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SODA SPRINGS, Calif. – Housemates for the week, Kikkan Randall and Liz Stephen talked tactics before Friday’s 10-kilometer classic mass start at SuperTour Finals.
That morning, with temperatures in the high 30s, was expected to warm quickly to nearly 50 degrees Fahrenheit, even at elevations exceeding 7,000 feet on Donner Summit. That’s where U.S. Ski Team (USST) veterans Randall and Stephen and the rest of the women’s field would race at Auburn Ski Club at 10:30 a.m. after the men’s 15 k.
Stephen, a Burke Mountain Academy alum spending the week with Alaska Pacific University (with ski-waxing help from the Craftsbury Green Racing Project), bounced some strategy ideas off Randall.
“I was like, ‘Maybe we should go really hard off the front and try to break up the pack,’ because those corners, you don’t want to ski them with seventy other people,” Stephen said. “But Kikkan kind of warned me, she’s like, ‘I don’t know if you really want to do that Liz. I think you’re gonna blow up.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, you’re probably right.’ ”
Stephen, 27, heeded the 30-year-old Randall’s advice and initially held back. Meanwhile, Randall led the up the A-climb around 3 k, keeping her head down and staying smooth while the rest of the pack tried to follow. When she got to the top, Randall heard she had an eight-second lead.
“I was like, ‘What?’ ” Randall recalled. “I felt like I was keeping it really controlled.”
What she didn’t realize was that Stephen and Sweden’s Lisa Larsen (Sundbybergs IK), who were closest to her the first time up the hill, had stumbled in the slushy snow.
Both fell forward: Larsen first, then Stephen (Larsen stepped on Stephen’s ski while recovering). Regaining their composure, they held their own and pushed the last few meters to the top ahead of Sweden’s Maria Graefnings (Falun Borlange SK) and Sadie Bjornsen (APU/USST).
For Randall, the two-time World Cup sprint champion and this year’s overall bronze medalist, the win was essentially in the bag. She didn’t think of it that way.
“The last bit, I wasn’t focused on the gap anymore, I was just focused on trying to hold it together and ski as well as I could,” Randall said. “I knew I was getting sloppy.”
The spectators watching her round the 5 k course might have witnessed otherwise. Despite the conditions, Randall appeared to be on form and en route to her second-straight victory in as many races at SuperTour Finals. She won Thursday’s 3.3 k freestyle prologue in damp and windy conditions, besting every competitor – male or female – except Erik Bjornsen (APU/USST) in the individual start. To be fair, she said, the men had snowier conditions.
“It would be one thing if we knew the conditions were really a little more equal,” she said. “Then I’d be like, ‘Oh OK. I’m giving the boys a run for their money.’ It’s still fun to be able to heckle the guys a little bit and be able to show that a little weather conditions and we’re right there with them!”
Randall went on to win Friday’s 10 k classic on a dry and sunny day without much trouble, finishing 36.6 seconds ahead of runner-up Bjornsen in 31:40.8. But it didn’t come easy, she said.
“The second lap, things were getting a little slower and a little softer and it was kind of hard to hold together,” Randall said. “The way this altitude works, it definitely starts creeping up on you. I knew I just needed to keep a good rhythm and the energy was pretty good.”
Her lead grew from about 18 seconds after the first lap to more than half a minute on the second.
“I was definitely fighting through some heavy muscles that last two k,” she said. “Really kind of a surprising race today. I didn’t expect to get off the front like that.”
It wasn’t so much of a shock to those who finished behind her.
“She went for the preem over the top of the hill and clearly got it and just never looked back,” Stephen said after taking third, 47 seconds behind Randall and 11.3 seconds ahead of Larsen in fourth. “She was stronger today, for sure.”
Bjornsen broke open the chase group on the second lap to claim silver, capitalizing on Larsen’s late crash on the second lap. After falling for a second time as well, Stephen also passed the Swede on the descent before the stadium.
“On the last hill, I think I was so tired I couldn’t control my limbs and I just fell down,” Stephen said. “It’s really hard out there, but honestly I’d rather have it soft like this than bullet-proof ice any day. I think racing this high at altitude and this time in the season is gonna be hard no matter what the conditions are.”
She said the 15 k, like the upcoming 30 k classic mass start, which will be held at Royal Gorge next Wednesday, was all about pacing with so little oxygen to pull from.
“I actually had one brief thought in the race about the 30 k,” Stephen said. “It was at one of my lowest points out there, and I was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s gonna be a long race,’ [but] it’s April and we’ve had the dream season and I’m just enjoying it. It’s fun to be in the sun in California.”
After finishing third in the opening prologue, Bjornsen put herself in second behind Randall in the SuperTour Finals standings. With a goal of sitting tight the first lap, the 23-year-old from Anchorage said she saved her legs as much as possible up the A-climb while staying in the top five.
“The second lap, I went in the front of the chase pack and just tried to break as many people off the back as I could,” Bjornsen said. “I knew it wasn’t the most tactically smart thing, but I could see that Kikkan was just going for it so I wanted to try to chase back to her.”
She came closer than anybody else, refusing to let up on the last lap and eventually passing Larsen for second.
“Once I hit the climb, it was just survival mode to the end,” Bjornsen said. “Liz took herself out on the last hill and I think Lisa maybe red-lined it a little bit too hard over the top. … It’s too bad those girls weren’t able to stay on their feet all the way to the end because it would’ve been a good drag race down here to the finish line.”
Barely making it over the finish before collapsing like most others, Larsen, 22, said she was satisfied with her race – one of her best at altitude. But that didn’t take the sting away from her second crash.
“I fell so hard on my chest this last downhill,” Larsen said. “It was no so good, but I’m not very used to this altitude.”
Placing 19th in the prologue the day before, Larsen said she learned her lesson after going too hard on the A-climb.
“I decided not to go with Kikkan up there [today] because it would be so hard, that hill,” she said. “I pushed it too hard there yesterday and I lost so much time down the hill.”
The women’s prologue runner-up, Jessie Diggins (Stratton Mountain T2 Team/USST) finished 18th (+3:01.5) on Friday.
“I bonked and my stomach cramped up on the first lap on the hill,” Diggins said. “I was kind of walking, like, folded over in half. … It would’ve felt really good to get a good puke in there at the top of the hill. It was definitely not a good feeling today.”
She reminded herself that not every race was destined to be great. Diggins didn’t feel good before the start on Friday and was unsure how she’d fare for the rest of the series, but wasn’t too concerned.
“If you’re not acclimated yet and you’re not used to racing at altitude very well, then you’re gonna struggle, I think,” she said. “The nice thing about racing here is I’m not putting any pressure on myself. The goal is to have fun racing here at the end of the season. I don’t have crazy, like, I need to win or else!”
Last year at SuperTour Finals in Craftsbury, Vt., Diggins said she felt differently.
“Racing at sea level and having the 30 k be a skate race, I was definitely putting a lot more pressure on myself,” she said. “This year I’m kind of learning that I need to just stop putting that kind of pressure on myself because it takes the fun right out of it. I think I’m doing a lot better with just, relax and soak up some Vitamin D.”
Rounding out the top 10 on Friday, Graefnings placed fifth, Ida Sargent (CGRP/USST) was sixth, Sophie Caldwell (SMST2) took seventh, and Rosie Brennan (APU) was eighth.
In her first classic race since Spring Series last year, U.S. Biathlon’s Annelies Cook (Maine Winter Sports Center) notched ninth. Swiss National Team member Bettina Gruber placed 10th, and two other U.S. national team biathletes Hannah Dreissigacker and Susan Dunklee finished 11th and 12th, respectively.
— Audrey Mangan contributed reporting
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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.