-By Kaitlyn Patterson, OAM NOW Nordic Skier and Cyclist
To kick off 2016 I made the trek to Houghton, Michigan to attend U.S. Cross Country Ski Championships (also known as U.S. Nationals) held the first week in January. But instead of lining up as a competitor, my job was to be a professional observer for the week. Since November I have been writing for FasterSkier, one of the primary sources of North American cross country ski news. I mostly cover World Cup events remotely but since U.S. Nationals were held in the Midwest, I got my first shot at on-site reporting.
Nationals consists of four days of racing including an interval start race (racers go off one by one and race the clock, just like a time trial), two days of head to head sprint racing, and a mass start distance race. The event is held early in the season because it allows athletes a chance to qualify to represent the U.S. in international competition the remainder of the season. Since it is held so early, I didn’t plan on racing to give me more time to transition to ski season after an intense fall of cycling. However, teammate Alex Vanias prioritized roller skiing all summer and fall and would compete in the 30-kilometer mass start freestyle event despite having only one week of on-snow training prior to the race.
Michigan Tech did an amazing job hosting the event with limited snow and skiers from all over the U.S. and Canada converged in Houghton. I enjoy watching races almost as much as I enjoy competing and I got to see some great battles. I also had a chance to meet some really impressive, down to earth athletes and coaches including another Caitlin Patterson of the nordic ski world who had a great weekend and won both distance races (together we confuse a lot of people). Our hotel was filled with skiers making for a fun and quirky place to hang out. Basically the week could be best described as doing quirky things in a quirky place with quirky people. And it was great.
On my “days off” from race reporting I got to enjoy some of the best skiing in the Midwest at the Michigan Tech trails. We also had amazing weather with temps between 15 and 30 degrees and a couple days of sunshine!
Finally the day of the mass start freestyle event arrived. It was a great field and I was excited to watch the race up front and see what Alex could do. The day didn’t disappoint with an impressive win by Tad Elliott who came back from a rough couple years battling mono and Epstein-Barr virus. Alex moved up from starting position 76 to finish 43rd against a talented field of collegiate and professional athletes.
After watching races all week and feeling great skiing, I was itching to race. Alex planned on racing the 42k event at the SISU Ski Fest in Ironwood two days after his 30k. After working out some logistics, I decided I could join him and return to Houghton to wrap up U.S. Nats reporting.
Ironwood is a small, old mining town on the border of Wisconsin with strong Finnish history. Everyone is incredibly friendly and the town rolls out the red carpet for racers including traditional stew and pasties at the “Finnish” line. Hundreds of snow-deprived skiers from across the Midwest arrived excited for the new snow and great racing conditions.
The course wound through the ABR trail system before heading north to finish in downtown Ironwood. Both Alex and I started in the elite wave and after narrowly avoiding a pileup in the first 100 meters, we were off!
I settled in a train of guys along with the one other female. It was great to be racing again but I noticed pretty early in the race that I had underestimated the stress of skiing and working all week. I attempted to ski relaxed but the spent too much time accelerating and trying to pass other racers on the narrow trail. At about 30k, the first female took off and by the time I passed the racer in between us and began chasing, she was out of sight. I had also fallen behind in my fuel intake and sat in the back of the train to regroup. I was able to rally but it was a bit too little, too late and I finished second- just over a minute off the lead. The winner was Jan Guenther, an accomplished skier and triathlete who also owns Gear West- the biggest nordic ski shop in the U.S.
Meanwhile, Alex was fighting a much tighter battle for the win against Matt Leibsch. Matt is one of the top cross country racers in the country with a previous Birkie win and a two top-10 results at U.S. Nationals this week. Alex and Matt dropped the field early and despite Matt’s efforts to drop him, Alex was skiing strong and it became apparent it would come down to the finishing kick. Matt overtook Alex the last kilometer to win by just 18 seconds.
It was a great two races for Alex and a testament to his off-season training and potential for the season. It was an epic week for both of us and I’m excited that winter has finally arrived in Traverse City so we can train and race!
The OAM Nordic Team will be back in action this Saturday, January 16 for the Cote Dame Marie in Grayling, right in the backyard of our ski shop sponsor- Cross Country Ski Shop!