It was a weekend for endings. While the 2022/2023 World Cup season was wrapping up in Lahti, Finland, the American Continental Cup race season was also ending, in Craftsbury, Vermont.
The season-ending series of races has alternately been referred to over the years as “Spring Series,” “Distance Nationals,” or “SuperTour Finals.” In the most precisely correct sense of the term, Wednesday’s 10km classic was the last SuperTour contest of the 2022/2023 domestic race season, while the three races held on Friday through Sunday were all national championships, rather than SuperTour races. So let’s call this part two of 2023 U.S. National Cross-Country Championships, but happening in the spring. Or, well, “Spring Series,” for short.
Athletes had a day off from competition on Thursday following Wednesday’s 10-kilometer interval-start classic race. On Friday morning, they returned to the trails at Craftsbury Outdoor Center for the 1.6-kilometer skate sprint.
On the women’s side, Alayna Sonnesyn (SMS), recently returned from World Cup competition, destroyed the field to win the qualifier going away, clocking 3:29.99 to set the morning’s fastest time by over five seconds ahead of SMS teammate Lauren Jortberg. Erin Bianco of Team Birkie was third in the qual, followed by Karianne Dengerud (Utah), Ava Thurston (Dartmouth), and Alex Lawson (Craftsbury).
Times were tighter on the men’s side, with the top six athletes separated by just over five seconds. Noel Keeffe (Utah) led the way here, nearly three seconds ahead of Utah teammate Brian Bushey and Sasha Masson of CNEPH (the French acronym for the Québec-based Pierre Harvey National Training Center).
Chalk prevailed in the women’s field (i.e., higher-seeded athletes advanced), with the six-athlete final featuring five of the six fastest women from qualifying. Alex Lawson was the only one missing; she finished fourth in the slower semifinal, and did not advance. Margie Freed (Craftsbury), who had ranked eighth in qualifying, advanced out of a fast second semifinal that sent four women to the final.
You can find the women’s final starting at the 5:16 mark (that’s 5 hours, 16 minutes; sprint days are long) of this livestream.
The stadium announcer, whose audio features on this stream, does a heroic job of narrating the start and finish of a sprint final that he, largely, cannot see. I am really impressed by his efforts, and appreciate Craftsbury providing this service — heck, the stream appears to have had 1,200 views, which is a massive number given the size of the nordic skiing fan base in this country — but I will watch anything I can find about nordic skiing, and even I have to say that this stream does not provide a great deal of value for much of this heat. But no snark to Craftsbury here; I appreciate it, and commend dude’s efforts.
At the 5:19:29 mark of the stream, the racers suddenly return into view coming down the home stretch, and the announcer is revivified with alacrity. Sonnesyn leads Dengerud into the finish; the Utah skier threatens, but Sonnesyn keeps her lead to the line to claim the national title. Behind her, Bianco comes in a ski length ahead of Freed for third and fourth overall, and second and third on the domestic podium.
Jortberg finished in fifth. “Some fat tactical errors in the final to kill the vibe for sure,” she later mused on her publicly available Strava page. “V proud of my teammie for the natty c thooo.”
Saturday marked the first national title of Sonnesyn’s career.
There were somewhat more shakeups in the men’s field on the way to the final. Keeffe, who had set the pace in qualifying, advanced out of his quarterfinal, but was then last in his semifinal. Bushey didn’t make it out of the first round. Masson made it all the way to the final, where he was joined by athletes with bibs no. 6, 8, 11, 15, and 22.
The men’s final starts at slightly before 5:07 on the livestream. The athletes come into view at the 5:09:38 mark as they close out their race. Andreas Kirkeng (Denver) enters the finishing stretch with a healthy lead, with Masson (CNEPH) and Jake Brown (Craftsbury) well back of him for second and third. Braden Becker (Craftsbury) follows in fourth, then a slightly desultory Finn O’Connell (BSF) in fifth. Kristoffer Karsrud (Northern Michigan) rounded out the field.
Kirkeng is Norwegian and Masson Canadian, giving a perhaps somewhat unexpected national championship in cross-country skiing (in sprinting, no less) to Jake Brown of Craftsbury Green Racing Project. Brown is a professional biathlete who turns 31 tomorrow. Prior to this week his last ski race results in the FIS database came from 2016 Spring Series, also at Craftsbury. Brown was 40th in qualifying for the classic sprint then; he’s made some progress on his sprinting in the last seven years. (He would also finish twelfth in this year’s 44km classic race on Sunday, ahead of multiple pro skiers, belying the trope that biathletes can’t classic ski.)
Becker and O’Connell rounded out the men’s domestic podium in Friday’s sprint.
Athletes were back on course the next day for the mixed club relay, a club-level national championship. This year’s format was four skate legs, each 5km long, with athletes racing in the order of male–female–male–female.
Racing was consistently tight on the fast course, with lap times in the mid-10 minutes for the fastest men, and low-12 minutes for the fastest women. 11 to 12 minutes of racing is approaching sprint prologue effort, or like the world’s longest L4 interval, conditions in which you go very close to sprint pace for three times as long as a normal sprint. It is, and I’m going to use a technical term here so bear with me, really darn hard, at least in my training and experience.
Bridger Ski Foundation was leading Saturday’s race, until it wasn’t. Reid Goble skied the scramble leg for the Andy Newell–coached team out of Bozeman, coming into the first exchange in 10:37.1. The top five teams — BSF, Craftsbury I, Craftsbury II, University of Utah, and University of Vermont, in that order — were at this point all within ten seconds of the lead.
Reid Goble handed off to his big sister, Sarah Goble, at this exchange, which is deeply wholesome. The pride of Petoskey made good.
Reid Goble had logged the day’s fastest time for leg one. Sarah Goble notched the second-fastest time for leg two, but only by 0.3 seconds off the mark set by Karianne Dengerud of Utah. At the second exchange, midway through the race, BSF was in the lead, but not by much: Craftsbury I was 3.3 seconds back in second, and Utah 7.2 seconds back in third. Craftsbury II had faded slightly, and was at this point 29.4 seconds out.
Finn O’Connell headed out on course for Bridger for leg three. He would log the day’s fastest leg-three time to stretch their lead, coming into the final exchange 14.7 seconds up on Utah and 20.1 seconds up on Craftsbury I.
But the race wasn’t over. BSF anchor leg Mariah Bredal skied fine, logging the day’s third-fastest time for this leg. But Sydney Palmer-Leger closed things out for Utah, and she was on a mission. Palmer-Leger made up the gap to Bredal, then passed her near the end. It was the first time that Utah had led all day, but it was enough.
The University of Utah (athletes: Sam Hendry, Karianne Dengerud, Brian Bushey, Sydney Palmer-Leger) took the club relay national championship title, with a cumulative time of 45:49.9. Bridger Ski Foundation (athletes: Reid Goble, Sarah Goble, Finn O’Connell, Mariah Bredal) was second, only 1.5 seconds back. A fast-closing Craftsbury I (athletes: Jake Brown, Alex Lawson, Braden Becker, Margie Freed) was another 2.1 seconds back of Bridger in third.
Several domestic clubs did not enter a team in this event, including Stratton Mountain School, Alaska Pacific University, Team Birkie, and Sun Valley. (Disclosure: I train and race domestically with APU Masters. On the one hand, I wear an APU suit in races; on the other hand, on a day-to-day basis I have nothing to do with the APU Elite Team, except for when I report on them in a professional capacity.)
I mention this fact in no way to detract from or second-guess the accomplishments of those athletes who did race on Saturday; they are all really good skiers, and I am not trying to craft alternate histories of what this race would or could have looked like with a deeper domestic field. The athletes discussed above beat everyone who was on the start line that day; that’s all you can ever do. My point is rather to attempt to briefly contrast the depth and priorities of high-end American skiing when the club relay concept originated versus now.
Take a look at the top few teams in the inaugural mixed club relay, held in Anchorage nine years ago Saturday at Spring Series 2014 (full results here if you’d like to go down memory lane for a moment — Chelsea Holmes and Miles Havlick and Jessica Yeaton racing for Sun Valley, Scott Patterson for UVM, Eric Packer for SMS, Marine Dusser for UAA, Rosie Frankowski for NMU, etc.):
Jessie Diggins was a very good skier at this time, but she wasn’t yet contest-overall-World-Cup-title good. Sadie Bjornsen was a very good skier in 2014, but she wasn’t yet individual-World-Cup-podium good. I truly do not have an opinion on whether it is “good” or “bad” that the highest-end American skiers are now tending to finish up a World Cup season and head home for a well-deserved rest rather than travel for one more set of races at Spring Series on dead legs. But it is objectively true that the Spring Series field increasingly has fewer American World Cup skiers in it than it previously did.
Sunday brought 44-kilometer mass start classic races to finish out the season, first the women and then the men. It was snowing. Hard.
The somewhat untraditional distance reflected the fact that organizers had set a single 11-kilometer loop at Craftsbury Outdoor Center for this race. Juniors contested a 22km race covering two laps of this course. Senior athletes did four laps, hence a 44km. It was the second-longest race of the high-level domestic race season, behind the 50km skate American Birkebeiner. The women raced the same distance as the men at a season-ending national championship, for perhaps the first time at a distance over 30km. If anyone’s uterus fell out from the exertion, it went unreported.
Both races followed a relatively similar pattern, a predictable one for a mass start long-distance race: A larger pack was consistently whittled down to a smaller one, until eventually a small handful of athletes sprinted it in for the win.
In the women’s race there were still eight athletes within six seconds of the lead at the 27km mark, spanning from Erin Bianco (Team Birkie) to a now-retired Caitlin Patterson (Craftsbury, possibly Craftsbury Alumna at this point). By 33km into the race, that pack was down to three, or maybe two, as Hanna Abrahamsson (Colorado) and Sydney Palmer-Leger (Utah/USST) headed out on the final lap together, Margie Freed (Craftsbury) six seconds back in third.
Palmer-Leger and Abrahamsson skied together throughout the final lap. Palmer-Leger eventually outdistanced her RMISA competitor, taking the win by 1.8 seconds after slightly over two-and-a-half hours of racing. Freed was dropped soundly, but also may well have shut things down to preserve her third-place finish after falling off the leaders, ultimately finishing two minutes back in a solid third. Patterson was fourth, another minute back, slightly ahead of Ava Thurston in fifth. 28 athletes started the race, and 25 finished at the end of a long season.
Hanna Abrahamsson is a Swedish national, rendering the domestic podium as Sydney Palmer-Leger, Margie Freed, and Caitlin Patterson. As a skier of a certain age (I described myself on this site yesterday as “a geriatric millennial”), congrats to the 33-year-old Patterson, who achieved 13 national championships during her professional career, on yet another national championship podium now that she is in retirement.
There were similar themes in the men’s race, from the way things played out to the age and racing status of the athletes on the podium. Things started to fracture relatively early in the day’s, and season’s, final race; by the halfway mark, 22km in, there were four men within ten seconds of the lead: in order, Andreas Kirkeng of Denver, Zanden McMullen of APU, David Norris of Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Center, and John Steel Hagenbuch of Dartmouth. McMullen and Steel Hagenbuch are also both on the U.S. Ski Team.
With one lap to go, at the 33km mark, the first three athletes listed above were all skiing within a second of each other. McMullen was skiing in an awkward no man’s land, 20 seconds off the podium and 17 seconds ahead of his nearest competitor.
Much as in Friday’s sprint, Kirkeng surged near the end to take an overall win that also did not count as a national championship for the Norwegian skier. Kirkeng’s time was 2:14:04.6 for 44km. Steel Hagenbuch was 2.3 seconds back in second; Norris was 8.9 seconds back in third; McMullen was 1:05 back for a hard-fought fourth. Sam Hendry of Utah closed strong over the final lap to move up from seventh to fifth, but was also over a minute back of McMullen at the finish.
The domestic podium was therefore John Steel Hagenbuch, David Norris, and Zanden McMullen. It was Hagenbuch’s second career national championship, after finishing second to, well, Andreas Kirkeng in the 10km skate in Houghton in January. It was Norris’s 11th career national championship podium, all in distance races, numbers nine and ten having come in Houghton this year. And it was McMullen’s third career national championship podium, after also reaching the domestic podium in the classic sprint and the 20km classic in Houghton in January.
Steel Hagenbuch is 21. McMullen is 21. Norris is 32, is now semi-retired, and likely prepped for the race by supporting his junior athletes with Steamboat Springs for his day job as a coach.
Behind them, but not that far behind, another retired athlete, Kris Freeman, age 42, finished in 2:18:46.9 to win the citizens race by nearly 40 minutes. His time placed him 13th in the open race (also 40 seconds out of sixth, in a more optimistic spin on things), ahead of multiple current pro athletes.
The open men’s race had 54 starters and 48 finishers.
Overall titles and NNF Cup
Here are the overall SuperTour standings for the 2022/2023 season. Hailey Swirbul is the top-ranked athlete on this list, but has announced her retirement from World Cup racing, and so second-ranked Sydney Palmer-Leger will presumptively be in line for Period 1 World Cup starts next season if she would like them. Alex Lawson and Margie Freed trail her on that list.
For the men, Andreas Kirkeng is the highest-ranked athlete on the men’s list, but is also a foreign national. Zanden McMullen is narrowly ahead of John Steel Hagenbuch as the American skier with the most points from the 2022/2023 domestic season, with Peter Wolter third.
The University of Utah takes home the NNF Cup, and with it a $3,000 grant to help it “provid[e] US skiers with structured programs for their continued development,” per an NNF press release. You can find the final NNF Cup standings here (Bridger was second, APU third, and Craftsbury fourth), and an article about the NNF Cup here.
John Lazenby was on site all week; you can view and purchase photos from his site here, and/or click on the podium photo embedded above from his SmugMug site. It looks like galleries are now up for all races.
— Gavin Kentch