VAL DI FIEMME, Italy – If anyone wanted a preview of how next season’s World Championships here might unfold for American skier Kikkan Randall, they had to look no further than the women’s lead pack in Stage 8 of the Tour de Ski on Saturday.
For half of the race, a 9 k mass start classic competition, Randall skied at the front with big names like Marit Bjoergen (NOR) and Justyna Kowalczyk (POL)—and even led as late as the end of the first of two 4.5-kilometer laps. She eventually faded somewhat, ending up 12th, but the Alaskan said it was still a good day.
“It was really fun to ski up front there for half the race,” she said. “Then it just started to get kind of hard.”
Americans are used to seeing Randall mix it up with the heavies in sprints, but not as much in distance races—and neither is she.
She said she “didn’t quite expect to be up there with Kowalczyk at the beginning,” but was still feeling relaxed in the pack.
For once, Randall said, she thought that Bjoergen and Kowalczyk might have been skiing cagily, rather than attacking each other from the get-go like a typical women’s race.
“I think for the first time in a long time, there was a little bit of strategy going on,” she said. “I think they weren’t pushing the pace 100 percent on that first lap—it made it fun to allow some of us to ski up there for a bit.”
After moving to the front of the women’s pack as it ended its first lap, Randall said that the effort started catching up with her on the first climb of the second lap, when Bjoergen turned up the heat.
Randall said she skied part of her second lap with Marthe Kristoffersen (NOR) and Katrin Zeller (GER), then was caught by Japanese skier Masako Ishida. At the close of the race, Randall was fighting with Therese Johaug (NOR), but couldn’t quite hold on.
“I was fighting,” she said. “Just trying to…keep my tempo up, fight through the fatigue a little bit.”
Randall said she had great skis, though it got harder to make them work for her as she ran out of energy.
After crossing the line in 12th, she now sits eighth overall in the Tour de Ski standings, with one stage to go: the hill climb up a local alpine ski area, the Alpe Cermis.
Last season, Randall was 23rd in her first-ever trip up the Alpe, nearly four minutes behind Johaug. This season, Randall said she’s looking forward to the race, but unlike Kowalczyk, she hasn’t spent any time this week doing reconnaissance on the course.
“I think it’s good to know what you’re getting into,” she said. “But maybe not remember exactly what it’s like.”
As for the race on Saturday, which was held on the same trails that will be used for the 2013 World Ski Championships next season?
“It’s a good test run,” she said.
Randall’s teammates Liz Stephen and Holly Brooks were 34th and 45th, respectively.
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.