ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Normally, when Anchorage cross-country skier Kikkan Randall races, it’s in front of a crowd of largely indifferent Europeans — Swedes or Norwegians who might recognize her, but would prefer to see someone from their own country crossing the finish line first.
But at the SuperTour Finals 1.4-kilometer classic sprint on a sunny Sunday at Kincaid Park — just a few miles from her house in South Anchorage — Randall was the center of attention. There were family members, friends, even Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan watching from the side of the trail, with Sullivan himself offering up an unabashed shout of “Go Kikkan!”
Randall delivered, winning the final by 2 seconds over Sadie Bjornsen, one of her teammates on the Alaska Pacific University (APU) Elite Team and U.S. Ski Team (USST). It was Randall’s second victory in as many races at the Finals, after she won the 10 k freestyle individual start on Saturday.
The women are just one week removed from their last race in Europe, nine time zones away, and after an up-an-down season, they could be forgiven for treating these competitions with a little less seriousness. But with a big local crowd out watching, packed shoulder to shoulder along the final climb, Randall gave it everything, grimacing as she double poled to the finish line in finals — her third sprint heat of the day.
“I’m out in schools all year talking about how you have to give it your best: ‘If you dream big and work hard, you can accomplish your dreams.’ I feel like I’m out here and I have to follow my own advice a little bit,” she said afterwards. “With so many people who come out and cheer you on, it’s important to perform well, even if it’s the end of the season.”
Bjornsen won the preliminary qualifier by nearly three seconds over Sophie Caldwell, also of the USST, who skis for the Vermont-based Stratton Mountain School (SMS) T2 Team.
Randall qualified fifth, five seconds back, but she won both her quarterfinal and semifinal heats before setting up for the finals with Bjornsen, Caldwell, Ida Sargent (Craftsbury Green Racing Project/USST), Jessie Diggins (SMST2/USST), and Anchorage’s Holly Brooks (APU/USST) — six of the seven women on the U.S. Ski Team.
Diggins made a hard push in the first portion of the 1.4-kilometer course, which was mostly flat and downhill, but the women were still in a pack when they arrived at the bottom of the big climb up to the finish.
Bjornsen made a push to challenge for the lead, but she said she started struggling on the steepest part of the climb. The tracks on Sunday were made up of a thin layer of powdery snow atop hard ice, and Bjornsen said she was scrambling too much to make her wax stick, which allowed Randall to get away.
“Kik had some really good striding on the steepest part, and I was kind of slipping around a little too much to stride it out,” Bjornsen said. “All the other heats, I was not frantic enough that I could ski them. But when it becomes frantic, I tend to slip around a bit more.”
Randall said that she had struggled similarly in her first heat, but changed her technique to be smoother in the semifinals and finals.
“The last two rounds, I just kind of found a good rhythm — I think I was just feeling better and better every round,” she said.
Sargent was third, closing a gap to Bjornsen on the home stretch and just barely losing a lunge for the finish line.
“It was a good battle with Sadie in the finishing stretch,” Sargent said. “It’s so fun to have our last sprint race of the year be a final between six of us on the team. It was the most fun sprint heat I’ve done all year.”
With the fans, a warm sun, and even a food truck slinging caribou sandwiches and reindeer hot dogs, the race had a festive feel, and many of the athletes seemed to have permanent smiles regardless of their placing. Especially the Alaskans, who got a boost from the partisan crowd.
“Half these kids I babysit, and the other half are my professors’ at school,” Bjornsen said.
“I want to pack them up and take them on the World Cup, for sure. These are the best fans of the entire season,” said Brooks.
This race series is the first at the elite level in Anchorage since 2010, and Randall said that was welcomed after the Americans had spent their season at high-profile races in Europe, and at the Olympics in Russia.
“I’ve had so many people say, ‘It’s so good to finally see you race,’ ” Randall said. “And I am a little taken aback by that, but then I realize what this team has been accomplishing, and for us to all be here doing what we do best, in front of a hometown crowd, I think is really cool.”
That crowd included Sullivan, the Anchorage mayor, who’s more known for his interest in indoor sports like tennis and basketball.
“At first when I saw him, I was like, ‘Oh, hey Dan,’” Randall said. “And then I went, ‘Wait, wait a second — Dan’s here at a ski race!’ That’s pretty awesome.”
—Alex Matthews contributed reporting
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.