The way Kikkan Randall skied in Sun Valley on Wednesday, she still wasn’t beatable. But at the very least, she showed that she’s human.
Randall had won Tuesday’s prologue, the opening stage of the 2011 SuperTour Finals, with a thoroughly dominating performance, putting more than 15 seconds into her nearest competitors in a seven-minute race.
In Wednesday’s 10 k mass-start classic, Randall (APU/USST) was again impressive—at least, for nine kilometers.
Heading out on her last of three 3.3-kilometer laps, the Alaskan had opened a 10-second gap on a small group of chasers, and it looked like she was on cruise control yet again.
But on her way up the course’s major climb for the last time, she tired—just as the sun came out and started warming the tracks.
“Skis got a little slick, and the effort came in on me a little bit,” she said.
Behind, Holly Brooks (APU) and Jessie Diggins (CXC) were trading body blows in what they thought was a battle for the second spot on the podium. But in the process, they were reeling in Randall. Bit by bit, her lead started to come down, from 12 seconds, to 10, then to eight.
In the end, it didn’t get too close—Randall still had a four-second cushion at the finish line, with Diggins edging out Brooks for second place. But the chase was enough to liven up a race that looked to be headed towards another blowout.
“I was trying to fight through it, but those guys made an impressive move to come back on me,” Randall said. “I think if there had been one more major climb, I could have been in trouble.”
While Randall may have wavered towards the end of the race, she was clearly in control in the opening kilometers, stretching out the 80-strong women’s field on a tough course with three significant climbs: one huge and steep, sandwiched between two others that are smaller.
By the time the women came through the lap at the end of their first 3.3-kilometer loop, there were only four others who had stayed with Randall: Brooks, Diggins, Maria Graefnings (Utah), and Sadie Bjornsen (APU). Randall was trying to win the race the hard way: from the front.
In domestic races like those in Sun Valley, Randall could easily sit in and wait for a pack finish, thanks to world-class speed that propelled her to several World Cup sprint podiums this season.
But doing that wouldn’t accomplish much, she said—not for her, and not for the rest of the women in the field.
“I try to approach this like: ‘Hey, I’ve been racing well in World Cups all year by going out and skiing an aggressive pace, and trying to hang in there.’ And really, all these races are experiences to help me do that,” she said. “Today, I didn’t want to sit out there and dink around too long. I wanted to go out and see what I could do. Because I think it’s good for everybody for me to push the pace, and those girls can try to hang on. And then, it puts them that much closer to racing with the World Cup field.”
At least, for a little while. While the four others in the lead group hung tough when Randall made a push for a mid-race cash sprint at the end of the first lap, at 3.3 kilometers, they had to let her go at the end of the second lap, at 6.6 k.
“When she started pulling away, I was like, ‘man, if I stay with her, I’m going to blow up in about 10 minutes,’” Diggins said. “So, I just enjoyed the time at the start, trying to mimic her technique, trying to be smooth like her.”
By the time Randall got her gap, Bjornsen had already dropped off the back of the group, with Graefnings, Brooks, and Diggins doing their best to limit the damage.
On the last lap, Brooks led up the first small climb, then the second, larger one. Over the top, she put a few seconds into Diggins, while Graefnings lost the two women entirely.
With a gap of more than 10 meters, it looked like Brooks had second place locked up. But then, just like Randall, she faltered on the last chunk of the course, as her push on the big climb extracted its toll on the ensuing hairpin turn.
“My legs were just dead coming down the hill into the corner, and I wasn’t able to take as much speed,” she said. “And then the sun kind of came out, and our skis were just a little bit slick.”
At that point, Diggins said she had given up on second, and was simply trying to hang on to third—she said she thought she had “absolutely no chance” of moving up.
But buoyed by a cluster of rowdy fans—and seeing Brooks slipping—she realized she still had a chance. Heading up the last hill before the finish, the gap disappeared, and Diggins drew even, then slightly ahead as the pair began its descent to the stadium.
The two looked exhausted, after half an hour of skiing close to the red line. But somehow, they still found the strength to stage a drawn-out double-pole sprint to the line. Neither gave an inch on the 50-meter homestretch, but thanks to her lead heading into the last corner, Diggins came away with a narrow victory.
Afterward, Brooks said that she regretted leading the first portion of the last lap, joking that perhaps she had been “a little too nice to the junior.” But she also conceded that Diggins is “super-tough.”
“I think most people, if someone had developed a gap, they would have mentally shut down a little bit, but Jessie never does,” Brooks said.
The duel between Brooks and Diggins ended up reducing Randall’s lead from 12 seconds, at one point, to less than five at the finish. It ended up being a bit of a nail-biter, but Erik Flora, Randall’s coach at APU, said he wouldn’t have it any other way—not on Wednesday, and not in any of three other races in the SuperTour Finals.
“I always look at racing as experience-building… If she can come out here and ski really hard, maybe she struggles a bit, so she gets tired, has to figure out how to kick her skis in the final k’s—that’s great. That’ll help in the future, some time. She picks up a trick today that she’ll be able to use then,” he said. “I think it’s the best way to race these four: keep in mind to go for the win, but also, maybe more important, is to get the experience.”
With two events remaining in the four-stage SuperTour Finals mini-tour, Randall now leads by 37 seconds over Brooks, and 39 over Diggins.
The competition is shaping up to be a three-woman race—Graefnings, in fourth, is now more than a minute off the podium.
Thursday is an off day, while Friday and Saturday will bring a classic sprint and a hill climb, respectively.
While the sprint offers another chance for Randall to build on her lead, there’s also a chance the gap won’t grow much before the final stage. Both Diggins and Brooks are quick, and the time gaps in the sprint qualifier—which are applied to the overall—shouldn’t be large. The difference in bonus seconds allotted to the top five in that race are also fairly small: 60 seconds for a win, and 44 for fifth.
If Randall wins, which she should do, she certainly won’t have anyone breathing down her neck on Dollar Mountain, which the hill climb ascends. But if she crashes out on Friday, or if Brooks or Diggins has a fantastic race, things could still get interesting.
Link to full results. (Overall standings not yet available–check SummitTiming.com later on Wednesday.)
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.