FAIRBANKS — James Southam of Anchorage was upset about letting Noah Hoffman and a pair of Canadians get away, but he never gave up on his pursuit of a U.S. Championship in Sunday’s 50-kilometer classic.
“You get frustrated, and I start yelling at myself,” said Southam, a member of the Alaska Pacific University Nordic Ski Center. “You just try and keep mentally a fight in you and keep the chase on.”
With Canadians Stefan Kuhn and Ivan Babikov destined to battle for the overall win, Southam set his sights on catching Hoffman, a 19-year-old representing the U.S. Ski Team and Sun Valley (Idaho) Ski Education Foundation. That was a tall order, however, as Southam trailed Hoffman by 49 seconds going into the final 7.5-kilometer lap.
But then he became encouraged after hearing that he’d pulled within 30 second heading into the Tower South climb, the second-to-last of 27 ascents on the sadistic course that included more than 6,000 feet of cumulative climbing.
A few minutes later on the descent of Tower South, spectators at Birch Hill Recreation Area were stunned to see Southam emerge with a lead of seven seconds.
“I could see he was struggling,” Southam said of reeling Hoffman in. “The hackles go up on your back, and you start to attack.”
Southam blew past Hoffman about 50 meters from the top of the climb.
“I just kind of put in a little surge when I went by him, tried to take the fight out of him,” said Southam, who started the week with a win in the 10K classic.
Once Southam pulled ahead, he won the U.S. title going away in 2 hours, 31 minutes and 40 seconds. Hoffman finished 31 seconds later, and Glenn Randall of Dartmouth College took the bronze 68 seconds further back.
Hoffman skied an aggressive race but simply ran out of gas.
“I fell to pieces on the last lap. I walked Tower on the last hill,” Hoffman said to a fellow racer who offered congratulations in the finish chute.
Earlier, the intrepid Hoffman took the lead with Babikov, Kuhn and Southam directly behind him, and on the fifth of seven laps Southam got dropped.
“When James fell off of our group, I knew I wanted to get as far away as possible, because you never know what’s going to happen,” Hoffman said.
But after about 15-20 kilometers of pulling from the front, Hoffman finally stepped aside — at the strong encouragement of his U.S. Ski Team coaches — and let the Canadians lead.
“It might not have been the best decision to lead the whole thing, bit I did feel when I was leading that I was able to stay smooth and controlled,” said Hoffman, a native of Aspen, Colo.
And once he let Kuhn and Babikov do the work up front “I started struggling to hold on to them,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman’s energy gradually waned while Southam stayed strong.
“I started cramping a little bit and just getting real tired. The wheels started coming off and I was glad I had a big enough lead to hold onto fourth,” he said.
Meanwhile, Kuhn, a member of the Canadian Development Team, had a goal of not letting Babikov shake him.
“I was just trying to hang on and wait to the finish where I could outsprint him,” Kuhn said.
That’s exactly what happened, as Kuhn put on a surge in the homestretch and Babikov conceded. Kuhn’s winning time was 2:30:07 and Babikov crossed seven seconds later.
The win was satisfying for Kuhn, who came to Fairbanks to help make up for missing a month of racing this season after breaking a shoulder.
Kuhn, who was second to Southam in Tuesday’s 10K classic, opted to sit out Friday’s 30K skiathlon.
“If definitely kept me a little fresher,” he said. “I’d rather race for the win (Sunday) than race for two fourth places (in the skiathlon and 50K).”
Babikov, who has recently dominated at the U.S. Championships, said he attempted to separate himself from the others on Sunday, but wasn’t strong enough.
“(Kuhn) had just a little more energy than me. That’s OK,” Babikov said, adding that he’s happy the season is over so he can return home to Alberta and relax.
The top local result was a 13th place by 18-year-old David Norris, who skied much of the race with fellow Alaskan youngsters Max Treinen and Patrick Johnson. That trio even passed more experienced Alaskans Brent Knight, Marius Korthauer and Lars Flora in the last lap.