a hard jay. Adam Verrier knows this. Be like Adam Verrier.

“This was awesome,” Jager said afterwards. “It felt like good old days. Probably one of the most fun days of skiing here I’ve ever had.”

Jager has raced broadly and won frequently; he had two starts at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Zhangjiakou, and this winter alone I had previously interviewed him in Houghton for U.S. Nationals, where he skied very well, and in Whistler for World U23 Championships, where he would be the first to tell you that he did not ski as well. But Monday’s win in the 1.5-kilometer skate sprint, the opening event in this year’s University of Alaska Anchorage Invitational, meant a lot to the Utah senior.

“It feels better than you can put into words, really,” said a heartfelt Jager into Verrier’s microphone. “I mean, Anchorage is the best ski town in the country, and I just love this place and these people so much, so it means a lot. Thanks everyone for coming out.”

Jager added, in reference to his choices for this month of racing, “There’ll be a lot more World Championships, but I don’t know how much more I’m going to get to race at Kincaid in the next few years. There’s no place I’d rather be.”

Kincaid sprint course profile (photo: screenshot from FIS homologation certificate)

Jager also had positive words for the course itself, which features a solid 24-meter B Climb at the 600-meter mark and 48 meters of total climb, calling it on par with many World Cup courses.

“This is legit,” Jager said. “If it were just a little bit wider, this would be a legit World Cup course. … This is very comparable to some World Cup courses I’ve done this year. Davos is at altitude, but it’s a lot flatter than this. And Lillehammer, where we’ve been racing the last two years in the biathlon stadium, is also a lot flatter. I mean, there’s not that many World Cup courses where you’ll have a good 30 seconds of sustained V1,” as is the case here.

(For perspective, the max climb on the last two Olympic and four World Champs courses ranges from 18 to 35 meters (Oberstdorf and Seefeld, respectively), and total climb from 43 to 57 meters (Pyeongchang and Seefeld). The current homologated sprint course at Kincaid has 24 and 48. This is admittedly a sort of brute-force way to quantify the far more holistic question of how a course skis, but it seems fair to say that the climb statistics of the current Kincaid sprint course place it squarely at the World Cup level of courses, if not quite of global championship courses.)

And finally, working backwards, here’s what happened in the race itself (and bear with me here since the only formal results I have available to me are from the qual, and I’m just looking at my photos here for the rest): Jager won the qualification round, in 3:09.98, shortly ahead of Walker Hall (Utah, +0.30) and Hugo Hinckfuss (Colorado, +0.63).

Jager by definition advanced to the final, where he was joined by Tom Mancini (Utah), Andreas Kirkeng (Denver), Magnus Bøe (Colorado), and APU skiers Michael Earnhart and Zanden McMullen. The ski team at APUNSC has no NCAA affiliation, but these were technically open races, which explains the APU athletes’ participation.

Jager got off the line very quickly in the final, positioning himself to stay out of trouble and take the inside line around the course’s first turn. He slowed things down from there, skiing somewhat more leisurely as the pack left the stadium.

Luke Jager (front, bib 101) leads six very fast men to the line. (photo: Gavin Kentch)

By the time the six men came back into view atop the Gong Hill, coming off the course’s largest climb, Jager was solidly in the lead. He had good skis, and skied the large downhill well, maintaining the lead. He skied into the stadium in the lead and was able to keep it to the finish, where he gave an exuberant fist pump across the line.

My finish-line photos suggest that Earnhart was second and Kirkeng third, but don’t quote me on that. I’m not going to warranty anything about the final results beyond that in the absence of better data. I do think that Mancini was sixth.

The story of the day in the women’s race was Novie McCabe, until it wasn’t. The University of Utah junior destroyed the qual, skiing it in 3:39.06 to finish a staggering 4.01 seconds ahead of Mariel Pulles of UAF. (Pulles won a gold medal in this event at FISU World University Games last month, and would ultimately win Monday’s final; she’s not a bad skier.)

McCabe then employed precisely the same tactic in both her quarterfinal and her semi, skiing off the front and daring anyone to keep up with her on the stout course. It worked, at least through the first two heats, as she won them with relative ease.

To the surprise of no one, least of all Pulles, McCabe pursued the same stratagem in the women’s final. She burst off the line, followed close behind by Pulles, Anna-Maria Dietze (Colorado), Pascale Paradis (UAA), Karianne Olsvik Dengerud (Utah), and Karolina Kaleta (Colorado), and led the field out of the stadium.

But by the time the athletes came back into view coming off the large downhill, Pulles had pulled into the lead, and the race was basically over. McCabe skied strong through the false flat into the finish, but Pulles was stronger, and the Alaska Fairbanks skier took the win. Dietze was third, I am sure, then I suspect Paradis fourth and Dengerud fifth, with Kaleta sixth.

Pulles, right, takes the victory over McCabe. (photo: Gavin Kentch)

“Qualification was not that good,” Pulles candidly said after the final when asked about her day. “I just felt like my body wasn’t moving fast enough. But as the heats went on I felt pretty good. And I think the pause between the final and the semifinal [while race officials took extra time to ensure that heat results were correct] was good for me. We got like five extra minutes, so I think that helps.”

As for the final itself, Pulles was fully expecting McCabe to go off the front.

“My plan was to stick with her and just go on the downhill, and it worked,” the UAF skier recounted. “I thought that maybe some other girls would be with us, but I think that Novie’s tempo was just too much for everyone.”

Once Pulles had stayed in contact with McCabe and been able to pass her, she suspected that she had the race won. “I knew that she’s also a good sprinter into the finish,” Pulles said, “but I think I knew that I had an advantage over her there.”

*   *   *

Finally, I have to note who is contesting RMISA races in 2023: older athletes, foreign nationals, and older foreign nationals. In a field of roughly 80 athletes racing on Monday, my calculations suggest that only four of them were American skiers with a birth year of 2004 (i.e., presumptively college freshmen) skiing for a RMISA school. On the other end of the calendar, the field contained 18 athletes born last century (and so aged 23 or older), only two of them American skiers competing for a RMISA school. RMISA institutions have always skewed older and international, and extra years of NCAA eligibility granted by Covid have enticed many athletes to stay for more than four years of collegiate skiing, but the effect of these trends on yesterday’s field is striking.

This observation likely comes across as either xenophobic or editorializing, neither of which is actually supposed to be the case. I will leave it to others more closely invested in American skiing development to debate whether this distribution of ages and nationalities in this country’s dominant collegiate ski circuit is “good” or “bad,” while I just report on who shows up and who wins. But it is, on my analysis, noteworthy.

results (qual only)

— Gavin Kentch

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