Anchorage skier Tyler Kornfield bided his time until Sunday's national-championship distance race became a sprint race, and then it was game over.
Kornfield, known for his strength as a sprinter, used a strong finish to claim the 30-kilometer classic title in a heart-thumping finish at the U.S. Cross Country Championships at Kincaid Park.
He surged into the lead with two kilometers to go, held off Anchorage's Eric Packer in the final meters and let loose a triumphant roar as he crossed the finish line.
"It's unbelievable," Kornfield said. I've never had emotions like that after a race."
About 20 skiers formed a huge lead pack for much of the mass-start race, and Kornfield was able to stick with the group. During the sixth and final lap around a 5-kilometer loop, he seized the moment.
"Halfway through the last lap I looked around the pack and I thought, 'I can do this. I'm the best sprinter in this group,' '' Kornfield said.
It's the third national title and eighth national-championship medal for Kornfield, a member of Alaska Pacific University's ski program.
Until Sunday, all of that hardware had been collected in sprint races, including a bronze in Wednesday's freestyle sprint.
In the women's 20K classic, victory went to a non-Alaskan for the first time in three days of racing at the national championships.
Both races were actually longer than advertised. Because the race loop was 5.28 kilometers, the women raced 21.12 kilometers and the men went 31.68 kilometers.
Swedish skier Hedda Baangman of the University of Colorado built a gap in the final lap to deny Anchorage's Caitlin Patterson a third straight win on home snow.
But Patterson, who placed second, still earned her third national title, because foreign skiers aren't eligible for U.S. titles.
Following Baangman and Patterson across the finish line were a pair of skiers who train with the Alaska Pacific University ski team – third-place Rosie Frankowski and fourth-place Jessica Yeaton.
Baangman, Patterson and Frankowski skied the entire race in the lead until about the 17-kilometer mark, when Baangman broke away on the downhill after cresting Elliott's Climb.
Baangman won in 1 hour, 55.3 seconds, 15.9 seconds ahead of Patterson and 19.6 seconds ahead of Frankowski. Yeaton was fourth in 1:01:39.4 and Chelsea Holmes, who helped push the pace for the first two laps, gave APU three skiers in the top 10 by placing seventh in 1:02:50.7.
"It was a really tough race. A mental-toughness kind of race," said Patterson, who trains with the Craftsbury Green Racing Project in Vermont. "I wanted to emphasize the speed of my skis so I went a little light on the kick (wax), so that made it a struggle up the hills."
After Baangman pulled away, Patterson owned a small lead in the duel for second place when Frankowski, who was making a bid for her first national-championship medal, took a spill on the final climb up Gong Hill.
Frankowski, 26, feared she'd lost her shot at a spot on the podium.
"My pole went between my legs and I went down and I thought, 'It's all over,' '' she said.
But it wasn't. With fatigue setting in and her poles stuck under her skis, Frankowski reminded herself that after nearly an hour of racing, she wasn't the only one who was tired. She kept her composure, untangled herself, got up and was still in medal contention.
"It's experience," she said. "A couple of years ago, I would have panicked."
Another big crowd packed Kincaid for the races, which also drew a huge crowd for Friday's sprint race. Parking lots were so full a shuttle bus helped bring those who parked in lower lots to the stadium area.
Frankowski, who is from Minneapolis but came to Anchorage in 2014 to train at UAA, said the crowd helped her recover from her fall.
"They were cheering for me all along, but the moment I fell, they erupted," she said.
"Hang in there," she heard people scream. "Keep trying," they told her.
"It was really cool," Frankowski said. "I'm an Anchorage transplant and I'm racing Caitlin Patterson who grew up here but there wasn't an area hee people weren't screaming for me."
In the men's race, probably no one screamed louder than Kornfield did when he double-poled across the finish line.
"I was looking at the course (last night) and in my mind I was picturing how I was going to win it," Kornfield said. "It's a mind game, and I was able to switch it on today and come out on top."
Kornfield also spent part of Saturday reviewing the Continental Cup standings, which will be used in the event the U.S. Ski Team decides to include any racers here this week to the team headed to next month's Winter Olympics.
"I realized if I had any chance to make the Olympics team, it was today," he said. "… This is the second time I've been able to (win a national championship) at Kincaid. The last time really changed my life. This time? Let's see."
Kornfield, an Alaska Winter Stars and Service High alum, was 18 when he won the 2010 classic sprint national title in Anchorage, a feat repeated in 2012 in Maine.
He said that first championship was life-changing because it made him believe in his potential.
"Growing up as a young kid here, you see so many Olympians, so many national champions that you grow up believe you can compete with them," Kornfield said. "But until that happens, you don't think it's possible."
Kornfield and Packer stuck with the lead pack throughout the race but didn't ski into medal contention until the fifth of six laps. Packer was in fourth place and Kornfield was fifth after 25 kilometers.
Both are excellent sprinters and double polers, and by hanging onto the lead pack they were able to use those skills in the final kilometers.
For Packer, the 2016 classic sprint national champ, the silver medal was salve for a rough few days.
In Wednesday's freestyle sprint, he won his semifinal but wound up fifth in the six-man final after getting tangled up with another skier 150 meters from the finish.
"That gave me motivation today," he said.
He also drew motivation from another source.
His maternal grandmother – "my Oma," he said – died last week in the Netherlands, and Packer, 27, had to choose between flying there for the funeral or staying here to race. He decided she would have wanted him to stay and race.
"It was nice to ski for her today," Packer said. "It was really special."