All 2012 FIS World Cup Finals coverage is brought to you through the generous support of Fischer Sports USA, proud sponsors of Kikkan Randall, 2012 overall Sprint Cup Champion.
FALUN, Sweden – With hot sun shining down, a spray of salt, and a festive atmosphere it would be hard to blame anyone for kicking back and relaxing, but the US women avoided any such temptation, putting together what may have been the greatest distance race day in US Ski Team (USST) women’s history.
With organizers spreading salt prior to the race, the 2.5-kilometer prologue course held up well, remaining firm for the entire 49-woman field.
Kikkan Randall, Jessie Diggins, and Liz Stephen were spread evenly throughout the race, with Stephen and Randall at either end, but the three women came together on the results sheet placing 7th, 8th and 13th respectively.
“There is no doubt that these ladies can attack and dig and fight with the best of them, so this result does not surprise me at all,” USST Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb told FasterSkier.
The veteran Randall finished just .4 seconds ahead of her young teammate Diggins.
“I wanted to start out a little more conservative than I would in a sprint, but than build the pace up the uphill and I felt like it worked just great because I had good energy to make a good punch at the end,” Randall told FasterSkier.
With relatively gradual terrain out of the start, Whitcomb agreed with this strategy saying that there wasn’t much time to be gained in the first 400 meters.
“Everyone is going to go roughly the same speed whether you go out hard or go out controlled,” Whitcomb said of the first part of the race.
He didn’t want the women giving away too much early, but said it was critical to “be ready to rock at the bottom of the Mördarbacken and accelerate all the way up.”
Stephen, one of the top climbers on the World Cup circuit not only wasn’t intimidated by the climb, she was looking forward to it.
“I was really psyched for today because it was a big hill and if any prologue course is going to be good for me it is going to be one with a hill like this,” Stephen said. “I wanted to go out and go as hard as I possibly could and see if I could get a top ten or top fifteen.”
She achieved that goal while earning the best result of her World Cup career this side of the Tour de Ski final climb.
“It is a really fun hill to ski,” Stephen said of the famed “killer hill” that has become the hallmark of Falun races.
“Of course it is really hard,” she continued, “but the first half is a really good grade to ski. You get a bit of a break where you can throw in a couple of V2s and then it just hits you really hard for the next minute. Its like pain face all the way.”
Stephen focused on the mental image of the large inflatable Viessman arch that marked the top of the steepest part of the climb, setting her sights on getting to that point, and then attacking until the downhill.
While the hill begins to flatten at the arch, there is still another 30 meters of gradual climbing and then 50 meters of flat before the descent begins.
“I was like, ‘get to the banner and than you just really have to ski hard over the top,’ because it is a good ten seconds you could lose from the banner to the downhill,” Stephen explained. “So every second counts—I kept telling myself that—push here, push here.”
Randall said she looked to keep up a good tempo “without getting too deep in the legs and letting things stall out a bit,” and that she was pleased to “have a good pace in the legs.”
All three women were careful not to overlook the long winding descent—the part of the course that winner Marit Bjørgen (NOR) said was tougher than the climb as the skiers legs were completely shot for the technical downhill.
“I practiced skiing it a bunch of times yesterday, so I knew the line I wanted to take and the legs, there was still enough in there to hold the edge, so it was good,” Randall said.
Stephen, an ex-alpine racer doesn’t see Nordic downhills as her strong suit, but did not want to waste her efforts on the climb.
“I got myself pretty psyched for it because you can use lose a ton of time on the downhill and it really sucks to be good on the climb and than lose it on the downhill.,” Stephen said. “I decided if I go into the woods, I go into the woods. I decided I was going to be, excuse my French, ballsy, and just go for it.”
Diggins knew she wouldn’t have much feeling left in her legs at the top of the climb, “but I wanted to have just the tiniest bit of feeling so I did not wipe out on the corners…and the bridges—if you’re not careful and bend your legs you catch air, so I wanted to make sure to bob them.”
Not having done many prologues, Diggins found the pacing tough. She said she tried to “take it like a fast level three—super powerful, but controlled.”
One-third of the way up, she received a split from Whitcomb that she was even with Therese Johaug (NOR) who had started 30 seconds up.
“I just kept fighting and tried to be really light on my feet—just like on it, off it, on it, off it,” she said.
She lost just .7 seconds to Johaug after that split, as the Norwegian placed 6th, ahead of Randall.
“I feel like maybe there were a few places that I could have maybe tucked it a little lower or just not rocked back on my heels on the up, but I feel like I really gave it everything I had,” Diggins said.
Stephen prepared for the hill by doing some threshold work on it the day before, pushing over the top, and finding the hill roughly three-and-a-half minutes long, similar to many of the intervals the team does in training.
“You’re are doing three-and-half minutes as hard as you can uphill…I wanted to go as hard as I could from the gun to the top of the hill and hang on for the ride,” Stephen said.
Both Randall and Diggins made up significant time after passing the aforementioned Viessman arch near the crest of the hill.
Randall was 11th at that point, while Diggins was 20th. Stephen, on the other hand, sat in ninth before heading down.
Those numbers are not surprising given Stephen’s strength as a climber and her approach to the race.
“I think the course is good for our ladies,” Whitcomb said. “It takes a huge fight out there, and these guys are fired up right now.”
Diggins compared the Mördarbacken to a hill in Minnesota.
“It is like skiing up Trollhaugen and then sprinting V2 at the top,” she said.
For those not familiar with that hill, she pointed out that Mördarbacken climbs up by the Falun ski jumps—“imagine a ski jump and winding your way up it.”
Matt Voisin contributed reporting.
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Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.