That mountain bike ride from Park City, Utah, to the top of Guardsman Pass in October wasn’t exactly fun for Kikkan Randall. Sure, it was probably beautiful reaching altitudes around 9,700 feet and all, but it wasn’t skiing.
A stress fracture in her foot paired with an Achilles injury kept Randall from doing much of anything ski-specific for much of September and October. She dutifully sought alternatives to the U.S. Ski Team (USST) camp in Park City and while at home in Anchorage, Alaska, but man, all that time in the saddle and swimming got old quick.
That’s exactly why Randall’s doing so well now, a week after reentering the racing scene. While it’s only the second World Cup weekend of the season, it’s also some of the most time the USST veteran and defending world sprint champion has spent going hard on skis.
Randall used the fresh feeling to her advantage Saturday, finishing second to reigning overall World Cup champ Marit Bjørgen of Norway in the 5-kilometer individual freestyle in Kuusamo, Finland. The very last to start, Bjørgen posted the fastest time of the day in 12:02.9, but it was Randall who sat in the leader’s chair for a good chunk of the race before that.
In the end, Randall was 22.7 seconds off Bjørgen’s mark, good enough for second and a career-best distance result. On Friday, the 29-year-old star from Alaska Pacific University (APU) had finished 10th in the classic sprint, the first of three races in the Ruka Triple mini tour. With one more on Sunday – a 10 k classic pursuit with full World Cup points on the line – Randall sat second to Bjørgen. That’s not a bad place to be considering Randall wasn’t sure she’d be able to race these first World cups of the season two months ago.
“To be honest coming into the season I didn’t really know what to be confident about,” Randall said with a laugh after Saturday’s race. “I know that at least I had done the best job I could continuing to train in the modes I was able to, but coming over to Europe, I felt so far away from being in race shape. … Last weekend was kind of a surprise.”
However, Saturday wasn’t. Randall knew she built a sturdy volume base throughout the summer and was about 10 hours ahead of schedule when August rolled around. Then, at an overseas camp in Sweden, she and USST women’s coach Matt Whitcomb came to the conclusion that her injuries weren’t getting any better and it was time to let them heal.
After consulting specialists in Vail, Colo., Randall literally switched gears, stepping off the rollerskis, onto the bike and into the pool for much of the next two months. She worked on climbing – with 1 ½- to two-hour sessions on the mountain bike – and double poling and even developed strength in the pool. By the end of October, she figured she had lost 40 to 50 hours of training, but as it turns out, that might not have been a bad thing.
“I guess high volume isn’t the only answer. I think maybe my body needed a little break to absorb everything,” she said “It’s worked out. I don’t think we actually saw it coming, but I think the good sign is that we haven’t done a lot of really high-end work, which means I can still continue to sharpen my race gears both for distance and for sprint, and that’s a really good place to be at this point in the season.”
While searching for that even higher gear, Randall’s loving every second of it.
“My joy for skiing is really high,” she said. “Spending all that time on the bike and in the pool when training was just hard and unsatisfying, now I’m so grateful to be out here and I’m happy to say racing is fun. It’s hard, but it’s fun.”
Randall said she flushed out some feelings of flatness in Friday’s sprint and was able to ski a consistent race from start to finish on Saturday. She had aimed to stay light on her feet and powerful on the flats, and to her surprise, had something left in the last kilometer.
“I got midway up that last climb, I heard that I was maybe a second or two in the lead, and that was all I was focused on,” she said. “It’s always fun to sit in the leader’s chair.”
Ahead of her, Yulia Tchekaleva of Russia was the current leader and Norwegians Therese Johaug and Heidi Weng ranked second and third, respectively. Even if she beat them, Randall had to bargain for a great race from Bjørgen, who started 20 spots behind her, so she continued to push.
Tchekaleva ended up third behind Randall, and the Norwegians swept fourth through eighth (Johaug was fourth, Weng fifth, Vibeke Skofterud sixth, Kristen Stoermer Steira seventh and Martin Ek Hagen eighth). Nicole Fessel (GER) placed ninth and Krista Lahteenmaki (FIN) took 10th just ahead of Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) in 11th.
Just as Randall put her head down for the win, several of her teammates achieved personal bests or close to it as well. Jessie Diggins finished 12th, about 21 seconds off the podium and 46.2 seconds behind Bjørgen. Liz Stephen notched 13th (+47.1) for her best-ever World Cup result (with the exception of the Tour de Ski final climb last season), and Holly Brooks was the fourth U.S. woman in the top 20 in 18th.
“Three PR’s on the day,” Stephen wrote in an email, referring to Noah Hoffman’s career-best 19th in the men’s 10 k. “We are all fired up tonight.”
Their game plan had been to take risks, she explained.
“The course is mighty hard here in Kuusamo, but a 5k is so short that the strategy was to go out hard, ski the tops of the climbs hard and recover as much as possible on the fast downhills,” Stephen wrote. “Blowing up is not out of the question in a 5k, but going too easy is not a good option either because there is never an extra second to blow in such a short race (unless you are Bjorgen, of course, and then you have 22 seconds to play with!)”
According to Whitcomb, the team had a meeting Friday night to lay it all out.
“The strategy was to be a bit violent out there,” he said. “Have a really hard warmup and not waste a single minute of that course on being conservative or focusing too much on your pace. It is one of those courses where you have to take a chance at pushing your limits and hope your limits are absorbed by the body that day. If they are, you end up doing really well.”
He was pleased with the how aggressively the U.S. women raced, but wasn’t surprised with their results.
“I was counting on strong performances from a lot of people today,” Whitcomb said. “I thought that was pretty likely to happen with so many people healthy and so many good results in the tank already and just good-looking workouts this week.
“And so it was perhaps our best day ever in a distance race,” he added. “Hoffman’s 19th and four other top 20’s from the women. … It just looked right out there.”
Diggins wrote in an email that she started hard, but seeing how fast the course was, she wished she had gone even harder.
“It’s interesting since you have to charge each uphill and know that on the long and fast downhill your body will recover,” Diggins added. “It’s hard to trust your lactate buffering system sometimes but the coaches were telling us to take a chance and I’m glad we did!”
Brooks had “nothing but good thoughts headed into the 5k” after having a breakthrough performance in the same race last year in 28th.
“I didn’t feel that I could get in my ‘top gear’ in the race today so considering, I’m really, really happy with 18th place,” she wrote. “I think that it says a lot that I can have a good/medium race and still finish top 20! Expectations have changed slightly but I know that I’ll have good races, mediocre races, and just plain bad races.”
Among the other North American women racing Saturday, Canadian Dasha Gaiazova placed 40th (+1:16.9), about nine seconds out of the top 30 for one of her best 5 k World Cup results.
“It was a hard race from the beginning all the way to the very end and I am happy I was able to put in a good effort,” Gaiazova wrote in an email. “The strategy was just about grinding at those massive Kuusamo hills, so not much drama there.”
Ida Sargent of the U.S. was 49th (+1:24.9) slightly better than her result in the same race last year (where she was 52nd). Also for Canada, Chandra Crawford was 64th (+1:39.2) and Alysson Marshall ranked 81st (+1:54.0).
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Alex Kochon (email@example.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.