For four days, the big story here in Anchorage has been Kikkan Randall, who won both races held here on Saturday and Monday. But beneath Randall on the result sheet is where the drama has been unfolding, as a handful of women are fighting tooth and nail for coveted spots on the 2010 Olympic team.
The narrative was no different today. In the 20k mass start classic race, Randall again skied her way to victory. But the real action was behind her. After a disappointing race her Monday left her Olympic hopes hanging by a thread, Holly Brooks skied to second place, taking full advantage of one of the her final opportunities to prove she deserves a place on the team traveling to Whistler in February. Working together with Randall over the final seven-kilometer lap, Brooks built up a 35 second gap over her rivals, though she could not quite match her APU teammate’s skiing towards the finish.
With freshly falling snow, coaches were being encouraged to ski in the classic tracks just ahead of the field, making the going a little easier for the athletes. Liz Stephen led the race early on, but according to Brooks, the pace was fairly conservative. Randall sat in the second or third row, looking relaxed.
At 10 kilometers, though, the Alaskan put in a surge that broke open the lead group, which consisted at that point of Caitlin Compton, Rebecca Dussault, and Laura Valaas in addition to the other three.
“I felt like the pace needed a little boost,” Randall said, “and I tried to be pretty decisive.”
To that point, Compton said, the racing had been very tight and tactical. Gaps were opening and closing, and the women would accordion at transition points. But when Randall turned the screws at the halfway point, there was no doubt about it, Compton said.
“When they made their move, they definitely went, which was the way to do it, I think,” said Compton. “It just felt like we ramped up there.”
Brooks was the only one who could match Randall’s acceleration, and two thirds of the way through the race, she came around her teammate to do some of the work herself. The two worked together on the final lap to distance the rest of the field, but Randall ultimately proved to be too much for Brooks, slowly pulling away over the last kilometers.
“She just had a little more pep to her step,” Brooks said. “My technique was starting to get a little sloppy, and then I slipped a few times, and that takes a lot of energy.”
Randall ended up with some ten seconds over Brooks at the finish to take her thirteenth national title. Half a minute later, Compton took a painful sprint over Dussault and Stephen, in that order. It was Compton’s first podium finish in the classic discipline.
After five inches of snow in the morning left wax techs and coaches in a frenzy to make adjustments, a number of teams were left clearly struggling with the kick, making for a brutal slog around a hilly course. But in the end, the elite women didn’t have any trouble, and it was fitness that decided the podium, not klister or fluoros.
“The top girls, we all had good skis,” Compton said.
While the wax may have worked, the fresh powder and fluffy snow still made for some slow skiing. Randall’s winning time was just under an hour and a quarter.
For Brooks, the result will definitely help her case for the Olympic team. But with one race to go, she said that she is just trying to ski fast.
“I try not to get too preoccupied with numbers right now,” Brooks said. “I can only control what I do–I can’t control what Caitlin [Compton] or Rebecca [Dussault] or Laura [Valaas] or Liz [Stephen] or…other people do.”
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.