With the field splintered and the race for gold in the women’s 30-kilometer classical national championship nordic race winnowed to a duel between Sadie Bjornsen and Liz Stephen with about five torturous kilometers left Friday morning, tactics were not a mystery.
Bjornsen and Stephen are members of the U.S. Ski Team and Olympic teammates who have spent the winter training, racing and living together. They know each other’s strengths, weaknesses and tendencies.
Stephen excels on wickedly steep pitches like the first of the three climbs that comprise the Spencer Loop, so she knew she needed to make her move there if she wanted to force Bjornsen to submit in the 18.6-mile race.
And Bjornsen knew that if she could hang with Stephen for that initial daunting ascent, she could in turn try to crack Stephen on Spencer’s two remaining climbs, which are more gradual and more her domain.
Bjornsen kept pace on the steep climb where Stephen made her stand, then gapped her friend on the remaining climbs to pull away and seize her fourth individual national championship.
Bjornsen, 24, who skis for APU’s Nordic Center, captured the final race of the U.S. National Championships, finishing in 1 hour, 35 minutes, 58 seconds on the Hillside Trails.
Stephen, 26, of East Montpelier, Vt., claimed runner-up on the fast, hard trails, clocking 1:36:27. And 18-time national champion Kikkan Randall of Anchorage, 31, another APU athlete and a four-time Olympian, took bronze in 1:38:06.
The top six spots went to 2014 Olympians. Jessica Diggins finished fourth (1:38:14.7), Ida Sargent came across fifth (1:38:56.2) and Sophie Caldwell took sixth (1:39:55.3).
Ann Spencer of Anchorage and APU, 19, won the junior women’s title on a course that included the difficult loop named after her father, former Olympian Bill. She covered 20-K (12.4 miles) in 1:17:30.
Bjornsen said she knew her hopes of winning hinged on sticking with Stephen on the steep climb that is the first of the three principal climbs on Spencer Loop, which racers covered three times in the 30-K that consisted of three 10-K laps.
“I was hanging on by my nails,’’ Bjornsen said. “I was trying to stay positive in my head — ‘You can do this. You can do this. You’re at home.’
“There was some serious self-talk going on.’’
Good to know, Stephen said afterward.
“That makes me feel good because I was also that way,’’ she said.
When Bjornsen made her move on the subsequent uphill sections in the final lap — “I went on adrenaline, and went as hard as I could,’’ she said — Stephen said she stuck close enough to believe she could cover the gap on the downhill and turn the race into a sprint finish.
“I figured, ‘Here’s my chance,’ ” Stephen said. “But honestly, Sadie broke me on the downhill.’’
The national title was Bjornsen’s fifth overall. Friday’s victory was her fourth individual win, and she also was a member of the winning mixed relay team Tuesday.
Until Friday, Bjornsen had never raced competitively on the Spencer Loop. She’d done some offseason workouts on the trail and once did a time trial on the Loop while skiing for UAA four years ago.
“It’s really fun,’’ she said. “It’s super-challenging. It’s a world-class (course).’’
Randall hung with Bjornsen and Stephen through most of two laps and said she her Olympic teammates were too strong when her triceps and hips began to cramp about 18 kilometers into the race.
“It’s always at about 20-K, and sure enough,’’ Randall said.
Still, Randall said she was psyched to finish the season at home and ski on fast, hard and natural tracks after a World Cup season in which a majority of races in Europe were conducted on artificial snow.
Bjornsen said it was joy to compete in Anchorage, which in the last week-plus was the site of two national championship races and two SuperTour races. Bjornsen finished second to Randall in the SuperTour freestyle sprint and fourth in the SuperTour 10-K freestyle that Randall won.
“For the first time, I’ve got to race at home,’’ she said. “It was great how many fans came out and cheered us on. This is a great ski community and I never realized how powerful it was until now, and I’ve never felt as much a part of it as I do now.’’
Find Doyle Woody’s blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
2014 ConocoPhillips U.S. National Championships
Women’s 20-K Classic Mass Start
1) Sadie Bjornsen 1:35:58; 2) Liz Stephen 1:36:27; 3) Kikkan Randall 1:38:06; 4) Jessica Diggins 1:38:14; 5) Ida Sargent 1:38:56; 6) Sophie Caldwell 1:39:55; 7) Caitlin Gregg 1:39:56; 8) Annie Pokorny 1:40:20; 9) Erika Flowers 1:40:57; 10) Caitlin Patterson 1:41:14.
Anchorage Daily News