After mounting an improbable comeback to finish third in Saturday’s sprint final in Szklarska Poreba, Poland, Kikkan Randall turned in another strong showing on Sunday, placing eighth in the 10 k classic race. It was her eighth distance top-ten of the season, counting tour stages, and one of the best classic results of her career.
Teammate Ida Sargent also had a personal best, scoring World Cup distance points for the first time after placing 26th.
“It was awesome,” U.S. Ski Team coach Matt Whitcomb said of the ladies’ performances.
Coming into the weekend, Randall had missed the previous three races due to illness. She said it was “always great to see her teammates succeeding,” for example by placing fifth in the relay in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic without her, but Randall had been frustrated not to be able to compete.
“I’m always excited to get to race,” she said in an interview after the 10 k today. “I was really happy with third place yesterday, and wanted to see what I could do in a distance race.”
While Randall herself was diplomatic, Whitcomb had a more off-the-cuff assessment of what the forced rest had done for the U.S. star’s motivation.
“Oh yeah, Kikkan does not like missing out on races, and she entered this weekend very hungry,” he told FasterSkier.
It took all of the hunger she had to work her way through the race’s two laps, which featured highly variable conditions. Some teams chose hairies or zeroes, with others opting for klister or klister cover. Randall described snow that was slick and hard-packed, humid in some areas and dry in others. Nobody, she said, had perfect skis.
Randall hovered in sixth or seventh position for most of the race. While the top four racers were separated by wide margins, things got very tight after that. Randall ended up half a second out of seventh and seven seconds out of fifth.
“She was fighting super, super hard the whole way, so it was great to see her back in top form,” Whitcomb said.
Sargent said that her zeroes worked well on the first lap, but by the time she started the second, they had stopped being as effective. Amazingly, though, she didn’t lost many places even after her skis took a turn for the worse.
“It was really hard,” she said of the race. “I was herringboning a lot on the second lap, but I think a lot of people were in the same situation.”
Sargent, whose best World Cup finish was 12th place in a sprint in Moscow, missed the heats in Saturday’s sprint, which she said added fuel to the first for the distance race. Even though some of her best results have come in sprints, Sargent had bolstered her confidence by turning in a strong classic leg in the relay in Nove Mesto last week.
“The relay in Nove Mesto was really good for me, and I was just hoping that I could extend that energy over 10 k instead of just 5 k,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Pacing strategies never work for me, so I just started out hard and tried to keep going. I got a split that I was 21st after the first lap, which was awesome for me, but the second lap was tough so I was just trying to hold it together and not lose too much time.”
Liz Stephen placed 38th, after skiing in the low 20’s for the first lap.
“Liz skied a good first lap, and then sort of faded off and wasn’t able to tie it together for the entire race today,” Whitcomb said. “But she definitely wasn’t bummed, it was just a tough day for her.”
The U.S. World Cup squad was smaller today, with just three women starting. Holly Brooks is back in Alaska, while Jessie Diggins and Sadie Bjornsen have headed off to Under-23 World Championships. A big part of the U.S. success, the women have said, is the energy of the group and the fact that with so many starters, someone will have a great race every day.
So were they worried that they’d have a hard time maintaining that momentum with a smaller squad?
“Not really,” Randall said. “That’s pretty much how it always is, with people coming and going.”
From here, the senior racers will head into a training block since next weekend is a break from World Cup racing. Randall said she was looking forward to training, and to returning to Davos, where the U.S. team has spent plenty of time this season.
Today, the Americans didn’t need as much motivation from each other because the spectators did more than enough to make up for it.
“The fans were crazy here,” Sargent wrote. “They were lining the giant hill on the course (almost one kilometer long) and chanting my name as I skied by. They also don’t like Norway so I got a lot of cheering when I was skiing with Astrid [Jacobsen]. Then it was a mob scene getting from the finish area back to the wax cabin because so many people wanted pictures and autographs. I’m sure most of them didn’t know who I was, but it was still fun.”
Randall agreed, saying that she had plenty of support from the sidelines.
And while this was a new venue for most World Cup races, Randall had an advantage in that she’d raced on the trails before.
“I was actually here for World Juniors back in 2001, so I kind of knew the area,” she said.
And as another racer from a country on the outskirts of skiing’s mainstream, Randall said that she appreciated that FIS was sending the World Cup to new venues.
“I think it’s really great for the sport in Poland,” she said. “It’s good to reward the fans who have been so excited about Justyna [Kowalczyk]. I’m sure the same thing would happen if the World Cup came to the U.S., that it would build support that would last even after the event.”