Explaining the Inexplicable: Randall’s Race Deconstructed

Nathaniel HerzFebruary 12, 201411
Kikkan Randall after finishing Tuesday's Olympic skate-sprint quarterfinal in fourth. Her time was 0.05 seconds short of securing the last lucky loser spot to the semifinals, and Randall placed 18th overall in Sochi, Russia.
Kikkan Randall after finishing Tuesday’s Olympic skate-sprint quarterfinal in fourth. Her time was 0.05 seconds short of securing the last lucky loser spot to the semifinals, and Randall placed 18th overall in Sochi, Russia.

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – After Tuesday’s catastrophic race at the Olympics, Kikkan Randall and her teammates and coaches were left to explain what seemed inexplicable: just how and why the Alaskan had been knocked out of the sprint rounds in her chosen discipline earlier than she had been in nearly two years of racing.

Deconstructing a sprint race is kind of like explaining the movements of a flock of sparrows—if the sparrows all came from different countries and were flying around a treacherous obstacle course, trying to get to the same worm first.

But that didn’t stop Erik Flora, Randall’s coach, from trying. And his perspective, informed by Randall’s own comments, helps shed some light on Tuesday’s bafflingly disappointing outcome—which in Flora’s mind may have stemmed from Randall struggling with her fitness, or the conditions on the course, or a strategy that the pair thought through, but simply didn’t work.

“It can be so many things,” Flora said in an interview after the race. “I’ll go back and review this and see—I’m sure it’ll play over and over in our heads.”

Randall couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday, but in an email, she said that it had been “an emotional roller coaster since yesterday afternoon.”

“It’s been an incredible influx of support messages today,” she added, “and I am just blown away with how much everyone cares.”

Her sprint race on Tuesday essentially boiled down to two key sections: a downhill coming off the top of the course, which was followed by a sharp corner leading into a long flat section in a stadium, ending with the homestretch.

Randall led into the corner, but then three of the five other women in her heat came past on the flat.

By her own measure, her typical finishing speed had gone missing.

“Today, that final gear wasn’t quite there,” she said.

Speaking with reporters after the race, Randall didn’t do much speculating as to why. Pondering the question after the race, Flora said there could be several explanations for Randall’s missing sharpness, from some undiagnosed problem with her preparation, to the conditions on Tuesday’s course—soft snow that left the sprint race a slog—to the pressure.

“From what we’ve seen in training, she had good fitness,” Flora said. But, he added, “When she went to make the move in the finish, she didn’t feel like she had everything she needed, and that can be a lot of things.”

The snow certainly was sloppy, which could have made it more difficult for Randall to ski with her usual power.  But Flora downplayed that possibility, pointing out that his Alaska Pacific University team trains on the Eagle Glacier outside Anchorage during the summer, which can get similarly messy.

“I don’t think the conditions threw her a big loop,” he said. “She looked great coming into the stadium.”

The decisive moment in Randall’s sprint may actually have come before the homestretch, when she took the lead as the women headed into the descent and around the tight corner.

That move was one that was considered ahead of time, Flora said: Because of the risk of a crash on the turn, which took out two of the first seven women to start in the qualification round, Randall had intended to be at or near the front through the tricky section.

There’s a problem with leading out a ski race, though: by positioning herself at the front of the group, Randall was absorbing the wind resistance, letting the skiers behind her draft and build up speed.

That allowed Germany’s Denise Herrman to rush past once the women reached the flat stretch, along with Norway’s Marit Bjoergen, and ultimately, before the finish, Italy’s Gaia Vuerich, too.

A similar outcome befell Randall at her last sprint race, too, in Italy earlier this month, when she also led through the middle of the course and was passed in a fast section leading towards the finish.

Tuesday’s course was different, though—the snow was slower, and the speeds not as high, which should have diminished the advantage for the women that were waiting behind Randall on the descent.

The speed those women gathered surprised Flora, he said.

“We thought it was good odds to play it safe, and who would have known the draft effect was that strong in the stadium?” he said. “Going through the race today, would we have taken a different tactic? I can’t say yes. I think we ran the right tactic.”

Typically, Randall told reporters, she can fend off other women if they’re coming from behind.

“Usually that works for me,” she said.

But not on Tuesday, in which she appeared to be lacking her usual quickness, and was trying to respond to charges by two of the strongest sprinters on the circuit, in Bjoergen and Herman.

One last question was about the pressure—whether the expectations of media and fans somehow got to Randall.

Flora acknowledged that pressure existed.

“But as far as I could tell, Kikkan was handling it well,” he said. “We were focusing on the process of being here and getting ready for the races. She looked like she was in a good place. I didn’t see anything to suggest that her preparation was disrupted.”

In the end, Flora said, “it just didn’t work out.”

Ultimately, even for the best in the sport, it’s common for things not to work out in sprints—a race that at two and a half minutes is so short that what seems like random chance can just as often determine an outcome as fitness, technique, or strategy.

It’s a testament to Randall’s unprecedented consistency in the discipline—leading into the Olympics, she had made the podium in 10 of her last 12 races in her favored skate technique—that Tuesday’s result was considered so much of a disappointment.

Just look at what happened in the men’s sprint, Flora said: Sweden’s Emil Joensson, suffering from fatigue and a back injury, had given up, and was trailing the lead pack in the final by a huge margin.

Then, three of Joensson’s competitors crashed on a downhill corner.

“He wasn’t even racing,” Flora said. “And he ended up with a bronze medal today. How crazy.”

At the end of the day, two others offered their own interpretations the race—both of whom should know.

One was Bjoergen, the Norwegian who had been expected to be Randall’s big rival in the sprint. Instead of waltzing to victory after Randall’s exit, Bjoergen crashed face first into the snow on the homestretch of her semifinal heat.

Afterwards, bantering with the head coach of the Canadian ski team, she summed up the race: “Shit happens.”

The other to give their thoughts was that coach: Justin Wadsworth, a former Olympic competitor who used to coach the U.S. team, including in 2007, when Randall won her first-ever World Cup race.

“She should not hang her head at all. The Olympics is a weird deal. That’s why Olympic medals are so precious: They’re really hard to get,” he said in an interview. “It’s hard, man. It’s a hard thing to time right, and put it all together.”

–Chelsea Little contributed reporting.

Nathaniel Herz

Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.

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  • highstream

    February 12, 2014 at 4:12 pm

    While I can’t know what occurred with Randall, take a look at the all the women’s heats and check how many larger bodied skiers were able to run from the front for most of the race and stay there to the end, vs. the smaller, lighter ones like Falla. Those specific snow conditions seemed to favor the latter.

  • Strider2

    February 12, 2014 at 5:17 pm

    re: highstream, What about Ola though? He’s one of the largest guys on the world cup and he led from nearly start to finish in all his heats (and it paid off). With those conditions it was far more risky to stay in the back and risk having people fall in front of you.

  • highstream

    February 12, 2014 at 7:10 pm

    I said “women’s heats” and intentionally left out the guys. Unlike the women, they are almost all big in one way or another!

  • Strider2

    February 12, 2014 at 7:35 pm

    Not really, Emil and Petukhov are actually quite a bit smaller compared to Hattestad and they also nearly led their quarters from start to finish.

    I went back and re-watched the race and with very few exceptions the top two people at the start of the downhill into the finish were usually the two that went on. I don’t think it would have suited Kikkan to wait in the wings, as this course/snow favored the skiers that lead it from start to finish. Also, maybe with the exception of Falla, most of the women really aren’t that much “smaller” than Kikkan.

  • Marc Beitz

    February 12, 2014 at 7:39 pm

    Exactly the same thing happened to Kikkan two weeks ago at Toblach . . . seems to indicate a fitness issue.

  • cepb

    February 12, 2014 at 8:40 pm

    All the women on the finals were among the top 9 in the qualification round.
    Kikkan was 18th in the qualification round.
    It doesn´t make sense to deconstruct just the quarterfinals.
    It seems clear she would not get a medal, even if she was 0.05 seconds faster in the quarterfinals and secured the last lucky loser spot to the semifinals.

  • teamepokeedsbyn

    February 12, 2014 at 9:00 pm

    the problem with putting all your medal “eggs” in one sprint “basket” becomes so apparent in this situation – the slightest bobble in a 2-3 minute event ends your race. the same bobble in a “normal” 5 or 15k gives a strong racer the opportunity to make up 5 or even 15 seconds from a fall or pole break. sprint racing to me is just not as exciting to me as a typical x-c (distance) race for this reason. it is interesting to see how many skiers from other countries were involved in the men’s and women’s sprint heats who are also expected to challenge for top 10 in the 10-50km events.

  • sportalaska

    February 13, 2014 at 4:23 am

    To teamepokeedsbyn – I found your statement “it is interesting to see how many skiers from other countries were involved in the men’s and women’s sprint heats who are also expected to challenge for top 10 in the 10-50km events,” both interesting and somewhat testable, so I decided to run a few numbers, comparing the list of women’s Olympic sprint qualifiers to race-by-race World Cup points scored at distances of 10Km or more.

    I didn’t look at the men’s Olympic sprint qualifiers v. world cup standings – this was after all, an article about the women’s race. I’ll leave that to someone else.

    In the women’s first 30 (those who qualified for the heats) here’s a summary:

    During the 2013-2014 season, 14 of 30 scored points in one or more the seven World Cup races of 10Km or more (I didn’t include the TdS hillclimb). Those 14 skiers accounted for 48 instances of scoring WC points.

    However . . .
    8 of those 14 skiers accounted for 38 of those 48 instances – that is in excess of 75% of the instances of points being scored in distance races by skiers who qualified for the heats coming from just 8 skiers.

    Who were those eight skiers and how many times did they score points in WC distance races thus far this season?
    1. Jacobsen, NOR – scored WC points in 6 distance race of 10Km or more
    2. Jean, FRA – 5
    3. Diggins, USA – 5
    4. Kylloenen, FIN – 5
    5. Randall, USA – 5
    6. Oestberg, NOR – 4
    7. Hermann, GER – 4
    8. Bjoergen, NOR – 4

    Three other skiers among the 30 qualifiers scored WC points in more than one distance race (>=10KM)
    9. Johansson Norgren, SWE – 3
    10. Falla, NOR – 2
    11. Sargent, USA – 2

    Three other skiers have scored WC points in one race:
    Ingemarsdotter, SWE; Caldwell, USA; Dotsenko, RUS.

    Of those top eight skiers listed above only Jacobsen (5) and Bjoergen (4) have had more than 2 top 10 finishes. Diggins and Kyllonen have had 2 each, and Jean, Randall, Oestberg and Hermann have had 1 each. Falla and Sargent have also had one each.

    Now, for sure, these numbers are affected by whether a skier was in the (entire) Tour de Ski or not, individual skier’s competition schedules, health, etc. Howver, I think this is a pretty good gross measurement of high-level performance in distance events.

    If we say that a skier must have had two top-10 WC finishes this season to be considered to be someone who would
    “challenge for top 10 in the 10-50km events,” then only four of the 30 qualifiers – that would be 13.3% – could be classified as such. That seems to me to be very few of the top 30. That doesn’t mean that no other sprint qualifiers will finish in the top 10 in Olympic distance events, but I think it would be hard to argue against frequency of top 10 World Cup finishes being the most solid predictor of top 10 Olympic finishes. (Joran Elias may want to weigh in on this).

    Looking at it in terms of high likelihood, one would really assert that only Bjoergen and Jacobsen are highly-likely to have a top 10. In the SKiathlon, Bjoergen was 1st, Diggins 8th, Jean 18th, Kylloenen 33rd, Johansson Norgren 39th and Jacobsen did not race (I assume due to the death of her brother).

    Seat of the pants analysis of the Skiathlon: Bjoergen and Jean performed to standard, Diggins was on or a little above standard; Kylloenen substantially below expectations, and Johansson Norgren somewhat below expectations.

    Looking at it from a national team/program perspective, we can see that among the qualifiers who have scored World Cup points in distance races this year, Norway has 4 skiers with 16 instances of scoring distance points; USA has 4 skiers/13 instances; Sweden has 2/4, Finland 1/5, Germany 1/4, France 1/5, and Russia 1/1.

    Therefore, it could be concluded, at least based upon this sample, that the two nations that have the most all-rounders among their sprint team are Norway and the USA. Besides Norway and the USA, only Sweden had more than one qualifier who has scored WC points this season, and those two skiers account for only four instances of scoring points.

    I guess my conclusion would be that it is interesting to see how specialized the women’s sprint field has become: more than half of the qualifiers have not scored WC points in races of 10Km or more. Only a small handful of the qualifiers have a legitimate expectation of producing a top-10 result in a distance race.

    And Norway and the USA – out of this sample anyway – clearly have the most well-rounded women’s teams of skiers who are able to score in both sprint/prologue/5Km and distance races. If you change the “medal eggs” standard to “top 10 eggs”, it looks like the USA is one of the few nations that HASN’T put all its eggs in one basket. And so far, with an 8th and a 6th, things are going according quite well, I’d say.

    Now, the men’s field may be a whole ‘nother kettle of fish, and might produce very different numbers. But clearly, the interesting thing about the women’s field is how FEW of them are likely to be top-10 distance skiers.

    John Estle

  • teamepokeedsbyn

    February 13, 2014 at 7:26 am

    That’s a good post. Yes, men too. Maybe even make it more selective to top 5 in sprint and distance in WC/tour de ski, and see if same actors common. That Joran would be the man with the gumption to run this for sure.

  • kurtkling

    February 13, 2014 at 9:30 am

    Just remember. Never play Jeopardy with Estle.

  • T.Eastman

    February 14, 2014 at 12:13 am

    Jeezum Crow!!!

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