ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Liz Stephen had quite the task ahead of her on Saturday in the first race of 2014 SuperTour Finals. Kikkan Randall’s house guest for the week and her longtime buddy on the U.S. Ski Team, the 27-year-old from East Montpelier, Vt., started a minute behind Randall in the women’s 10-kilometer freestyle individual start at Kincaid Park.
Usually, that would be fine, but when you hear cheers through the woods ahead of you and get splits that you’re right behind Kikkan, that you’re seven seconds down, one second down, it’s hard to know how to beat her.
Stephen tried anyway, but at the end of the 27-minute race — which was actually 10.6 k on the two-lap course — Randall was the one who finished fastest in 27:27.1, by 2.2 seconds over Stephen in second.
Alaska Pacific University’s leading veteran, Randall, 31, repeated her win in the 10 k distance from last year’s SuperTour Finals in Truckee, Calif. There, she won the 10 k classic by 36.6 seconds over her APU and USST teammate Sadie Bjornsen and finished 47 seconds ahead of Stephen.
On Saturday, the 10 k skate was a favorite event for several on the U.S. Ski Team (with the exception of Sophie Caldwell, who finished eighth and smiling in one of her least-favorite races on her 24th birthday. She was greeted at the finish by nearly a dozen costumed competitors, including Randall in a tinsel wig and Stephen in an afro, somewhat contained by a ski headband).
A few minutes earlier, Randall and Stephen had been just as gassed as most in the field at the finish, which ended on the winding uphill called Elliott’s Climb before an 80-meter straightaway into the World Cup stadium (a modified start and finish because of low snow).
“I knew it was close,” Stephen recalled. She was down by 7.3 seconds to Randall after the first lap then two seconds a couple kilometers later.
With 3 k to go, Stephen knew she had some climbing ahead — which was good for her. Randall’s strength was gliding, she reasoned, so Stephen went for it on the rolling (and sometimes-screaming) downhills and tried to ski relaxed, until the last time up Elliott’s.
“On this final climb it was just head down and going,” Stephen said. “[Kikkan] got it and it’s great to see her win in her home state.”
While Randall had an edge on Stephen from start to finish, she was actually trailing Caitlin Gregg (Team Gregg/Madshus) by 3.6 seconds at the end of the first lap. However, Randall had little way of knowing; she started 5 1/2 minutes ahead of Gregg. (Stephen started ahead of her as well.)
The 2014 American Birkebeiner freestyle champion, Gregg was also fresh off a flight from World Cup Finals in Europe. She arrived in Anchorage on Tuesday — one day before Randall and Stephen.
While Gregg said her energy was good and wasn’t sure where she lost time on the second lap on Saturday, she credited Randall and Stephen as “great World Cup skiers” and was satisfied with third place, 20.9 seconds behind Randall and 4.1 seconds ahead of Bjornsen in fourth.
“I always have really good skate races here in Anchorage,” Gregg said. “Whether it was at JO’s [Junior Nationals], NCAA’s, nationals twice, I qualified for the Olympics here in 2010 — for whatever reason, Alaska and I, Anchorage and I do great. I love the trails, I love the conditions, the crowds, it’s a good vibe.”
When she and her husband, Brian, who placed ninth in the men’s 15 k, found out that Spring Series was going to be there, they couldn’t pass it up. Even after they raced more than ever this season — both domestically and internationally; Caitlin said she’s only had two weekends off since early October and has been back and fourth to Europe twice.
“Even after our crazy long season, we were like, ‘Oh man, that is gonna be awesome,’ ” she said. “We went for an afternoon jog at nine o’clock last night. We watched the sunset over the ocean.”
“For whatever reason, Alaska and I, Anchorage and I do great. I love the trails, I love the conditions, the crowds, it’s a good vibe.” — Caitlin Gregg (Team Gregg/Madshus), third in 2014 SuperTour Finals 10 k freestyle
The ultimate hometown hero, Randall relied on the crowd to boost her the last time around Kincaid — the same trails she grew up on. Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, Randall moved to Anchorage with her family when she was just a few years old, and went on to rack up 10 state titles at East Anchorage High School, all of which were in running.
As a junior skier, Randall won seven Junior National titles and set Alaska’s record for fastest woman on skis at 74.14 miles per hour in a 1994 speed-skiing event, according to her blog.
But on Saturday, what mattered was that the four-time Olympian had another great day in her storied career, which she most recently added her third Sprint World Cup title to.
“You spend the whole winter on the World Cup and then you come back here and it just feels so familiar,” Randall said. “Just seeing everybody and the snow is familiar. It was really funny packing my race bag this morning, I was so in the routine all winter, but then to do it in your own house is kind of funny.”
She had her husband, Jeff Ellis, and Stephen at home with her, too. Randall said it was that familiarity paired with the ability to make an impact on the community that made her want to have the post-Sochi Olympics, season-ending races there. These Finals are Randall’s first races in Anchorage since 2010 nationals.
“It’s really nice for us racers to come back and race at home, but it’s so good for the community and the next generation of Olympians,” Randall said. “They’re seeing a high-level race for the first time and they’re like, ‘Oh man, I want to be there someday.’ I remember being a kid and feeling that way.”
Randall went on to become the most successful female cross-country skier in U.S. history.
“When I was standing in the start gate [today] I thought, I do this because I love it,” Randall said. “When you’re on the World Cup, it’s such a big scene there, but to do it here in front of all your friends and family, it’s like, Oh yeah, this is the true spirit of cross-country.”
Stephen, who’s also under APU’s wing this week with wax help, said the kind of recognition Randall gets from her home state and supporters stands out.
“Everybody knows her and it’s a really cool atmosphere here in Alaska,” Stephen said. “We were watching TV last night from some shows that had been recorded in December. Usually you fast-forward through the ads, and we were doing that, but on a number of different occasions I would be like, ‘There you are!’ And we’d have to go back and watch it.
“It’s just really cool to see a community and a whole state really embrace cross country skiing and embrace their athletes,” Stephen added. “It’s fun to be here and it’s fun to be home with Kikkan because she is a star. In our minds, all the time and in her state too and it’s just fun to be a part of it.”
Also in the top 10, Jessie Diggins, of the Stratton Mountain School T2 Team (SMST2) and USST, placed fifth (+29.8). Girdwood native Chelsea Holmes (Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation) was sixth (+55.0), Holly Brooks (APU/USST) seventh (+56.2), Caldwell (SMST2) eighth, Erika Flowers (SMST2) ninth, and Anchorage’s own Caitlin Patterson (Craftsbury Green Racing Project) 10th.
Results (scroll down for women)