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Nationals Notes: Firm and Fast Conditions on Kincaid Snowmaking Loop (Updated)

A snow gun makes snow at bottom right, with the sledding hill in the foreground and the Pacific Ocean in the background, in this view from in front of the Kincaid chalet Thursday afternoon, Dec. 28. (Photo: Gavin Kentch)

(Note: This post has been updated to include comments from 2018 U.S. nationals organizing committee chair Joey Caterinichio and confirm that the races will be held on a manmade loop.)

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Five days out from the opening race of 2018 U.S. Cross Country Championships, snowmaking loops are being prepared to serve as the race courses next week at Kincaid Park.

“The races will occur on the man-made loop,” Joey Caterinichio, chair of the 2018 U.S. nationals organizing committee, wrote in an email on Saturday. “If any snow is to accumulate over the course of the week and regular courses can be used, the OC will continue to evaluate to expand off the man-made loop but it will take multiple inches of accumulation.”

With teams arriving early and registration opening on Sunday, the race schedule remains unchanged. The event begins Wednesday, Jan. 3, with 10- and 15-kilometer freestyle individual starts.

“The race course will maximize the technical climb we have and be the hardest course that can be used,” Caterinichio wrote. “Currently COC Matt Pauli met with local coaches who gave input and a good course is being designed and will be released.”

That potential course profile will likely be ready on Sunday, she added.

According to Kincaid grooming updates from the Nordic Ski Association of Anchorage (NSAA), no grooming has occurred anywhere other than the snowmaking loops since Dec. 20, when three lighted trails were snowmachine-groomed. On its website, NSAA has not mentioned doing any grooming on the FIS distance courses (which have basically no overlap with the three trails groomed) during the month of December.

The full FIS distance courses are technically skiable; this reporter skied them earlier this week on an old pair of training skis. While coverage is good snow in some places, there is also substantial dirt and ice in other places, and the snowpack is so thin that classic tracks could not be set. The snowmaking loops are in substantially better condition. There are approximately 3.5 to 4 k of snowmaking terrain available, depending upon the specific course configuration.

Training course for Sunday, Dec. 31 and Monday, Jan. 1 at Kincaid Park. Photo was taken by Google in April 2011; those are not the current trail conditions. (Photo: 2018 U.S. Cross Country Championships)

According to the U.S. nationals schedule of events, courses will be marked for training on Sunday, Dec. 31.

“For practice for the next two days, a one-directional course is being marked for warm up, one that allows course preview of the sprint course and skiing most of the 3.7 KM,” Caterinichio wrote. “On Tuesday, this course will be set for the distance that will change some from the next two days.”

If the distance courses occur entirely on the snowmaking loop, the courses should be in superb shape. Coverage of manmade snow is impeccable, and recent cool temperatures have left the courses firm and fast.

The courses will also ski somewhat differently than the full FIS courses. They will not feature the minutes-long climbs of the standard FIS distance courses; the 7.5 k FIS course at Kincaid includes three “A” Climbs. They will instead feature smaller hills, and more rolling to flat sections between them. A much greater proportion of the course will be “working sections,” and there will be greatly reduced opportunities for recovery.

The courses should be relatively fast; the last high-level races held exclusively on Kincaid snowmaking terrain, in December 2015, saw the winners (Jessica Yeaton and Scott Patterson) cover 10 k in 22:05 and 15 k in 32:27, respectively, in a freestyle individual-start distance race. The courses may also encourage some competitors in next Sunday’s classic distance races to forego kick wax in favor of double poling, depending on conditions on race day.

Despite the differences in elevation profile, Adam Verrier, a 1994 Olympic cross-country skier, thinks that snowmaking-loop distance races will still provide a reasonable qualification process for picking various championship teams.

An Anchorage resident, Verrier knows the Kincaid trails as well as anyone; he qualified for the 1994 U.S Olympic team at the Olympic trials races held at Kincaid Park. (“In those days, the Olympic Trials were a make-or-break thing,” he wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “In both 1992 and 1994 (and I think probably 1998 also) the best two out of four races were scored, and the skiers with the best results were on the team and those who didn’t do well enough that week did not make the team – end of story.”) Verrier has largely stayed in Anchorage since that time and never stopped racing; he has won effectively every significant skiing or mountain running race in southcentral Alaska. He will be serving as chief of announcing in the Kincaid Stadium during next week’s races.

Verrier wrote to FasterSkier with his thoughts on the implications of a snowmaking loop-only U.S. nationals:

If the snowmaking loop is used for distance races, and if they get all the hills squeezed into it that they can, is it hilly enough to separate the Olympic-caliber skiers from others who can hang in there on flatter courses but would get dropped on Olympic-style hilly courses?  Regardless of whether a snowmaking loop course can meet homologation standards, I think there is enough of a profile on that loop to separate the best skiers – the best climbers – and can reasonably be used as a tool for Olympic Team qualification.

. . .

In my opinion, running the US Nationals entirely on the snowmaking loop will be a reasonable qualification process for Olympic Team selection for the following reasons:

– A considerable number of Olympic Team spots have already been grabbed up (mostly by the women’s team), making this week of races less important in the overall scheme of things than if the US Nationals were used as the one and only avenue for Olympic Team qualification.

– I have seen flatter, less demanding courses used for major national and international ski races in the past, when weather conditions have dictated that courses needed to be altered due to lack of snow. Additionally, I have seen day-of-race weather (rain; heavy, wet snow, etc) alter racing conditions so that, for instance, those starting at the very front or the very back of the start list had an enormous advantage, or a skier who made a fortunate (or unfortunate) equipment selection or preparation had extraordinarily good or bad results.

– Although the play hill is not a very big climb, I think it’s steep enough to separate the better skiers, and I think it’s reasonable to predict that the winner of a race on a snowmaking loop distance course would also win on a course that uses Elliot’s Climb, Hairpin and the Lekisch.

In my opinion, if the races were to be held on a snowmaking loop that packed in as much climb as possible, the results would be quite similar to what we’d see on the courses that were originally planned for these races. In my opinion, there is enough climb on that snowmaking loop that it would not be possible to “fake it” and qualify for an Olympic berth without being worthy of selection. I just don’t see how you could get on the US Nationals podium on a snowmaking loop distance course without actually being fit and prepared enough to win on a homologated course with longer, more sustained, but less steep climbs.

As race organizers wrote on the main U.S. nationals website, “The nation’s top nordic skiers are starting to arrive and train at the Kincaid Park trails …” The race office opens on Saturday, Dec. 30, and courses will be marked by 10 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 31, according to the schedule. Races begin with the freestyle individual-start distance races on Wednesday, Jan. 3.

— Gavin Kentch

* * *

For more updates, check out:

Grooming and snowmaking: NSAA grooming report | User-submitted trail reports | Kincaid Stadium webcam | NSAA temperature guidelines for operating snowmaking equipment

Weather: Long-range forecast (weather.gov) | Long-range forecast (yr.no)

Main U.S. nationals site for updates: U.S. nationals

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