FAIRBANKS — The U.S. Cross Country Ski Championships conclude today with the biggest endurance test yet — classic-technique marathons of 30 kilometers for women and 50K for men.
In addition to the cumulative elevation gain of 6,073 feet for men and 3,520 feet for women, making the mass-start races even more challenging is that racers have only had about 41 hours to recover from Friday’s skiathlon events of 15K and 30K.
“They’re very demanding,” U.S. Ski Team head development coach Matt Whitcomb said of the courses, adding that on the steepest climbs — including one called Black Funk — racers won’t stride but will herringbone, or run uphill with skis in a v-formation.
Kristina Strandberg of Sweden, at 33 the second-oldest woman in the field, is one of the favorites at Birch Hill Recreation Area. She dominated Tuesday’s 5K classic and was among the leaders after the classic portion of the skiathlon. Were Strandberg to prevail, however, she wouldn’t be eligible for the U.S. Championship because she’s not American.
That could leave a battle for the U.S. title among skiers such as Kikkan Randall of Anchorage, defending champion Liz Stephen, 2008 runner-up Morgan Arritola (who sat out Friday), Morgan Smyth, Holly Brooks and Rebecca Dussault. Fairbanks’ Becca Rorabaugh, who prefers classic races to skating, could be a wild card, though the extra distance may be tough for the 19-year-old.
“Kikkan for sure will be a factor,” Whitcomb said. “If she’s feeling good, she can win by a minute.”
Possibly working to the advantage of Stephen and Arritola is that they are strong runners and their smaller statures may help on a climbing-oriented course, Whitcomb said. At the same race in Fairbanks last year, Stephen won in 1 hour, 38 minutes, 49 seconds, with Arritola 1:31 behind and Strandberg 2:31 back.
For the men, the top three seeds are all from Canada — Ivan Babikov, Graham Nishikawa and Stefan Kuhn. Babikov easily won Friday’s skiathlon and took both distance races in Fairbanks a year ago.
“Babikov would be a clear guy to bet on,” Whitcomb said.
Last year, Babikov won in 2:32:37, though Andrey Golovko stayed with him for most of the way before finishing 53 seconds behind. Among Americans, James Southam, Lars Flora and Brent Knight of Anchorage are all threats, along with the U.S. Ski Team’s Leif Zimmermann, Chris Cook and Torin Koos, who placed 10th on Friday.
“Koos is typically more of a sprint specialist, but he’s in really good shape right now,” Whitcomb said. “Certainly James (Southam) would be in there right with Koos.”
The defending U.S. men’s champion is Frode Lillefjell, who is not racing today. Koos finished just 6 seconds behind him in 2008 and made a dramatic late charge after finding out that Lillefjell, a Norwegian, was eligible for a U.S. title because he had a permanent resident “green card.”
Thirty-two women are slated to start at 11 a.m. with 52 men to follow at 1:30 p.m. The spectator-friendly courses feature seven laps for men and four laps for women. Also, 15 junior girls will race 5K while seven junior boys will go 12K.