Given the big picture, you might think Tuesday's Seawolf Invitational freestyle sprint at Kincaid Park didn't rank high on everyone's to-do list.
Many of these skiers have gigantic goals, after all. Anchorage's Reese Hanneman, the winner of the men's race, hopes to qualify for a World Cup race in Europe before the season is over. UAA's Casey Wright, the fourth-place finisher in the women's race, hopes to race for Australia at next year's Winter Olympics.
Both have skied in events where the stakes are higher and the fields bigger. Wright, in fact, just returned from the U-23 and World Junior Championships, a major world-class competition held last week in Utah.
But the mid-week race was meaningful for both skiers, for different reasons.
For Hanneman, a member of Alaska Pacific University's nordic program, it was a rare chance to ski a mid-season sprint race against a high-quality field. The NCAA's West Region nordic teams are in Anchorage for the week, so the talent level is high.
"There's a lot of good skiers here, so it's really competitive," Hanneman said. "This was the most competitive men's sprint race in the U.S. other than (last month's) nationals.
"… I wish there were more sprint races in the middle of the season."
For Wright, an Australian who is a second-year skier for the Seawolves, it was a rare chance to compete at home.
The Seawolves typically compete in the Lower 48, but this week offers four days of home-course racing for the nordic team. Two weeks ago, the West Region's alpine squads came to town for a week's worth of racing at Alyeska.
"Being on home turf means so much to myself and my team, especially this year with the budget crisis and the potential cuts," Wright said, referring to University of Alaska president Jim Johnsen's attempt in October to eliminate the ski teams at UAA and UAF.
"This shows UAA deserves to be there."
Not many ski areas could have rivaled Kincaid on Tuesday afternoon, where the scene was right out of a picture book. Snow was plentiful, temperatures were in the high teens and the morning fog gave way to sunshine and a brilliant blue sky in the afternoon.
Victories went to Hanneman, who edged younger brother Logan in the men's final to give APU a 1-2 finish, and Merete Myrsetg of the University of Utah, who topped teammate Guro Jordheim in the women's final to give Utah a 1-2 finish.
Half of the six-skier men's final consisted of APU skiers, who are not NCAA skiers — though some of APU's skiers attend classes, they don't have to adhere to the academic standards NCAA skiers do.
The top college skier was Denver's Dag Frode Trolleboe, who placed third behind the Hannemans. Kevin Bolger and Martin Bergstroem of Utah placed fourth and fifth and APU's Forrest Mahlen finished sixth.
Nearly four years separate the Hannemans — Reese is 27, Logan is 23 — but in ski races, they often are much closer.
Reese has probably won more head-to-head battles, "but it's getting pretty even," Logan said. "I can usually beat him in the distance races but when it comes to sprinting, he often wins. He's a really good heat skier."
Reese, a two-time national sprint champion, showed his sprinting prowess throughout the afternoon. In his six-skier semifinal, he was in last place for much of the 1.4-kilometer course before making a move near the final turn coming into the stadium.
"I had to pass five people. I love that part," he said.
Sprint heats require the ability to accelerate — to go from fast to faster at a moment's notice. And because heats involve a mass-start on a short course, tactics come into play, as does the ability to switch tactics mid-race.
"You have to make lightning-quick reactions," Reese said. "You may have to go to Plan B, or Plan C, or Plan D."
In the men's final, both Hannemans made a move on the hill that goes up and over the stadium tunnel. Reese surged past the two Utah skiers ahead of him and Logan followed.
In the women's final, Wright attacked early and led after the first big uphill and downhill before getting passed near the tunnel.
"I took a gamble," she said. "Maybe it doesn't pay off, but that's sprint racing."
Wright — the only skier from UAA or UAF to make either final — wound up fourth behind Myrsetg and Jordheim of Utah and Annika Miller of Montana State. Becca Rorabaugh of APU was fifth and Jasmi Joensuu of Denver was sixth.
Wright is one of three UAA skiers who competed at last week's U-23 and World Junior Championships in Utah. They represented three countries — Wright, who is from Melbourne, competed for Australia; Natalie Hynes, who is from Whitehorse, competed for Canada; and Hailey Swirbul, who is from Colorado, competed for the United States.
Wright was the only one from that group who raced Tuesday — she skipped the final individual race in Soldier Hollow so she could be fresh for Tuesday's race.
Hynes and Swirbul stayed for the entire race series in Utah, and Sunday — the final day of competition — Swirbul made history.
She skied the first leg of the women's relay, which grabbed third place to secure America's first relay medal in World Junior Championship history.
Wright said Swirbul's medal was celebrated by all of the Seawolves.
"We're all super-stoked about our performances there, and we're a really close team," Wright said. "We all feed off each other."
UAA advanced six skiers to Tuesday's quarterfinals (Wright, Hannah Rudd, Sadie Fox and Michaela Keller-Miller for the women and Zackarius Toresson and Toomas Kollo for the men), with Wright and Rudd both making it to the semifinals.
UAF advanced eight to the quarterfinals (Sarissa Lammers and Anna Darnell for the women and Max Donaldson, Nick Lovett, Seiji Tagaki, Michael Fehrenbach, Alexander Eckert and Jan Cech for the men), with Lammers making the semifinals.
Competition moves to Girdwood on Wednesday for a mixed-gender relay race.
Freestyle sprint final (no times recorded)
Men — 1) Reese Hanneman, APU; 2) Logan Hanneman, APU; 3) Dag Frode Trolleboe, Utah; 4) Kevin Bolger, Utah; 5) Martin Bergstroem, Utah; 6) Forrest Mahlen, APU.
Women — 1) Merete Myrseth, Utah; 2) Guro Jordheim, Utah; 3) Anika Miller, Montana State; 4) Casey Wright, UAA; 5) Becca Rorabaugh, APU; 6) Jasmi Joensuu, Denver.