Last season Kikkan Randall (USA) turned in one stellar performance after another, winning two races and finishing on the podium three other times on her way to the overall Sprint Cup title.
The 2012 season would be a tough act to follow — but now, just four races into the 2013 campaign and Randall’s premier event, the skate sprint, yet to be run, she has done more than just follow up.
A week after posting the first ever women’s World Cup distance podium in the history of U.S. cross-country skiing, Randall climbed one step higher, placing second to the currently unbeatable Marit Bjørgen (NOR) in a 5km skate race in Kuusamo, Finland.
“Nope,” U.S. women’s team coach Matt Whitcomb responded succinctly when asked if Randall could surprise.
Starting at the back of the field, Bjørgen never trailed, skiing clear to a 22.7-second victory over the American in the individual start event, continuing an impressive three year win streak in the opening two weeks of the World Cup season.
“I have been feeling very good,” Bjørgen told assembled media at the post-race press conference. “When I was warming up this morning, I felt my body was very strong. I had to tell myself to take it little bit easy.”
The battle for the remaining podium spots was much tighter however. Randall was in the mix from the start, ranking third at 1.3k, less than two seconds down on Therese Johaug (NOR), and fourth at 3.1k, still just over a second behind Johaug with Heidi Weng (NOR) slipping in between.
The five-kilometer distance is generally only raced as part of a relay, but appears as stage in the Ruka Triple Mini-Tour.
The strategy, Whitcomb told FasterSkier after the race, was to attack the short course from the get-go, to be “a bit violent,” and to not “waste a single minute of the course on being conservative or focusing too much on…pace.”
The Norwegians didn’t fade off much, but it was Randall, and Russian Yulia Tchekaleva, who had a bit more left over the final kilometer-and-a-half.
Johaug slipped down to fourth and Weng fifth, as Tchekaleva made up a solid eight seconds to claim third, just 1.8 seconds behind Randall.
Tchekaleva is back in action this year after sitting out last season while having a baby.
The 28-year-old earned her first World Cup podium today, and now sits in 6th in the mini-tour standings.
While the Russian notched a personal-best, her nation has a long history of success. Randall’s result, however, marked yet another high water mark for the United States.
Thirty years after the last US distance podium, Randall bounced back from a sub-par performance in Friday’s classic sprint.
“It played out as results often do for Kikkan, where the second day can be very strong,” Whitcomb said.
He explained that she often needs a hard effort to “spark the body.” On a sprint day Randall often improves through the heats as each round cranks the engine a bit more.
Yesterday, that wasn’t a case, and Randall experienced “a little flatness” according to Whitcomb. But the effort provided the charge necessary to be ready for today’s 5k.
And ready she was.
“I’m feeling a little bit relieved. Yesterday I felt pretty flat in the sprint, and didn’t feel super good warming up today so I was a little nervous,” Randall told FasterSkier. “Still I felt good once I got out there on the race course and pretty psyched with another solid finish today and psyched for a good day tomorrow.”
With the format an individual start, Randall couldn’t know exactly where she stacked up. She said she did not pay much attention to splits, instead staying “focused on skiing each hill hard, getting speed over the top, skiing the flats well.”
She did hear she was in contention for the podium headed over the last hill, but knew that with a number of fast starters behind, nothing was guaranteed.
“I gave it what I had to the finish line and it ended up being pretty awesome,” she said.
While Randall led the way at the top, she was not the only American to standout. With teammates Jessie Diggins, Liz Stephen and Holly Brooks all cracking the top-20, the day was arguably the best distance day ever for the team.
With a 10k classic pursuit event on Sunday to wrap up the Ruka Triple, Bjørgen has the win wrapped up barring catastrophe, holding a 53-second lead on Randall.
The battle for second and third, however, should be tight.
Krista Lahteenmaki (FIN) will start third, 5.8 seconds behind Randall. She is closely followed by Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) another three seconds back.
Kowalczyk is off to her usual slow start, perhaps even slower than in past years. But she is strongest in classic distance races, and her version of “slow” meant an 11th place finish today.
After the Pole, Weng sits in no-man’s-land 12 seconds behind Kowalczyk and 12 ahead of Tchekaleva and Johaug.
– Norway placed six skiers in the top eight, with only Randall and Tchekaleva breaking up the red sea.
– Lahteenmaki placed 10th, just 1.5 seconds ahead of Kowalczyk.
– Norway and the U.S. were the only teams to have four or more skiers in the top-20.
– After strong sprint results on Friday (2nd and 3rd), the Russian women appear to be back as a force on the World Cup. In addition to 3rd today, the team took 20th, 22nd and 23rd.
– Veteran Aino Kaisa Saarinen (FIN) struggled to 52nd place.