Kikkan Randall (USA) and Therese Johaug (NOR) entered the post-World Championship World Cups in Lahti from very different places, but the two women both enjoyed career days in the 10km pursuit event in front of a crowd of 10,000.
Randall, who crashed out of the Championship sprint, and struggled in the distance races, skied to a best-ever World Cup distance result of 11th, missing out on the top-10 in a photo finish with Norwegian Marthe Kristoffersen.
Johaug, meanwhile, followed up her World Championship gold in the 30k skate with her first career World Cup victory, pulling off a sprint finish upset of Justyna Kowalczyk (POL).
In a field missing only Kristin Stoermer Steira (NOR) and Petra Majdic (SLO), top results were harder to come by than in Oslo, where each nation was limited to four starters, and skiers chose to rest during certain events.
The race started quickly, with Randall telling FasterSkier in an email that the pack had already thinned out by the two-kilometer mark. With just 10k of racing there was no time for games.
Randall said she was “able to ski strong and relaxed on the classic,” and achieved her goal of staying in the mix at the front.
In the skate portion, she was not able to hang on to Aino Kaisa Saarinen (FIN) and Vibeke Skofterud (NOR), but was pleased that “the legs were still there.”
Kristoffersen used the draft to slingshot by heading into the stadium at the finish, and Randall wasn’t quite able to make up the ground, missing out on tenth at the lunge to the line.
“She [Kristoffersen] skied a wide line off the final corner, and I couldn’t quite build momentum fast enough to pass her,” Randall said.
The effort still yielded the best distance result of Randall’s career and was especially satisfying coming off the challenging World Championships.
“This is more like where I expected my fitness to be,” Randall said. “It was frustrating in Oslo not to be able to utilize the fitness I believed I had in the distance races.”
Johaug surprised the world by skiing away from Marit Bjoergen (NOR) and Kowalczyk midway through the 30k in Oslo, and proved today that it was no fluke.
Bjoergen set the pace early, but fell during the transition, and never got back on her game, quickly dropping 20 seconds to the leaders.
Johaug and Kowalczyk took turns at the front, quickly dispatching the last hanger-on, Arianna Follis of Italy. Kowalczyk held the lead coming into the stadium, but the Norwegain came back in the homestretch, taking the win in a photo finish.
Johaug is decidedly not a sprinter, and the conventional wisdom has been that she would be at a major disadvantage at the end of a mass start distance race. But she clearly demonstrated that is not the case.
While skate sprinting is not Kowalczyk’s strong suit, she regularly qualifies for the World Cup heats, and frequently advances to the finals. But Johaug who doesn’t even start sprints, got the better of her.
“Previously everyone has said that I will be number two or three, if we are close at the end of the race,” Johaug told Norwegian newspaper Verdens Gang. “To prove that I can win a sprint was the biggest thing for me today.”
Follis, currently third in the overall World Cup, held onto the final podium spot, while Bjoergen finished fourth.
“Today I was not better,” Bjoergen told Norwegian television station NRK. “I am satisfied and happy with fourth place, and it was extra fun that the Theresa won.”
It was no easy task for the quadruple gold medalist from the World Championships. She came in at the front of a group of four women, edging Charlotte Kalla (SWE) by .2 seconds, with Marianna Longa (ITA), and Anna Haag (SWE) just behind.
She ended the day 37.8 seconds down on her teammate at the front.
Kowalczyk was also satisfied with her performance. There is little pressure on her as she wrapped up the overall World Cup title before World Championships and has now locked up the distance title as well.
“I was really tired after classic and was really surprised that we were only two in front,” Kowalczyk said after the race. “I wanted to ski with Therese and focus on the finish but she was stronger today.”
Randall came across the line 56.2 seconds after Johaug and well within striking distance of the top-5.
She said she was “a bit surprised” at her sub-par performances in the distance races in Oslo, but also noted she has been focusing primarily on sprinting, and that the disappointment of the sprint result, and some tough wax days were also a factor.
“It was definitely putting the eggs in one basket,” Randall said of prioritizing the sprint. “But for the chance that the basket could have been World Championship gold, it was worth it.”
She added that her distance skiing may have been a bit “dull” for that reason, and that the racing last week helped bring her around.
Racing continues on Sunday with a classic sprint, and Randall will take to the line wearing the red bib of the Sprint Cup leader. Follis and Majdic are right on her heels, so she will need to have her best race to hold onto that position.
“Definitely nice to know that the body is back on track, and that when the skis are good I CAN actually classic ski pretty well,” Randall said. “It’s going to be a tough course tomorrow, but I’m optimistic that the steep climbs are going to be good for me.”
Randall’s teammate Liz Stephen also turned in a strong performance, placing 28th, +1:43. Given the deeper field, the result is likely on par with her 16th in the World Championship 30k. Her FIS points from the two races support that assertion, coming significantly lower today.
A better skater, Stephen made up ground in the freestyle portion, and was just off the back of a pack of five women at the finish.
Holly Brooks and Morgan Arritola rounded out the field for the US, placing 39th and 50th respectively.
Chandra Crawford and Dasha Gaiazova were the only starters for the Canadians with Perianne Jones a last minute scratch. Crawford is racing more distance races in order to build her endurance heading into next season. She finished 62nd.
Gaiazova struggled on the Lahti tracks, skiing to 66th in the 69-woman field.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.