After four races and flying across half a dozen different time zones in the last week, Kikkan Randall probably had a tough time telling up from down and left from right on Wednesday. But in the U.S. 30 k National Championship, she could still do the one thing she does best: ski fast, and win.
“My body really doesn’t know what to think,” she said. “But it’s in good shape, so we’ll just keep rolling.”
After an hour and a half of tight pack racing, Randall won the sprint over CXC’s Rebecca Dussault and APU’s Holly Brooks, with Caitlin Compton (CXC) and Canadian Brooke Gosling just behind.
With narrow trails and only one track skied in, there was little chance for Randall’s rivals to mount a challenge once she took the lead on the last of three ten-kilometer laps.
“There wasn’t room,” Dussault said. “I made a move to try to get by Kikkan, and it…got shut down, because it was just so easy to block each other.”
While eight inches of snow and a big dose of rain fell overnight, the precipitation had mostly tapered off by the time racing got underway at nine. But there was still enough new snow on the course to keep the women single-file.
Randall led the race from the gun, stringing things out to stay out of trouble in the first few kilometers. With Brooks’s help, the lead pack was already down to six by the end of the first lap: Randall, Brooks, Compton, Dussault, Gosling, and SVSEF’s Nicole DeYong.
Taz Mannix (APU/USST) had been left behind in an early split, when she’d been passed by some skiers who couldn’t respond to a pace increase. Mannix managed to chase back to the leaders with Kristina Strandberg (XC Oregon), but the pair couldn’t hold on for long.
For the next 15 kilometers, all six women did their time at the front.
“We…all took one, some maybe took two longer leads,” said Dussault. She said she tried to ratchet the pace up at one point to see who could hang, “and everyone hung.”
Through the end of the second lap, the composition of the lead pack was static. Then, at 25 k, the pace finally ramped up as the women got a whiff of the finish line, and DeYong got popped.
As they dropped down onto the open field that precedes the long, grinding, two-kilometer climb to the finish, Randall was at the front, and from that point, her win seemed inevitable.
“I kind of knew I was going to be stuck out there—I didn’t think a lot of people were going to want to take the lead,” she said. But, she added, she also knew that “with it being such a narrow trail, if I could control the pace on the way up, then I’d have a good shot for the end.”
Randall’s decision proved to be a wise one, as behind her the remaining women did everything but drop their poles and bare-knuckle box for position for the downhill sprint into the finish.
“There’s really no opportunity to pass,” Brooks said. “If someone’s trying to make a move, they just get off in this soft stuff on the side…People were trying all kinds of things—that was more contact than I’ve had in a ski race in a long time, sprints included.”
Brooks made a desperate bid to pass Dussault before the sprint, but couldn’t get by, while Compton elected to stay out of the fray.
“There were some definite fist throws, and poles, and things going on skis everywhere,” said Compton. “I was like ‘oh my gosh, I’m staying out of this one!’”
No one could challenge Randall, though, and with a downhill sprint to the line, she was on overdrive, cruising to the line to beat Dussault by just over a second. Brooks, Compton, and Gosling followed.
Randall crossed the line at about 4:30 PM Swedish time, where just she wrapped up her fourth race in five days on Sunday.
She said she couldn’t miss partying with the her friends from the World Cup, so she only got about two hours of sleep before catching a four AM shuttle to the airport.
She arrived in Maine at about 11 PM , then slept for seven more hours before heading out for an easy ski on Tuesday. With the coach’s meeting wrapping up late in the evening, she still didn’t get much rest before Wednesday’s race.
A 30 k on top of so much travel probably would have put most skiers in a coma, but “Kikkan’s really, really, really tough, and really good at managing her recovery,” said Erik Flora, her coach at APU.
There was some concern over Randall opening herself to illness, but the two discussed it on Tuesday, and she felt more than good enough to pull the trigger.
It was Randall’s first-ever U.S. Championship in the 30 k, and her success after such a brutal schedule could be a harbinger of things to come next year.
“It kind of gives her a little bit of a look at racing the Tour de Ski,” Flora said.
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.