Kikkan Randall returned to World Cup racing on Saturday, with baby in tow. The verdict on her performance: neither as good as hoped for, nor worse than history would predict.
On Saturday, the three-time Sprint World Cup champion competed in her first World Cup competition since 2014. Randall took the 2015/2016 season off while pregnant with her son, Breck. In her return to racing, she finished 52nd – 19.75 seconds off Krista Parmakoski of Finland’s qualifying time in the 1.4-kilometer classic sprint in Ruka, Finland, and 7.91 seconds out of qualifying for the quarterfinals.
The American star was disappointed, but unfazed.
“If you were to totally take away the baby thing, my record here in Kuusamo, when it’s cold conditions and pretty straightforward skiing I have had really good results,” she said in an interview while watching the heats on TV with Breck from her apartment near the race course. “I’ve had one classic podium here and one almost-podium. When the conditions are a little trickier and the kick is not quite as straightforward, I have struggled. I have not qualified as many times as I have qualified.”
Randall’s most recent race in Ruka, in 2014, saw her making the quarterfinals and finishing 16th. Her second place finish came in 2013, showed what could have been. It was the best sprint performance ever by an American woman until Sophie Caldwell won a Tour de Ski stage in 2016.
Randall said that she was not sure where she would stack up in the World Cup field after taking time off. But based on training sessions at U.S. Ski Team camps with Sadie Bjornsen, Jessie Diggins, Ida Sargent, and Caldwell – all of whom raced in the quarterfinals in Ruka – she thought that she was in good shape.
“I had a great workout on the course yesterday,” she said. “I felt good, the energy was good today.”
But a year is a long time to take off of the World Cup circuit, and Randall was realistic about the time it might take to get back to the top level of competition.
“I think sprinting is maybe going to take me a little bit to bring around because I haven’t done a lot of high lactate qualifier-type efforts,” Randall explained. “I think things have been maybe a little bit strong for me on the distance side, so I’m excited to see what I can do tomorrow.”
Sunday: the 10 k classic interval start. Although Randall is known as a sprinter, she has a number of World Cup top 10’s in distance racing. Most of her best classic distance results have been at lightly-attended World Cups like in Canmore, Canada, and in Sklarska Poreba, Poland, in 2012.
But Randall says that she has been feeling good in workouts, and that physiological capacity is not what held her back in the classic sprint in Ruka. She blamed technique failures on her loss of time.
“I felt like technically I didn’t ski well enough to use what I had,” she explained. “That was frustrating. I had a great workout on the course yesterday. I felt good, the energy was good today, I just was flailing around. This is the type of course where you really have to be able to carry your momentum, and I lost a lot out there. It’s not the opening I was hoping for, but it’s my first race back in a while. So I guess I just have to be a little bit patient and work my way through it.”
Overall, Randall was thrilled to be back racing after a season off.
“It felt awesome to be back in what we call the World Cup circus,” she said. “Yesterday being out testing skis, everybody’s going every which way, I haven’t tested skis in over a year, so it is fun to get back into that practice again. I have new wax tech this season, so we’re learning the new system. But all that has been really fun, and doing speeds with the girls yesterday was great.”
Randall has been living in a strange space in that she’s still an international star, but with no results from the past season she is only treated as such part of the time. For the first time in years, she wasn’t in the “Red Group”, the top 30 ranked sprinters in the world, and had to start in the unseeded section of the start order.
“It has been kind of funny here,” she admitted. “I was invited to the press conference last night, so it’s like I never left, but at the same time I have to earn my way back into the group.”
That wasn’t a problem, though, at least mentally.
“It is a bit like riding a bike,” Randall said. “The sensations are all there and I’m used to it, but it’s also new again. But I kind of like that. I really enjoyed working my way to the top and where I was through the 2014 season, and now I have to work my way back. I like that challenge.”
Randall found the accommodations prepared by the International Ski Federation and the local organizing committee to be fair. Besides Randall, there are several other new mothers on the circuit: Marit Bjørgen of Norway, who finished 10th; Aino-Kaisa-Saarinen of Finland, who finished 29th; and Katja Visnar of Slovenia, who like Randall missed the heats, finishing 37th.
“I haven’t had a chance to actually use the baby room at the venue, but my dad is here helping us take care of Breck and he’s taking him around in the Thule chariot, and I’m sure, if I had been in the heats today those guys may have gone in there to take a little break in between the races,” Randall said. “So it’s nice to know that’s there.”
As Breck’s caretaker, Randall’s father has an accreditation which allows him ‘inside the fence’ to the athlete zone. Randall said that this was key.
“The setup here in Ruka is really nice,” she said.
Next weekend, she’ll have her next opportunity in a classic sprint in Lillehammer, Norway. But before that, she’s focusing on Sunday’s 10 k.
“Tomorrow I think it might snow a little less, so hopefully the track will be a little firmer and I can find some grip out there and be able to test what I actually have in my body right now,” she said.