Stratton Mountain nordic relay team upsets APU in Fairbanks for national title

Tuesday, 27 June 2017, 12:43:56 PM. APU had owned the title since the mixed-gender, mixed-technique relay debuted in Anchorage three years ago, but Vermont-based Stratton Mountain School pulled off an upset in Fairbanks on Friday night. The national championships wrap Sunday with the men's 50K and women's 30K.

FAIRBANKS — The team from Stratton Mountain School upset the defending champions from APU Nordic Ski Center to take the national title in the 4×5-kilometer mixed technique and gender relay Friday evening.

"I don't think I had much more than 5 kilometers in me today," said SMS anchor Simi Hamilton. "Actually I think I had exactly 4.5 kilometers — luckily the last half kilometer was a downhill."

Hamilton, a World Cup podium finisher in sprint races, owned a lead of nearly 14 seconds going into the final leg, but had to deal with Scott Patterson, APU's anchor and winner of the 22.5 kilometer skiathlon earlier this week. Hamilton also had to deal with a stomach bug that prevented him from finishing the sprint race earlier this week.

"I thought I had a chance to catch him," said Patterson, 24, who skied on APU's winning team last year, "but I knew if I caught him he could out-sprint me."

Stratton Mountain clocked 50 minutes, 2.8 seconds to seize the title. APU finished runner-up in 50:13.1 and APU's No. 2 team took third in 51:38.3.

APU led the first two legs.

APU's Kikkan Randall, the four-time Olympian, put a small gap on SMS's Sophie Caldwell before those skiers tagged off to Erik Bjornsen and Ben Saxton, respectively. While Saxton and Bjornsen skied similar times for their legs — Bjornsen was about five seconds faster — Bjornsen's eighth-place split was disappointing for the U.S. Ski Team member and Olympian after a top-20 finish at World Championships earlier this year.

"I was hoping for better," he said after his first race back from an illness. "I forgot how hard it is to ski when you are sick. I felt like I usually do in the last 100 meters of the race for the last 3 kilometers."

Ben Lustgarten of Craftsbury Green Racing Project finished the second leg leading the race, and admitted he got lucky.

"(Bjornsen) was probably not in top form," Lustgarten said after posting the fastest split for his leg, "I think he would have crushed us if he had been feeling 100 percent."

Saxton of SMS managed to keep within 10 seconds of Bjornsen, and handed off to Jessie Diggins, one of the world's top 5K skate skiers. Diggins did not disappoint, skiing the fastest third leg of the event by 23 seconds.

APU's third leg skier, Olympian Sadie Bjornsen, Erik's sister, was also coming off an illness and said that hampered her performance.

When Diggins handed off to Hamilton, she had made up a 10-second deficit and given her team a cushion of nearly 14 seconds.

"It hurt more than I expected," said Sadie Bjornsen. "But it was still really fun. I wanted to come up here and be part of the team, but unfortunately I didn't feel as good as I was hoping."

APU had won the relay title since the race format was established three years ago in Anchorage. The runner-up showing was a surprise because, on paper, APU had a clear advantage over the perennial challengers from Vermont. The top two APU teams were ranked higher than the first SMS team, as determined by calculation of the average FIS (International Ski Federation) points list.

Though clearly disappointed, APU racers congratulated their fellow racers.

"It's really good for our country to move the title around," said Sadie Bjornsen, who won her first World Championship medal earlier this year. "We were fighting with what we had, and today it wasn't enough."

APU program director Erik Flora also tempered his disappointment. "It's always fun to win," he said, "but we went 2, 3, 4 today. That is awesome."

The APU 2 team, which included Rosie Brennan, Eric Packer, Chelsea Holmes and David Norris finished 1:35 behind, with a third-place split time from Holmes on the third leg. The APU 3 team of Jessica Yeaton, Tyler Kornfield, Rosie Frankowski and Logan Hanneman, led by Kornfield's strong second leg, beat the Craftsbury team by more than 30 seconds.

Kornfield, a UAF graduate, took the risky tactic of double poling the race on skate skis. The strategy is used by racers on relatively flat and fast courses when they think they can gain more from the faster glide of skate skis than they would lose on an uphill without grippy kick wax. It seemed to pay off for Kornfeild — he posted the third-fastest leg split time on a day when temperatures hit 45 degrees.

Racers now are preparing for Sunday's marathon freestyle races — 30K for women and a 50K for men. While APU anchor Patterson said he was looking forward to it, some of the other top skiers expressed doubts that they could compete.

"Today was a test," said Erik Bjornsen, the defending 50K national champ, "and I failed."

Races begin at 10 a.m. Sunday and can be streamed live at hhsstreamteam.com

U.S. Nordic National Championship

Mixed technique, mixed gender 4x5K

Full results available at summittiming.com

1) Stratton Mountain School (Sophie Caldwell, Ben Saxton, Jessie Diggins, Simi Hamilton), 50:02.8. 2) APU 1 (Kikkan Randall, Erik Bjornsen, Sadie Bjornsen, Scott Patterson), 50:13.1; 3) APU 2 (Rosie Brennan, Eric Packer, Chelsea Holmes, David Norris), 51:38.3.

Lex Treinen is an Anchorage skier who trains with the APU Nordic Center. He did not compete this season because of an injury.

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