The Norwegian men are pretty good at distance skiing. David Norris and Scott Patterson, too. Those were some of the takeaways from Saturday’s race at Holmenkollen, a 50-kilometer mass start skate this year, the 114th running of this race.
At the front of the race, Hans Christer Holund and Simen Hegstad Krüger, longtime domestic teammates with local club SFK Lyn, flawlessly executed on a pre-race plan to take advantage of their one allotted ski exchange earlier than expected. They moved out of the lead approaching the ski exchange during lap number three, earlier than anticipated, switched skis while few other athletes did, then were back in the lead pack just a few kilometers later.
When Holund and Krüger used fresh skis and fresh legs — neither had raced in the 50km classic in Planica six days ago — to put a gap on the field slightly after 30 kilometers, the die had been cast and their plan would be put to the test.
Seventeen kilometers of gutsy skiing later, it had worked. Krüger and Holund skied together over the final few laps before Krüger had more than Holund in the closing 500 meters, putting in a strong surge and immediately distancing himself from his friend and teammate. Krüger celebrated across the line to win with relative ease in 1:55:01.5, adding by far the most prestigious World Cup victory to his race résumé following two individual distance golds and a relay gold from Planica last week. Holund followed 5.7 seconds later in second.
Behind them, Martin Løwstrøm Nyenget pulled away from Iver Tildheim Andersen and Didrik Tønseth over the final lap to finish third, 12.6 seconds back of Krüger. Boldface name Johannes Høsflot Klæbo finished “only” seventh. Nyenget had competed in the 50km classic in Planica, finishing third there as well, but had not done any other races last week. Not to make excuses, but the fact that Klæbo had contested all six races in Planica, medaling in five of them, feels relevant to the load on each athlete’s legs over the final stages of today’s race.
You may sense some themes from the names at the top of the results sheet: “Norwegian” and “experience.” On the one hand, Norway fielded 12 starters in this race, a full one-third of the slim 36-athlete field, and ultimately swept the top 10. Andrew Musgrave of Great Britain, a man who speaks fluent Norwegian, was the first “other” finisher in eleventh.
On the other hand, Krüger, who turns 30 years old on Monday, was the youngest man on the podium; Nyenget turns 31 next month, and Holund is a venerable 34. Fourth in this race, Iver Tildheim Andersen, is all of 22 so maybe I shouldn’t paint in too broad strokes here, but it does appear that distance skiing is not a young man’s game.
On that note, the Americans were led today by two athletes born during the first Bush administration, David Norris (17th today, 32 years old) and Scott Patterson (18th today, 0.4 seconds back of Norris in 17th, 31 years old). Behind them were relative youngsters Hunter Wonders (23rd, 24 years old) and Gus Schumacher (28th, 22 years old).
That type of experience, and accumulated training base, is helpful if you are going to race three 50km’s, in three countries, in two weeks. Norris won the Birkie two weeks ago today in Wisconsin, then was the second-best American finisher, behind Patterson, in the Planica 50km classic last Sunday. Today was back to skate and Norris was up to the challenge, notching his career-best World Cup 50km finish in the process. Norris was previously 16th in the 50km classic in Oberstdorf in 2021 World Champs.
Norris is in fact human, it turns out, writing to Nordic Insights late Saturday on his way to the airport, “I didn’t feel great training this week or even warming up this morning.” But, he continued, “Luckily, once we got racing those feelings mostly went away and I just focused on being as smooth as I could.”
As for the race itself, Norris wrote:
“Finishing the 4th lap I nearly hung onto the chase group as we came into the ski exchange. I was just far enough off that I couldn’t rejoin and missed out on the draft and comfort of skiing in the group. After chasing for a km or so I sat up and waited for the next group. I skied the last two laps with that group and felt pretty strong in the final few km, which is better than prior Holmenkollen years for me.
“The three 50’s in three weeks and traveling to Europe has me pretty exhausted, but I’m grateful for this opportunity to race hard the past few weeks. It’s been really nice linking back up with all my teammates and friends, see what people are up to, and even get a bit of a gauge on how my fitness stacks up against the WC field.”
What’s next for the globetrotting Norris?
“Now I’m looking forward to ski touring with Jess, coaching, and getting my feet under me next week before we take a crew to spring nationals” he wrote, in reference to his longtime partner Jessica Yeaton and his day job as a junior coach with Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club.
Behind Norris (okay, all of four-tenths of a second behind after 50km of racing), Scott Patterson finished in just about the same place, but had a somewhat rougher time of things out there.
“The last few years I have really liked the Holmenkollen course but today was a bit of a tough one,” the longtime APU skier wrote to Nordic Insights earlier today. “A little bit of that is that I feel like my standards have changed. Through world champs and here, I keep getting places in the teens knowing that with a few more cards in places I could be really good. I do like the course here. It’s a good mix of steady climbing up to Frogneseter some steep hills that Planica was lacking while also having the bit more punchy loop around the church and stadium. However, with medium to low race energy the course was taking it out of me rather than rewarding my style of skiing.”
Patterson continued, “The race itself was quite interesting. The first 3 laps were mostly defined by surges for the bonus primes up at the top of the course, but the whole field would usually regroup. Everything really was shaken up on lap 4. Following lap 3, several of the Norwegians switched skis a bit earlier than most of the field. They rejoined the pack up at the top and rapidly surged to the front pushing the pace on the downhill. Overall, the Norwegians had incredible skis today and fresh ones just exacerbated that effect. Through the church loop, I was gapped a bit just having a bit low energy to fight the fast skis. I linked up with a small pack a bit later and we changed skis for the last two laps. From there it was mostly small pack skiing with a group of 6 to 7. We caught a few stragglers from the Klæbo group, but mostly just fought amongst the group for places 12-18. I didn’t have much of a sprint so had to settle for 18th. Overall it was definitely a day I wanted more from, but there were a variety of factors holding me back a little bit too much.”
Gus Schumacher, the pride of Alaska Winter Stars when racing domestically, also had a somewhat lackluster close to his race. “My energy was feeling super good but my muscles decided to call it quits around 40k,” he wrote to Nordic Insights. “Not ideal, but I’m happy with how I was skiing!”
In addition to the underlying results, Holmenkollen is renowned for the throngs of well-lubricated fans ringing the entire course. I asked all three men what that is like, what effect it has on them as athletes, and whether it helps them to ski even faster.
Here’s Norris: “The crowds and entire scene here is special. Holmenkollen is a bucket list race — I will always take this start when it comes and for ski fans it’s a must attend event. To finish a race and smell like camp fires from the fans cooking hot dogs and partying all morning is something that only happens here.”
And Schumacher: “The atmosphere was amazing, especially the first time up at the top of the course, it was really nothing like I’d ever skied in before. But not really able to ski any faster because of it…we all push as hard as we can every race so I can’t say I can ever really do much more, but it definitely made it more fun!”
And finally Patterson: “I’m not sure how to quantify the effects of the crowd. If you’re feeling good, I think it does hype things up to push harder. But when struggling later in the race a bit further back than I want, its effect is probably a bit more nuanced. Either way it’s a pretty spectacular race environment and always one of the highlights of the world cup calendar.”
Racing continues in Holmenkollen tomorrow with the women’s 50km. You may have heard something about this being a pioneering distance for the women.
Starters for the Americans will be Jessie Diggins, Rosie Brennan, Hailey Swirbul, and Alayna Sonnesyn. The last-minute withdrawals of, among others, Ebba Andersson and Frida Karlsson of Sweden and Ingvild Flugstad Östberg and Anne Kjersti Kalvå of Norway both weaken the overall field and, it must be said, improve the Americans’ chances to contend for the win.
— Gavin Kentch