If there was anyone who deserved a beer after Saturday’s hill climb in Sun Valley, it was Kikkan Randall.
After winning four straight races here—and the first three in the four-stage SuperTour Finals—Randall (APU/USST) had a whopping 1:23 head start over her nearest challenger in the four-kilometer hill climb up Dollar Mountain, which was handicapped based on results from earlier this week.
Randall could have taken it easy. But that’s not the approach that gave her the best shape of her life this season—one that included two World Cup wins, and four podiums.
Instead, she put on her skis and dug deep one last time. And by the end of the race, she’d racked up one more victory, crossing the line first to take the overall SuperTour Finals win, and simultaneously notching the fastest time up the mountain on the day, by more than 20 seconds. Hence, finally, a well-earned Budweiser after the finish.
“Now’s the end of the week, and we’re going to celebrate tonight,” said Erik Flora, Randall’s coach at Alaska Pacific University (APU), in Anchorage. “But I think until today—of course, people are enjoying the spring, and having a good time—but our goal coming here this week was to race, and race hard.”
Behind Randall, the other two skiers to crack the SuperTour Finals overall podium were Holly Brooks (APU) in second, and Jessie Diggins (CXC) in third, flip-flopping their start positions. Brooks closed down Diggins’s six-second head start in the early part of the race, and then put another half minute into her by the finish.
“I hit the wall—I had nothing left,” Diggins said.
If it’s any solace, Diggins wasn’t the only one. Once it pitched upwards, the hill climb was relentless, reducing many of the women (and men) to a coach’s skate, at times.
Organizers had laid out a course that one person described as diabolical. Starting at the base of Dollar Mountain, a local alpine ski area, it pitched quickly upwards, then wound around a golf course for about a kilometer before it was business time.
From the golf course, skiers dropped downwards and then took a sweeping righthand turn to head straight up a crease in the mountain, which was something between a valley and a ravine.
After topping out in a saddle, another hard right brought the women into a shorter steep pitch, before the trail flattened out and reached the top after a couple hundred meters.
The race was flat-out excruciating. Some of the skiers could manage no more than a plod by the time they reached the
saddle, and even the top women struggled to hold their technique.
“When we were coming to the top, I thought I was going to start dry heaving or something,” Diggins said. “That was not a very fun race for me.”
Only one woman came close to challenging Randall for the fastest time up the climb, and the effort literally put her in a stretcher.
Kate Fitzerald, one of Randall’s teammates at APU, was just 10 seconds off of Randall halfway up the hill, according to a split taken by one of her team’s coaches. But the pace was too much, and by the time she made it to the finish, her legs were so full of lactate that she could barely stay on her feet, crashing across the line.
She managed to make her way over to a storage bin, and sat there, dazed, for a few minutes before her teammates came to her aid with warm clothes. Hypoglycemic, she rode down from the top of the mountain in a sled behind a snowmobile, before some food at the bottom helped her recover.
According to Flora, Fitzgerald is tough as nails, and had pinned it from the start of the race, with a six-second deficit to make up to Chandra Crawford (CNST) and Sadie Bjornsen (APU).
“Before the race, she said, ‘I’m just going to go for it,'” Flora said. “She put 20 seconds on them in the first 300 meters. I mean, she was going…Kate—that’s her style. Hard from the start, and stick it.”
Towards the top, Fitzgerald was closing in on Maria Graefnings (Utah), who was in fourth place in the overall. But while Fitzgerald still looked strong, Flora said, “you saw her eyes were a little glassed, too.”
“If there’s anyone that I’ve worked with, she knows how to dig. She just went there,” Flora said.
In the end, Fitzgerald faded somewhat—but while she missed the hill climb podium, her fifth-place finish on the day was still enough to earn her a $100 check.
Along with Randall, Brooks and Chelsea Holmes (Sugar Bowl Academy) rounded out the podium in Saturday’s race. As for the remaining podium places in the overall, those were decided towards the top of the climb, when Brooks was able to break Diggins, and hang on.
“I made a pretty decisive move,” Brooks said. “After I made it, I was like, ‘uh-oh, this might have been way too early.’ But luckily, I was able to hold her off.”
As for Randall, she’ll head back to Alaska in a few days, after a stop-off in Whistler with Crawford. After more than 30 races this year, Saturday’s hill climb was the last in what she called her best season to date.
She missed her lone opportunity for a World Championships medal when she crashed in the skate sprint in Oslo last month, but other than that, she said, it has been an “incredible season.”
“Now that I’ve made it through all the races, it’s time to look back, and really enjoy it,” she 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.