Kikkan Randall isn’t particularly professorial, what with her pink hair and her affable demeanor.
But since arriving back in the U.S. last week, fresh off the World Cup circuit in Europe, Randall (APU/USST) has been teaching lessons, all right, with the trails of Sun Valley as her classroom, and the North American women’s field as her pupils.
After Sunday’s unit on distance classic skiing, Tuesday’s session was on how to ski a skate prologue. In a race that took her just over seven minutes to complete, Randall won by a whopping 16.4 seconds over her APU teammate Holly Brooks, with Jessie Diggins (CXC) in third, 19 seconds back, and only one other woman within half a minute.
Randall has raced six times in the last two weeks, and just two days removed from winning the U.S. title in the 30 k classic, one might think that she would be running on fumes in Tuesday’s race, the first of four stages in the season-ending SuperTour Finals mini-tour.
But she showed no signs of being out of gas, attacking the prologue course with a level of power and control that none of the other women came close to matching.
“I think at this point in the year, if your body’s working and racing well, then it just kind of likes the stimulus,” she said. “So, hopefully, it’ll just keep rolling here.”
Prologues are notoriously tricky to pace, but Randall said that her trip around the 2.8-kilometer loop ended up being a “nice, even, steady effort”—what she said was something akin to a long sprint race.
The big hill on the course, up a trail called “Hammer,” left some of the women barely limping over the top. But it was one of Randall’s best sections—she skied an even pace all the way up, and didn’t falter as she crested it.
“I was over on the hill and taking splits,” said Erik Flora, her coach at Alaska Pacific University. “She was two seconds up at the bottom, and four at the mid-hill, and seven seconds by three-quarters.”
By the top, her lead had reached 11 seconds, and it kept increasing when she skied the ensuing downhill corner at speed, without any slips or fumbles.
The same couldn’t be said for Brooks or Diggins. With the sun being filtered through some high, steely grey clouds, it was tough to make out the trail’s borders on the turn, and both women were forced to slow down.
“I wish that I could do the downhill over again,” Brooks said. “I lost at least five seconds…because I snowplowed. I couldn’t really see—my eyes were clouded, and I was like, ‘well, better to lose a couple seconds than a lot of seconds.’”
Diggins was already a little bit shaken from a crash on the same corner during training on Monday.
“I had gone down it three times in practice, and stayed up two times, so I was like, ‘I have a two-thirds chance of making it,’” she said. “I’m feeling like I kind of chickened out…I checked my speed more than I maybe should have.”
Both Brooks and Diggins said that they were a little surprised with how quickly they completed the loop, even with the big climb—Brooks, in particular, said that the Sun Valley prologue was much easier than the one she’d raced in Falun, Sweden two weeks ago, which tackled a brutal ascent known as the Mordarbacken (Swedish for “murder hill”).
“The prologue in Falun was the most painful thing I’ve done since the classic sprint in West Yellowstone [in November].
That thing hurt,” Brooks said. The Sun Valley course, by contrast, was “fast, and it skied easier than I thought.”
Still, Brooks said she wouldn’t have paced her effort much differently. And while Diggins said she perhaps should have started opening up the throttle a little sooner, it’s unlikely that either of them could have come up with the 16 or 19 seconds they would have needed, respectively, to top Randall.
Thanks to the 15-second time bonus she earned for Tuesday’s win, she now leads the overall standings of the mini-tour by 21 seconds over Brooks, who got 10 bonus seconds of her own. Diggins, in third place, got five seconds, and is down by 29.
Obituary writers often have their stories prepared before the death of their subjects; cross-country ski journalists could probably do the same thing for the rest of the races in the mini-tour. The way Randall is going right now, the real competitions in Sun Valley will be those for second place.
“She’s fit, and she’s skiing well,” Flora said. “I’m pretty excited about it.”
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.