OBERSTDORF, Germany – Based on the idiom “the proof is in the pudding,” American Kikkan Randall has been serving up heaping portions of whatever custardy delight a ski fan might fancy, and today was just one more dessert to welcome the new year.
As the season progresses, Randall has demonstrated time and time again that she is no longer just a skate sprinter, posting results that very much prove she is one of the world’s best all around skiers.
After yet another impressive performance in the fourth stage of the Tour de Ski, a 10km skiathlon, US Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover summed up the 2012 version of Randall.
“She is unbelievable,” Grover told FasterSkier. “She doesn’t have a weak event from what I can tell.”
Randall placed seventh today, finishing in a pack of four, and was just inches from 5th. The result moved her into fourth in the overall Tour standings.
The race consisted of four 2.5-kilometer laps, two each in classic and skate, with Tour bonus seconds awarded at the top of the big hill on one classic lap and one skate lap.
The race started fast—the standard modus operandi of the women’s World Cup field.
“That was a pretty typical girl’s race,” Randall told FasterSkier. “Hammer as hard as you possibly can for the first lap.”
She described the pace as “unreal,” and said that while her plan had been to challenge for bonus seconds on the second lap, she had to adjust.
She spent the first five kilometers in the middle of the pack, coming into the transition in 19th place.
“It is always a mental challenge when you feel yourself kind of drifting back at the beginning and knowing how much skiing you have to go and how hard the pace is feeling,” Randall said. “But I have gotten enough of these races under my belt now that it’s kind of predictable.”
She said the key was staying calm and focused on her own pacing, noting that many of the second group of skiers (those that finish in the 5 to 15 range) are surprisingly willing to follow the likes of Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) and Marit Bjoergen (NOR), before fading hard later in the race.
Her patience paid off as she quickly began making up ground in the skate.
Her skis were excellent and her body came around; she “felt better and better” as the race progressed.
At the end of the day she had posted the fourth fastest skate time, and has now scored World Cup points in every race this season.
“It is inspiring. It bring tears to my eyes,” teammate Liz Stephen said of Randall’s racing.
Stephen sees the excitement generated by Randall as excellent for the sport in the US, and an important lesson of success.
“She has been on the World Cup for 10 years and now it is happening,” Stephen said. “Last year there were glimpses, and the year before there were glimpses, and now she is finally there. I can’t think of anything more exciting.”
The impact is also felt by the staff, as the years of hard work are not just paying off for Randall, but for the entire program.
“We have had many many years of working really hard and hoping for one top-30 on a day, trying to get someone in a sprint B final or A final,” Grover said.
It is both fun and “gratifying” to see the investments of time and energy paying off.
Additionally, while Grover said the crew is always striving, working for a top-10 contender in the Tour “you are just always trying to find a way to push harder.”
With four of nine Tour stages done, and a rest day tomorrow, there is a little time to look ahead.
Randall is in fourth despite a crash in the classic sprint, and without having raced her best event—the skate sprint.
Both she and Grover pointed to the 15km freestyle in Italy as another excellent opportunity. Randall was 15th last year in that event, and is looking forward to it.
Grover also said the 3k classic prologue should play to Randall’s strengths as well, and in fact, it is hard to pick out any races in which Randall can’t excel.
When asked if she thought she would be sitting in fourth at this point of the Tour, Randall responded with a resounding “heck no!”
She isn’t feeling any additional pressure, and says she is navigating “uncharted territory.”
“This is so exciting… I’m just happy with how I’m feeling,” Randall said. “I would like to just keep my spot.”
Stephen and Brooks Play Catch-Up
Stephen placed 36th on the strength of the 29th fastest skate time. She and teammate Holly Brooks both got off to slow starts, though for different reasons.
Stephens is self-admittedly a slow starter in mass start events, and said she was “amazed” at the pace out of the start, quickly finding herself toward the back of the pack.
Her cause was not helped when a skier went down on the first big downhill corner. She later learned that it was Brooks on the ground, but at the time she focused on getting around and back up to speed.
“I guess I am used to it at this point—being so far back,” Stephen said. “It is almost a comforting thing, because I know it is not going to get worse than right now so I can just go play my favorite game.”
She did say that she sees her slow starts as a “huge weakness,” and that she is more often than not one of the last ten out the stadium.
As the race progressed, Stephen moved up, picking off skier after skier. She said she had great skis and wished for a few more laps.
“Girls were coming back, but there just wasn’t quite enough time,” Stephen said.
Brooks was undone by the crash within the first kilometer of the race.
In a matter of seconds she went from the middle of the pack to last—by a good 30 meters.
“She had to exert a ton of energy to get back,” Grover said.
Brooks is skiing with an injured wrist, and has been unable to find the form that made her a regular presence in the top-30 earlier in the season.
She has no plans to abandon the Tour however.
Brooks ended the day in 58th place.
Nat Herz contributed reporting.
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Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.