Wild Rumpus Sports
 

Marion Woods Takes Both Races in Peninsula Besh Cup Weekend

Victoria Bassette (left) leads Marion Woods (right) in a semifinal race at Besh Cup #3, Soldotna, Alaska, in January 2019. (photo: Gavin Kentch)

SOLDOTNA, Alaska — The most famous names and lowest FIS points were gone from the results sheet for the season’s second Besh Cup weekend of Junior Nationals qualifying races, as Hailey Swirbul, Gus Schumacher, Luke Jager, Kendall Kramer, et al., were busy representing America while racing in Europe. In their stead another representation of America, a dozen bald eagles, watched over Saturday’s freestyle sprints and Sunday’s distance classic races from their perch in the trees overlooking the stadium behind Skyview Middle School on the Kenai Peninsula.

America’s top U23 and U20 skiers are presumably enjoying a healthy diet while in Lahti for World Juniors. The convocation of eagles, by contrast, owes its presence to the stadium’s proximity to the Central Peninsula Landfill just down the road.

Skate sprints

Saturday morning dawned clear and cold. It was FIS-legal, but only barely. Racers streamed into the middle school for bibs and bathrooms, then out onto the course well in advance of the 9:45 a.m. sunrise. If you have a stereotypical but justified image of coaches testing wax by headlamp in the pre-dawn cold, this morning delivered.

A field of U16+ men had bibs no. 1–88 and the morning’s first qualifying starts. A short-notice 10-minute hold ensued before bib no. 1 made it on course, as timing equipment malfunctioned in the cold. Racers began at around 10:10 a.m. Within minutes, however (approximately after bib no. 15 had started and while bib no. 16 was standing in line about to go out), another hold was imposed for additional timing troubleshooting, while racers already in the start line shivered in their Soldotna High blankets provided by race organizers, and racers not already in the start line shivered in their warmups. Qualifying eventually resumed, at 15-second intervals, with a manual start protocol featuring an old-school, hand-on-the-shoulder, don’t-leave-until-I-say-go approach.

The sprint course was short and sweet, which also meant that it was a brutal hammerfest: A few hundred meters flat out of the start, up a hill, down a hill, another hundred meters flat around a sweeping lefthand turn, then up and down another hill to the finish, potentially with enough speed to freeskate to the line.

Ari Endestad (bib no. 8) leads Miles Dennis (3) and Julien Bordes (2) in a semifinal race at Besh Cup #3, Soldotna, Alaska, in January 2019. (photo: Gavin Kentch)

The course was 1 kilometer long, and skied fast in the cold and firm conditions. The morning’s 31st-place qualifier, Joseph Walling, failed to make the heats despite clocking a healthy 1:57.64 for 1km, and so skiing at more than 30km per hour. (Walling can perhaps take some solace in the fact that in the morning’s World Cup sprint race in Otepää, Estonia, Johannes Høsflot Klæbo skied his qualifier at 28.5km per hour (3:22 for 1.6km), albeit on classic skis on a World Cup sprint course.)

After roughly 88 U16+ men had put their best V2 and jumpskate to the test, it was Patrick Marbacher who posted the day’s best qualifying time of 1:44.47. There was a gap of precisely 13 seconds to 30th place, where Jordan Laker-Morris clocked a 1:57.47 to take the last qualifying spot.

The men were followed by the U16 and up women. 67 athletes later, Victoria Bassette had notched the fastest qualifying time of 2:05.15. The women’s field was not quite as tight as the men’s; there was a gap of 20.21 seconds between her and 30th-place qualifier Zoe Chang (2:25.36).

There were few surprises en route to the finals, which were held around 2 p.m. in mercifully warmer temperatures as the sun shone on the entirety of the spectator-friendly course.

The men’s final featured Marbacher (bib no. 1 for fastest qualifying time), Julien Bordes (bib no. 2), Miles Dennis (bib no. 3), Karl Danielson (bib no. 4), Eli Hermanson (bib no. 6), and Ari Endestad (bib no. 8). In the end, the biggest surprise may have been the relative ease with which Endestad skied away from the field, benefitting from some unfortunate positioning behind him to open up a gap going up the second hill. He pressed hard over the top and kept his lead to the finish seconds later, slowing up slightly to look around and celebrate before crossing the line with his first-ever Besh Cup victory.

“I went out hard at the beginning and settled into the pace,” Endestad told FasterSkier after the race. “I was really just hanging on, and then around the big corner there, people started going out wide, and I saw my line on the inside and said, ‘This is my chance.’ So I took the lead, and when I got to the hill, I just tried to go as fast as I could. When I pushed over the top, going back down, I was expecting people to be right on my tail, but they weren’t – I think the adrenaline from going up the hill made me go faster than I thought I was.”

Endestad explained that his finish-line celebration had been spontaneous, not planned.

I thought I was going to be racing to the line,” he said. “So when I looked back and saw people a ways behind me, I know how fast this downhill is, so I just stood up. I try not to be too showy, but when you’re that far ahead, you have time to do something.”

Jim Galanes (l) and Audun Endestad racing in Lake Placid in the 1980s. Courtesy photo.

Ari Endestad’s last name may be familiar to longtime fans of the sport: His father, Audun, placed 18th in the 50 k at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo and won thirteen national titles, reaching the U.S. nationals podium in 1993, days before his fortieth birthday.

On the continuum from Marv Marinovich to laidback sports dad, Ari reports, his father is decidedly the latter.

“He’s been really hands-off,” Ari said. “He really waited for me to get into it. And maybe that’s why it’s taken me a little bit to get better; I know a lot of dads start to push their kids when they’re younger. But he’s not too hard on me; he’s a really chillaxed guy, he likes hunting and guiding and being outside. But once he saw I was into it, he took the opportunity to help me.”

Behind Endestad in second, Bordes explained the slowdown that left him unable to contest the finishing sprint.

“It wasn’t ideal,” Bordes said of how his race developed going up the second hill. “The guy in front of me on the final hill just slowed down quite a bit, and first took off, so there’s nothing to do about that. So I got the guy in the final stretch to finish second.”

Bordes explained that the secret to skiing the course well, in his opinion, was “The three extra pushes over the hill. That was magic. Both times. It doesn’t really matter how fast you ski on it, just so long as you’re with them, but those three extra pushes over the top, into the downhill, really changes everything. That’s what took me from third to second.”

Bordes, 21, had set as a season goal qualifying for and racing in U23 Championships, “which happen in two days,” he said on Saturday afternoon, “so I didn’t make that goal. I came here as a wax tech [for APU]; I did tons of skis, and then I hopped in the race today.”

Marion Woods (far right) leads a four-way sprint to the line over Quincy Donley (far left) and Victoria Bassette (upright in middle) in the sprint final at Besh Cup #3, Soldotna, Alaska, in January 2019. (photo: Gavin Kentch)

The women’s final, held moments later, featured one of the closest finishes of the day. Marion Woods moved up from second midway through the final to come into the lead by the top of the last uphill. She kept that position as she led the first four racers to the line, staying low and employing a powerful free skate all the way to the finish to come in less than a ski length ahead of Alaska Winter Stars teammate Quincy Donley. Victoria Bassette was roughly half a ski length behind Donley for third, with Annie Gonzales about a ski length behind her in fourth. Garviey Tobin and Annika Hanestad crossed the finish line in fifth and sixth a few seconds later.

(Finishing times were not available for any of Saturday’s heats or finals. These narratives are based on this reporter’s first-hand observations; estimates of finishing gaps are based on pictures taken from the finishing area.)

The women’s final was similarly top-heavy, with five of the day’s six fastest qualifiers represented. The only absence was the day’s second-fastest qualifier, Aubrey LeClair, who placed fourth in her semifinal to miss out on the A-Final, then took the B-Final with relative ease.

The women’s winner, Woods, is a 2017 graduate of the University of Vermont, where she raced on the ski team. Along with Gus Schumacher, she makes up the entirety of what Schumacher recently termed the Alaska Winter Stars Elite Team, as two of the only post-high school skiers in the program.

I hope I’m doing Gus proud out here, holding it down in Alaska,” Woods said, speaking with FasterSkier on Saturday afternoon, roughly 12 hours before Schumacher placed 16th in the classic sprint at World Juniors. The Winter Stars Elite Team had a strong weekend.

Woods, 23, is currently in her tenth year of racing Besh Cups, and this weekend marked at least her fourth time racing on the Tsalteshi trails at Skyview Middle School. She brought that experience to bear when asked about her approach to the sprint course.

From left, Patrick Marbacher (3rd), Ari Endestad (1st), and Julien Bordes (2nd) made up the top three overall of the boys sprint final at Besh Cup #3, Soldotna, Alaska, in January 2019. (photo: Gavin Kentch)

 

“This course is so quick,” Woods said, “and being back with – I mean, there’s a whole group of just super fast juniors. And coming back as a Senior, I tried to just hang with them, knowing that in the last downhill there’s some room to try and get around. I know also on both of the uphills there’s some tactical spots where you can try to get around, but I realized in the first few heats it’s not super-plausible. So a lot of this course depends on the downhill. And as a nordic skier that’s always – maybe I can speak for the majority here – not our favorite. Although I’m really a big fan of downhills, so it was a fun course today.”

Woods spent her first year post-college living in Denver, “working in the city, not being an athlete at all.” But she returned to Anchorage late last summer, and turned her attention to biathlon. “So I’m training with Alaska Winter Stars, and also Anchorage Biathlon Club,” she said. “But when it comes to Besh Cups – I grew up doing Besh Cups, and they’re just such a great series. So I’m here without a rifle, just getting some races under my belt.”

While Woods aged out of juniors racing three years ago with six Junior Nationals titles to her name, Donley, 15, earned “only” one silver, in the relay, at last year’s Junior Nationals at Soldier Hollow, her first ever. (Possibly relevant, last spring she was a 14-year-old competing in the U16 division, against both 14- and 15-year-olds.)

Donley has higher hopes for this year’s JNs, to be held on her home course at Kincaid Park in Anchorage. “My goal is to make it to Junior Nationals, and hopefully get a podium there,” she told FasterSkier at the finish.

Donley said that she had “an interesting start” in the final, but “was able to make it up a little bit, and then skate my way to the finish” to take second overall.

As the Anchorage Daily News headlined its coverage of the weekend, “Marion Woods sweeps Besh Cup races on Tsalteshi Trails, but young skiers shine too.” Indeed, Donley said that she wasn’t even the youngest skier in the final, pointing instead to Victoria Bassette of Fairbanks.

“It’s definitely an indication of greatness to come,” Donley said, only sort of tongue-in-cheek, when asked what her and Bassette’s presence in the final meant for the next couple years of Alaskan junior girls skiing. “There’s lots of up-and-coming fast skiers that I’ve noticed. And I used to be one of the youngest skiers, on the younger end, but now I’m seeing a lot of girls who are even younger than I am, and they’re super fast, which is awesome. It’s great to have some competition.

Woods topped the overall podium on Saturday, but also the Senior podium, as the only Senior or Master woman in the field.

The U20 women’s podium was Aubrey LeClair (7th overall), Ellie Mitchell (10th), and Emma Jerome (17th). The U18 girls podium was spots fourth through sixth in the A-Final: APU teammates Gonzales, Tobin, and Hanestad. The top three U16 skiers were Donley and Bassette, second and third in the A-Final, and then Meredith Schwartz, third in the B-Final for ninth overall on the day.

A separate semifinal, B-Final, and A-Final were held for U14 girls. At the end of the day (literally so; the last race was held nearly six hours after qualifying began), the top three here were Sammy Legate, Heidi Schumacher, and Berit Meyers, in a reprise of the morning’s three fastest qualifying times. (Legate had clocked a healthy 2:16.25 for 1km in qualifying, which was the fastest U14 girls time by over 15 seconds. It also would have been the fastest U14 boys time, by over 2 seconds, and would have qualified Legate in 14th overall had she been eligible to race against the U16+ field.)

Bald eagles overlooking the course. (photo: screenshot from Adam Loomis Instagram)

The men’s field saw less of a youth movement, as only two U16 boys cracked the top 30 to qualify for the main heats. (Separate semifinal and finals races were held for the 12 fastest U16 boys outside the top 30.) Making the top 30 were Kai Caldwell, 25th overall, and Aaron Maves, 27th overall. Konrad Renner, winner of the U16 A-Final for 31st overall on the day, rounded out the U16 boys podium.

The U20 men podium was all drawn from the A-Final: Endestad (1st overall), Marbacher (3rd), and Dennis (5th). The U18 boys podium was Hermanson (4th overall), Samuel Delamere (8th), and Everett Cason (12th).

Of the five Senior men in the field, two of them made the heats. One of them, Bordes, reached the A-Final, where he finished second overall. The other was former Nordic Combined World Cup skier Adam Loomis, who now coaches jumping in Anchorage after retiring from NoCo. Racing in his first-ever sprint, Loomis qualified in 23rd, then finished fourth in his quarterfinal en route to 18th overall. Matthew Muffoletto (45th) rounded out the Senior men’s podium.

Finally, in the U14 boys bracket, Skyler Amy, Paul Hlasny, and Murphy Kimball led the way.

Distance classic races

The next morning was even colder. When Kyle Foster led a field of four U10 boys out of the stadium in the day’s first race at 11:02:30 a.m., temperatures were probably not yet FIS-legal (the cutoff for which is -4 F). But these were not FIS races, and it really did feel warmer in the sun, and the day went off as planned. All distance races were run as interval starts, making for three interval-start distance races out of the first four Besh Cups following December’s shift to Government Peak Recreation Area, which features wide competition trails but a narrow stadium.

A combined field of 78 women racers, age U14 and up, did one lap of a 5 k course. The 5 k course began with a sharp climb out of the stadium, then covered primarily doublepole-able, undulating terrain for another 2-3 kilometers before ascending a series of steep hills. A long, gradual uphill marked some of the final few hundred meters before dropping down to the finish, and a last chance to engage in a prolonged doublepole on tired muscles in front of all your coaches.

Not quite FIS-legal temperatures on the way to the race venue Sunday morning, Besh Cup #4, Soldotna, Alaska, in January 2019. (photo: Gavin Kentch)

As on Saturday, there was one Senior woman in the field: Marion Woods. And as on Saturday, Woods set the pace, taking the win in 14:34.70. Second overall was Aubrey LeClair, 10.96 seconds back. Third overall was Annika Hanestad (+16.96).

The Senior women podium was, as noted, Woods, and that’s it. The U20 podium was precisely the same as in Saturday’s sprint: LeClair (2nd overall), Mitchell (12th), and Jerome (15th). The U18 podium also saw the same three athletes as on Saturday but this time in a different order: Hanestad (3rd), Tobin (4th), and Gonzales (7th).

For the U16 girls, similarly, Donley (5th), Bassette (6th), and Schwartz (9th) showed their range, finishing in precisely the same order as in the sprint.

There was one new name for the U14 girls podium: Schumacher (32nd overall) was first and Legate (36th) was second, but Piper Sears (48th) moved up to third in Sunday’s race.

A field of 49 U14 and U16 boys raced the same 5 k course as the girls, with U16 boys taking the top 17 spots. First overall here was Josh Baurick, who finished in 13:29.08 on the firm and fast course. He was followed by Aaron Maves (+10.93) and Porter Blei (+18.53).

18th overall, and first among U14 boys, was Murphy Kimball. He was followed by Skyler Amy in 19th overall. Third place for U14 boys went to Aven Elsberg, who was 25th overall.

Finally, 55 men and boys, aged U18 and up, raced a 10 k classic interval start. It was a single-lap 10-kilometer course, a rarity in this day and age. The course had two sharp climbs within the first kilometer, but was otherwise doublepole-heavy, undulating terrain through approximately the 5 k or 6 k mark. The hills that followed were not objectively all that demanding, but the transition from 15 minutes of mostly doublepole to steep striding can be an awkward one; many racers with low start numbers were walking up the final uphills.

Victoria Bassette (bib 101) leads Marion Woods (104) in a girls semifinal race at Besh Cup #3, Soldotna, Alaska, in January 2019. (photo: Gavin Kentch)

Eli Hermanson presumably did scant walking in taking the overall win, covering 10 k in 27:33.31. He was followed by Alexander Maurer (+9.91) in second, just 0.21 seconds ahead of Karl Danielson (+10.12) in third.

After the race, Hermanson told local paper the Peninsula Clarion that he had been off his skis for a month following a late-November fall in icy conditions, and was pleased to be starting to return to form after a subpar performance at U.S. nationals earlier this month.

The U18 podium was Hermanson, Maurer, and Joel Power, who was fourth overall, 6.32 seconds off the overall podium. The top three U20 skiers were Danielson, then Saturday’s winner, Endestad (5th overall), and Kai Meyers (9th overall). There were only four Senior men in the field, led by Bordes in 7th overall, followed by Loomis (29th overall) and Muffoletto (44th).

Up next

As the final racers crossed the finish line, volunteers began taking down the course, and coaches began packing up waxing equipment. A field of racers that predominantly hailed from out of town began the trek back to the Anchorage area (3 hours driving), Fairbanks (9 hours driving, or two flights), or Juneau (flights; you cannot drive to Alaska’s capital city).

But first came a stop at Alaska’s great contribution to world cuisine, the drive-through coffee shack. (The Guardian once called “the coffee carts here” as “common as roadside moose, each with its unique brand: The Sugar Shack, Java the Hut, Fred’s Bail Bonding and Coffee Cabana.”)

“Was there a ski race or something?” said the barista at Java Junction Too, the first coffee shack encountered by an Anchorage-bound racer heading east on the Sterling Highway away from the race venue.

There had been, a reporter informed her.

“I thought so,” she said. “I’ve been getting a lot of cold, hungry customers.”

The final weekend of Besh Cup racing will be held in Fairbanks on February 2-3. The members of Team Alaska will be announced on February 3 after Besh Cup #6. Junior Nationals are in Anchorage from March 9-17.

— Gavin Kentch

Results and media: Sprints (overall) | Sprints (qualifying and heats) | Classic distance races | Current Team Alaska points list | Podium photos (coming soon)

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