CANMORE, Alberta – From the back, it was easy to get panicky in Sunday’s mass start. Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk went out hard in the 15-kilometer World Cup skiathlon without even meaning to, taking a couple Norwegians with her. Less than halfway into the first lap, she and sixth others were breaking away.
Almost 20 seconds back, U.S. Ski Team members Kikkan Randall, Holly Brooks and Ida Sargent skied methodically just outside the top 20. With more than 13 kilometers to go, they weren’t going to blow it. For all but one, that restraint would be their ticket to a top 14.
But Randall wasn’t feeling all that great to start. The classic leg was a bit of a struggle, she said, and by the halfway point, she trailed Kowalczyk in first by more than a minute and 12 seconds. Sargent was one place ahead of Randall in 20th, just 0.4 seconds ahead. Brooks entered the transition in 24th.
For Randall, the skate leg was significantly better. On the first of two laps, she climbed to 13th while Kowalczyk simultaneously extended her lead. The Alaska Pacific University (APU) skier wasn’t trying to make up a minute and a half on her, but she continued to pick off the places.
With two kilometers to go, Randall led the second chase group while skiing in eighth, and knew it was going to take all the strength she had left to hold the five others off. Three races in four days had taken its toll on her, and she had little left to give.
To the surprise of few, she found some extra energy and outsprinted Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg (NOR) to the finish. Randall also edged her Swedish friend Anna Haag and Katerina Smutna of Austria to place eighth (+1:18.4).
“The classic part was really hard for me; my body’s just so sluggish,” Randall said. “Those first couple hills are so aerobic and you really just have to be able to kick into that high-end gear. I found the same thing in the classic race [on Thursday]. Just the first lap I didn’t feel like I could get into that gear, but then once my body warms up, I find it a little bit later on.”
She found it in Thursday’s 10 k classic mass start, where she placed sixth, just as she found it on Sunday. Randall’s result rivaled that of her seventh-place skiathlon showing in last season’s Tour de Ski. She later finished 12th in a 15 k skiathlon in Lahti, Finland, despite a nagging Achilles pain that turned out to be an injury.
For the first lap of Sunday’s skate leg, Randall tried to focus on her rhythm and immediate positioning rather than worry about what place she was in.
“Once I did that, I looked up and saw that some skiers were starting to come back to me,” she said. “Coming into that second lap, I knew that next pack was right there and I really wanted to close up to them. It was nice, I got up to them, got to rest a little bit and then make one more push.”
On the final stretch into the stadium, she pushed and beat them all.
“Skating is just feeling so much more natural to me right now,” Randall said. “All the distance races this season I’ve been in the fight, so to feel like I’m just a little out of it was tough.”
She thought of its as a hard workout in preparation for the upcoming Tour, and in doing so, kept herself in contention for the overall World Cup lead. Kowalczyk’s win and bonus points put her in first, 33 points ahead of Randall in second. Reigning World Cup champ Marit Bjørgen, who opted to skip the Canadian World Cups before the Tour, trails Randall by 32 points in third.
“I’m definitely getting a little tired,” Randall said. “[Saturday’s sprint] was a lot, but I’m happy I responded over the second half [Sunday] and really looking forward to a nice little break. Then we’ll do it all over again.”
Just 16.5 seconds behind Randall, Sargent placed 14th for her best result in a distance race, second-best in Canmore. The Craftsbury Green Racing Project member was 10th in Saturday’s skate sprint and used what she learned there on Sunday. Instead of leading into the final downhill, she tucked in around second or third.
It worked as she beat Aurore Jean (FRA), Irina Khazova (RUS) and Virginia De Martin Topranin (ITA) to the line.
“I just tried to be patient, move up when I could but not freak out ’cuz I knew it would be a long race,” Sargent said. “I was kind of picking off people in the classic, then in the skate, packs kind of formed and I was worried about going too hard too soon, so I skied with the pack, which was pretty fast, and just knew how to ski the finish.”
While some might pin the 24-year-old as a sprinter, Sargent was 18th in a 10 k classic race in Kuusamo a few weeks ago.
“I look to Kikkan a lot and find inspiration from her,” she said. “She started out being more of a sprinter. I don’t want to be a sprint specialist. Sprinting comes more easily to me and I’ve taken advantage of that, but I’d really like to improve my distance skiing.”
An all-around skier, Brooks (APU) wasn’t thrilled with placing 28th, nearly three minutes back from the winner. She remained close with Sargent and Randall through the transition, but fumbled her skate pole and had to turn around to retrieve it. That wasn’t really a big deal, she said. Feeling tired was.
“I’m just really fatigued for some reason,” Brooks said. “I’m having hard time with the altitude, which is crazy ’cuz normally I really love racing at altitude.”
After skiing a relaxed classic leg, she expected to have more left for the skate.
“My legs just felt dead,” she said. “Just didn’t quite have it today and need to take some rest the net couple days and need to regroup.”
Leading the Canadians, Emily Nishikawa of the Alberta World Cup Academy achieved as personal best of 34th (+3:39.2). Realizing her strength in skating, the 23-year-old tried to save something for the second half of the race, especially the hills.
“Those girls are fast,” Nishikawa said of the frontrunners. “I wasn’t able to stay with that pace off the start, but I kept my own rhythm going and I think it worked for me. I was able to pick off a lot of girls in the skate.
“I had a great race and I’m thrilled to get in the 30s,” she added. “I’m one step closer to my goal of getting in the top 30 and in the top 15, so I think it’s a good start and I’m looking to improve on this for sure.”
Canadian National Team members Dasha Gaiazova and Chandra Crawford placed 37th and 46th, respectively. Gaiazova said she was “fairly satisfied” with her result after feeling good for the start of her classic leg, then backing off on the end of the second lap.
“I started to feel like woah this is maybe a little too hard,” she said. “Up to that point I was still in one of the chase groups and it was going well. It’s just at that 6 ½ k, I felt like I started to fall off a little bit, and then by the time I got into the skating, I’d already lost that group. … It was just short of a fight for the whole skate leg and that was really tough. I pushed really hard so that’s good.”
After falling behind early, Crawford said she gave it her all, which is what she set out for.
“It’s a treat for me any time I get to race,” she said, after placing sixth in Saturday’s sprint. “I want to get out there, struggle, push through the rough patches, dig deep, try and stay on girls, push the pace, do good technique even when I’m exploded in my muscles. I accomplished all those things, and I’m really impressed with our younger girls coming on strong like that.”
Crawford was also excited to discover her sixth-place finish prequalified her for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Her teammate, Perianne Jones also secured a spot with two top-12s this season.
“This weekend was a blast,” Crawford said. “I really enjoyed racing today. I knew it was going to be tough and super hard. We were skiing up mountains up there. It’s what I grew up doing and it doesn’t get any easier.”
— Topher Sabot and Gerry Furseth contributed reporting
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.