Liz Stephen takes a lead over eventual race winner Jessie Diggins at the 42k Merino Muster in Wanaka, New Zealand, the third stop on the Worldloppet tour. (Matt Whitcomb)
WANAKA, New Zealand (Sept. 3, 2016) - Noah Hoffman (Aspen, CO) and Jessie Diggins (Afton, MN) led a strong U.S. presence Saturday, taking titles at the 42k Merino Muster near Wanaka, the third stop in the global Worldloppet long distance ski series.
Hoffman played a cat and mouse game with teammate Simi Hamilton (Aspen, CO), finally moving ahead on the third and final lap to take a 23-second margin, finishing in one hour, 45 minutes and eight seconds.
In the women’s race, Diggins skied the entire race with Liz Stephen (E. Montpelier, VT) before moving ahead in the final stretch to take the victory by 12 seconds, winning in 1:59:12.
The Worldloppet, which began in 1979, is a series of mass participation, long distance cross country ski events around the world. The Merino Muster is the third stop of the season after events in Argentina and Australia. The U.S. Ski Team is in New Zealand for their annual summer on-snow training camp.
Liz Stephen and Jessie Diggins race in New Zealand. (Matt Whitcomb)
With just a few days on snow at the New Zealand camp, the team went into the Merino Muster as a break from training and came away winners.
“It was such a privilege to race in the Merino Muster,” said Hoffman. “The training season can feel exceptionally long and having a world class race like the Muster in the middle of one of our hardest training periods reminds us what we're training to do.”
Hoffman complimented the Snow Farm venue in New Zealand as one of the most beautiful in the world. “We had a bluebird day for the race. The organizers and volunteers put in a world class event and my teammates and I had a ton of fun.”
It was a fascinating race for Hoffman, a distance skier, and Hamilton, a sprinter, as they went back and forth the entire distance.
“Noah and I chose to ski a steady level three pace together for the first 40 kilometers and then open it up a little bit in the last two k's,” said Hamilton. “After over an hour and a half of steady threshold, my legs were feeling a little flat and I didn’t have the zip to hang with Noah when he notched up the pace leading up to the finish. But I felt great and it was really cool to ski such a long, fun race with one of my distance specialist teammates.”
Simi Hamilton and Noah Hoffman push to catch up with Sweden's Henrik Forsberg, to eventually take first and second place. (Matt Whitcomb)
Hamilton, too, was impressed with the race. “The conditions were perfect for a ski race and everyone at the Snow Farm as well as the countless volunteers who made the day possible did a fantastic job with putting on a world class event,” he said.
“Liz and I raced the entire 42 kilometers side-by-side, trading leads every few k’s, and it was such a blast to be racing with my teammate and very good friend,” said Diggins. “One of the highlights for me was skiing the beautiful 'hanging valley' loop and catching a little air on the downhills as the course was so fast and so well groomed! I loved being able to have fun while still working hard - it really brought out the joy in the sport for me!”
“It was great to take advantage of the opportunity to put on a race bib in September,” said Hamilton. “We don’t get to do that too often and I think it’s important to revisit the mental aspect of racing occasionally during the training season.”
“Snow Farm runs great races and attracts significant fields," said U.S. Ski Team Coach Matt Whitcomb. "Waking up to bluebird skies and fast, transformed snow made for an exciting day. Groomer Dean dialed out perfect conditions on a fast and fun course. The plan for our athletes was to work together for the majority of the race and to then duke it out in the final stretches. All four athletes felt strong and proved that they are in good fitness."
The team will continue its camp at the Snow Farm, competing this week in Australia-New Zealand Cup races. The Worldloppet, which also includes the Feb. 25, 2017 Slumberland American Birkebeiner, will resume with the China Vasaloppet January 4.