Elite U.S. Ski Team and SuperTour cross-country ski racers will need well-prepared skis and amazing stamina this weekend for the 2011 U.S. National Nordic distance championships staged for the first time in Sun Valley.
Chief of Competition Rick Kapala said, "The 50-kilometer race, seven laps of the 7.5k course, is absolutely over-the-top hard. It's a real test of athletic ability that will also be a challenge depending on the snow conditions. You'll have to catch some good skis.
"We should have a solid crew of North America's best domestic racers, most who can throw down on any given day and win. We're still in a snow cycle, but the recent snow has resulted in great snow coverage. It'll be a challenge to maintain good kick on your skis."
The men's 50-kilometer (31-mile) national championship is Saturday, March 26 starting at 9 a.m. on the Lake Creek trail system north of Ketchum, organized by the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation. The women's 30k (18.6-mile) national race is Sunday at 9 a.m.
Both are classic technique, mass-start races, increasing the difficulty for the racers. As part of the 50k, the men will have to pole up the South Bench 50-meter hill seven times, for a total climb of about 3,500 feet.
The Junior Men's 25k classic event will be integrated into the Senior Men's race Saturday at 9 a.m.—juniors pulled aside after three laps. The Junior Women's 15k classic event will work the same way Sunday—juniors doing two laps while the senior women aim for four.
At stake for top racers are cash prizes of $1,200 for the male and female winners, $600 for second places and $300 for third places. Good results in the national finals and in next week's SuperTour finals at Sun Valley can also provide racers with guaranteed World Cup starts for the 2012 season.
Salt Lake City native Kikkan Randall, 28, of Anchorage, Alaska knows all about the World Cup. The three-time Olympian will be here in Sun Valley after completing the 2010-11 World Cup season in 10th place in the overall standings and third in the final sprint standings.
Kapala said, "Kikkan has broadened her capacities from being a very consistent sprinter to in some cases finishing in the top 10 in World Cup distance races." Randall placed 18th in a 30k free-style World Cup March 5, and 14th in a March 20 freestyle pursuit race at Falun, Sweden—her sec-ond best non-sprint ever.
Last year, in nationals at Anchorage, Randall won four national titles in the short-distance races and, in March at Fort Kent, Maine, added a fifth national title by winning the 30k freestyle. She now has 15 national titles to her credit.
Other women to watch for Sunday are two U.S. Nordic Ski Team "A" teamers—Liz Stephen, 24, of East Montpelier, Vt. and Morgan Arritola, 24, of Ketchum. They placed 1-2 in the national 30k freestyle race in March 2009 at Fairbanks, Alaska. Stephen had her best result of the World Cup season March 5 in a women's 30k skate, 16th.
An exciting newcomer is 19-year-old Jessie Diggins of Afton, Minn. The five-time Junior Na-tional queen won the 2011 national freestyle sprint at Rumford, Maine in January and anchored the U.S. mixed technical relay team, placing ninth, in the World Championships at Oslo, Norway March 3.
Men to watch this weekend and next week include Kris Freeman, Andy Newell, Noah Hoffman, current SuperTour men's leader Lars Flora, Tad Elliott, James Southam and Ketchum's Mike Sin-nott.
Hoffman, 21, a former SVSEF Olympic Development Team racer from Aspen, Colo., could be the favorite Saturday. He skied very well under pressure in the 2011 World Championships. Hoffman was the top American in 30th place in the world 50k freestyle race before 100,000 spectators March 6 at Oslo, and was 29th in the 15k classic race March 1 at worlds.
Three-time Olympian Freeman, 30, of Concord, N.H. also is coming off of solid World Cup and world championships results in Scandinavia. Newell, 27, of Shaftsbury, Vt. is best known as a sprinter, but has awesome double-pole skills.
Flora, 33, of Anchorage is the reigning national 15k classic king. And distance specialist Southam, 32, from Anchorage, won the national 50k skate two years ago at Fairbanks.
Spectators who want to view the race from the stadium area are asked to park by the Hulen Meadows bridge (firehouse parking lot) and take a shuttle bus to Lake Creek. There will be no park-ing on state Highway 75 by Lake Creek, nor will spectator parking be allowed within the Hulen Meadows subdivision.
With their seven laps, the men will come through the stadium area several times. Kapala esti-mated the top racers will finish between two hours and 10 minutes, and 2:30.
There should be between 50 to 60 men in Saturday's marathon field, and maybe a few more women, Kapala said. The last two years, season-ending national long distance finals have drawn smallish fields—35 men and 25 women last year at Fort Kent, 50 men and 32 women in 2009 at Fair-banks.
Heading up the race organizing committee are Chief of Competition Kapala, Assistant Chief of Competition Susie Quesnell Lloyd, race secretary Heidi Watanabe, volunteer manager Nancy Krankkala, stadium managers Ned Hamlin and Steve Job, start crew managers John Seiller and Jeremy Fryberger, and course control manager Rob Landis.
The Blaine County Recreation District, represented by Eric Rector and Jim Keating, is provid-ing a ton of help and support, Kapala said, and there are 80 to 100 local volunteers pitching in for a great event.
The 2011 U.S. Nationals will fold right into the March 29-April 2 USSA Super Tour finals. USSA Super Tour races at Lake Creek will be held in a Mini-Tour format. Prologue races (4.5k men, 3.5k women) are Tuesday, March 29 at Lake Creek. The series of four races builds to a grand finale atop Dollar Mountain April 2.