50-kilometer race ends with photo finish
Gunnison Valley resident Rebecca Dussault bided her time for 50 kilometers, waiting for just the right moment to make her move in the final 400 meters, sprinting out in front of one other woman to take the 2009 Birkebeiner women’s title by a ski tip on Saturday, February 21.
It was a bit of redemption for Dussault on the course that takes Nordic skiers from Telemark, Wisc. to Hayward, Wisc. over the hills, through the woods and across Hayward Lake before finishing in downtown Hayward.
Her first attempt at the Birkebeiner, aka the Birkie, was back in 2004 when she took on an incredibly stacked field of international champion distance Nordic skiers.
Dussault had a rough introduction to the race that year, melting one of her orthotic foot beds the night before the race, leaving her to battle with foot cramps almost the entire race.
“About seven kilometers into the race it felt like I had a golf ball in my boot,” says Dussault. “I actually had a pretty bad race that day—I ended up in seventh. I had a real distaste in my mouth for the Birkie.”
Dussault returned to the event this year as part of the Saab Salomon Factory Nordic ski team.
“Primarily we do marathons 30 kilometers and longer,” explains Dussault. “This [the Birkie] is kind of our main event. It’s the biggest cross-country race in North America.”
According to Dussault, the reality of the course sets in as skiers drive from Hayward to Telemark, through the same area where the course is set.
“It’s super intimidating to get in your car and drive to the start in Telemark, because it’s up and down and left and right,” says Dussault.
This year, with her equipment all in check and fast conditions on the course, the stage was set for a Dussault assault.
By the 20-kilometer mark, four women, including Dussault, broke away from the field to build a gap and start working off of each other, saving energy for the final push.
“We were just controlling the race at the front,” says Dussault. “We stayed together all the way to the finish.”
Two-thirds of the way into the race, Dussault flirted with making a break from the lead pack, but opted to stay with her Saab Salomon teammates and Holly Brooks from Alaska Pacific University.
“With 10 to 15 kilometers left in the race I thought I could take the lead,” says Dussault. “But I didn’t want to get out in front and have them work together behind me and pass me in the final sprint.”
Dussault made one more tactical move to remain in the hunt for the win in the final two kilometers of the race. Dussault admits she struggles with her confidence when it comes to sprinting.
“I’ve just never had the confidence to sprint from behind and win,” says Dussault.
Yet, two factors kept her behind Brooks as they approached the lake.
First, her husband, Sharbel, told her not to sprint out front until the last stretch in town.
Second, she knew no matter how still the air was during the race, it would be windy out on the lake.
“I let the Alaska Pacific girl lead out on the lake,” says Dussault.
With 500 meters left, Brooks made her move to break away from the lead group for the win and Dussault tagged on, making her final move with 400 meters to go, lunging for the win with a time of 2:26:39.5, an average of two minutes and 55 seconds per kilometer over the 50-kilometer course.
“She started sprinting and I followed,” says Dussault. “We sprinted like mad up through a tunnel of screaming fans and I was thinking ‘I have to win, I have to win. I’m not going to lose by an inch,’ and I threw my foot out. I prefer it doesn’t come down to a sprint but that was exciting.”
Dussault’s season continues this weekend with the Great Race from Tahoe to Truckee and the Xterra Winter World Triathlon in Snowbasin, Utah in March.
Dussault will kick off her bid for the U.S. Olympic team headed to the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, British Columbia at the U.S. Long Distance Nationals in Fairbanks, Alaska in late March.
While Dussault has a number of Nordic ski racing accomplishments to her credit, she feels this win was the best.
“I think this is the most important victory of my career,” says Dussault. “Bjorn Daehlie was over from Norway to race. It’s hugely important. You feel like ski queen for a day.”