In the U.S. National Championship in the 30 k last year, Kikkan Randall (USST) somehow pulled off a win in northern Maine just 72 hours removed from racing in Europe.
This year, with a full week to recover from World Cup Finals, at least Randall’s biological clock was set to the right time. But Sunday’s classic race presented its own challenges: the Alaskan had to overcome a brutal course, the strength-sapping effects of altitude, and, most importantly, some tenacious skiing from Maria Graefnings, a 25-year-old Swede racing for the University of Utah.
For an hour and a half, Graefnings stuck to Randall like superglue, gritting her teeth and grinding her way along the flats and up the course’s two big climbs. She finally let Randall go as the two women crested the final uphill—but not before draining the Alaskan of all her energy save one last shred.
“Everything was just starting to cramp and go, and so I knew that I just needed to keep the tempo going,” Randall said. “That’s all I focused on—I couldn’t tell what was going on behind me. I just was so happy to get over the top of that hill, and drop into a tuck.”
Over the top, Randall opened a gap of ten seconds, which held to the line, allowing her to claim her 16th national title, on a picturesque day in Sun Valley. Graefnings held on for second place, while 19-year-old Jessie Digging (CXC) was third, in her first-ever 30 k.
Last season, Randall won five national championships, thanks to a clean sweep of four races in her hometown of Anchorage in January, followed by her win in Maine in March.
But this year, she had to miss the U.S. Championships in the middle of the season, when she opted to race in the Tour de Ski instead. Sunday’s race was her lone opportunity to add to her collection.
“I had one shot this year,” she said.
With Randall just back from a strong finish to her European racing season, it was clear even before the 30 k started that there wouldn’t be many women in Sun Valley who could ski with her. It didn’t take long to find out who, as a split occurred after just one lap, seven kilometers in, that left six women in the lead: Randall, Graefnings, Diggins, Morgan Arritola (USST), Holly Brooks (APU), and Sadie Bjornsen.
The split was a sharp contrast to Saturday’s men’s 50 k, in which a pack of nearly 30 stayed together for more than half the distance. Alaska Pacific University (APU) had sent out a couple of rabbits in the 50 k to try to push the pace early, but
that wasn’t necessary on Sunday, with Graefnings and Arritola applying some pressure.
“The women—they race a little different style. They’re their own rabbits,” said Erik Flora, the APU head coach.
Arritola has had a tough year, but she was skiing on her home trails, in front of a smattering of boisterous Sun Valley fans. The terrain favored her, too, with the seven-kilometer loop tackling two robust climbs, and she spent much of the first two laps at the front, looking peppy.
“No one else was going to lead, and I didn’t really want the pack hanging together,” she said.
Randall never gave Arritola much of a leash—she was on her teammate’s tails, with both women looking focused, but not under much stress. Behind, the other four women appeared to be working a little harder.
For just about everyone, the big hill above the stadium was the breaking point. The climb is long, with three different pitches, and the steepness just shy of forcing the women to revert to herringbone. With a bright sun shining from clear skies, the temperature was warming quickly, and some of the women began losing kick in the long race—which didn’t help on a course that Graefnings called the hardest she’d ever skied.
Bjornsen fell off the pace on the big climb on the second lap, and so did Brooks and Diggins, on the next one.
Arritola had also lost contact with the leaders on the third lap—she said that didn’t have access to her top gear.
“I feel like I can go level three, and that’s it. So that’s what I did today—that’s as hard as I could go,” she said.
By the time the women headed out for their last loop, only Randall and Graefnings were left. Diggins was the closest, at 10 seconds behind, trying to regain contact, but she never did.
Afterwards, Graefnings said that she was thrilled just to have the opportunity to ski with Randall and the other top women. Her goal, she said, was to stick with them for “as long as I possibly can.”
That ended up being a long time, because Graefnings, having just won an NCAA title earlier this month, is fit. She also knows how to race at altitude, since she’s in school in Salt Lake City.
And, according to Abi Holt, the Utah assistant coach, Graefnings is also “pretty tough.”
“We know that—we’ve watched her have some really good battles out there on the college circuit,” Holt said.
For the entire last lap, Graefnings followed Randall, grimacing and holding on for dear life. She never once took the lead, Randall said, but the Alaskan kept on pushing, mindful of Diggins and the others behind.
“I just hoped [Graefnings] didn’t have anything left in the end,” Randall said.
The two were still together as they came towards the big hill on their last lap, with Randall visibly fatigued for the first time, and slipping a little. Graefnings didn’t look much better, but the battle was still enough to put Flora on edge, as he watched the pair start ascending.
“We couldn’t see them from the [feed station]…and they disappeared into the woods for four minutes,” he said. “We’re sitting there going, ‘okay, how’s it going to go?’ You have a little bit of confidence with Kikkan’s sprint abilities, but at the end of 30 k, that can be a whole different deal.”
But Graefnings said that she was plain old too tired to keep up on the hill, and in the end, Randall didn’t even have to sprint, coming over the top and into the line with 10 seconds of space.
Diggins was another 18 seconds back to claim third place, having managed to hold off Arritola over the last lap.
“She’s tough—she’s a tough little thing,” Arritola said. “She held me off. I was trying.”
After her win on Sunday, Randall seems primed to repeat her performance in northern Maine last winter, in which she took the victory in the 30 k, then went on to sweep all three races in the SuperTour Finals the following week. But that won’t stop the rest of the women from trying.
“She’s the obvious favorite,” Brooks said. “But I think on any day, someone could have a great day. And if they have a great day when she has a bad day, I don’t think she’s unbeatable. She’s the best skier here by far, for sure—my money would be on her to win every single race here—but I think there’s a chance someone could get her.”
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.