OBERHOF, Germany – Kikkan Randall should consider a job with the U.S. Postal Service, because she just keeps on delivering.
Not pain, not snow, nor gloom of Oberhof could stay Kikkan Randall from the swift completion of her appointed rounds here on Friday. By the time she arrived at the end of her three laps of the race course, Randall had notched yet another stellar distance result, finishing Stage 2 of the 2012 Tour de Ski in sixth place.
“Every day is almost a breakthrough for her,” said Chris Grover, the U.S. Ski Team head coach.
Randall’s placing in the 10 k classic set the pace for the Americans for the second straight day at the Tour, with Liz Stephen following in 29th and Holly Brooks in 56th, struggling with slick skis and pain from a lingering wrist injury.
For all the women, but for Randall especially, the day demanded both calm under pressure ahead of the start, and savvy skiing after the gun went off.
Ten minutes before the race, Randall and the U.S. wax staff were faced with a big dilemma. The Oberhof weather was being typically fickle on Friday, presenting the Americans with what Grover said was one of the 10 most challenging wax days in his 11 years on the World Cup circuit.
“It was variable. It was a ton of different conditions. Something would work for a little bit, and then it would start icing. Or something would work for a while and then it would start slipping,” he said. “We were going from snow coming down, to no snow, to the sun almost breaking through, to going back to snowing.”
The Americans tried just about every kind of wax combination short of melting down the candles from last night’s dinner: klister, hairy skis, covered klister, and hard wax.
In the end, Randall’s choice came down to hairies or hard wax, and she chose the former, which Grover was the safest over all the different sections of the course.
The start of the race was handicapped based on the results of Thursday’s prologue, so Randall set out in 10th place, quickly settling into a group of women chasing the leaders that included a rotating set of Finns, Norwegians, Germans, and Swedes.
“I’ve been skiing right around top 10, so I just wanted to ski right with those girls,” Randall said.
According to Grover, different teams made different choices when it came to skis—the Finns chose hard wax, and the Norwegians went on zeroes. Randall’s skis ended up being right in the ballpark, even if they weren’t perfect everywhere.
“The downhill was comparable, and I was kicking up some of the hills better than other girls—and sometimes they were kicking up better,” she said. “I was just happy to have a pair that worked pretty good today.”
The World Cup women don’t tend to hold much back, so Randall said she was focused on staying relaxed in the first part of the race—and she didn’t spend much time pushing the pace of her group.
As she came towards the stadium for the last time, Randall said she was mindful to stay on the heels of the women ahead of her. Heading into the final corner, she found herself gliding to the front of the pack, so she simply led out the sprint and held on, fending off challenges by Kerttu Niskanen (FIN), and Germans Steffi Boehler and Katrin Zeller.
Randall’s sixth-place finish Friday also represents her current standing in the Tour, 1:13 behind leader Justyna Kowalczyk. And on top of her strong racing in Oberhof, Randall’s results over the past two days have left her in third place in the overall World Cup.
Grover said that a top-10 for the Alaskan in the Tour is “for sure within reach.” Given the way Randall has been skiing this season, there’s a chance she could even move into the top five, at least temporarily, if things go her way over the next few stages.
Grover did, however, note one last point—one that’s easily forgotten when Randall is busy setting new high water marks in race after race.
“She’s allowed to have an off-day, too,” Grover said.
Stephen faced the same challenges as Randall once the women were out on course, but she said that the process of picking her skis, at least, was a little simpler.
Hard wax, she said, “was really bad, and just icing everywhere,” so she went with hairies. Stephen struggled to make them kick in a few spots—on one hill, she said it felt like she was on skate skis—but for most of the climbs, she was “able to make it work.”
On her last lap, Stephen said she reeled in Germany’s Nicole Fessel and Norwegian Astrid Jacobsen and “survived” the final sprint to move into the top 30.
“There were moments out there that were really tough, for sure, but it was good,” Stephen said. “I’m happy with how it went.”
The same couldn’t be said for Brooks, who still looked ashen in an interview 30 minutes after the finish.
Nothing seemed to go right for her on Friday—her body wouldn’t cooperate, her wrist hurt from a lingering injury she suffered in a fall while jogging on Christmas day, and after kicking well in the warm-up, her hairies weren’t getting any purchase on the climbs during the race.
“It was pretty bad,” she said. “It was kind of all I could do to hang in there, and just try to make it so the gap wasn’t too big. It’s tough going from skiing in the top 30’s and top 20 to [the results in] the last two days. I’m just trying to stay positive, and hoping that one of these days, in one of the stages, it’ll turn back around.”
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.