For the first time in probably five years, Kikkan Randall had the rare opportunity to open birthday and Christmas presents with her family, including her parents, younger sister, aunt and uncles, before they were four months old and waiting for her return in April.
At the suggestion of her Alaska Pacific University (APU) coach Erik Flora, the U.S. Ski Team veteran, who turned 32 on Dec. 31, called a mid-season time out after the Tour de Ski, flying home to Anchorage on Jan. 9 for a 16-day break from the World Cup.
On the phone from Anchorage on Tuesday, Randall said that she had enjoyed catching up with family and friends in the few days she had been home. First, she intended to take a couple days off, “laying low” and hanging out with her family before gradually getting back into a training rhythm and ramping up the intensity in an effort to pull out her season-best results at World Championships in Falun, Sweden.
Tuesday afternoon, she had just returned from snow biking.
“I haven’t been out skiing yet and I think [the snow is] a little bit limited for skiing, but snow biking is great, fantastic,” she said with a laugh.
Randall explained the decision to return home in the middle of the winter for the first time since 2011, when she traveled to Anchorage before Oslo World Championships, came up two or three days before she left Europe.
“It was actually Erik’s idea,” she said. “We made the arrangements pretty quick. [U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris] Grover was great; he helped me change my plans and drove out of his way to bring me to Munich and drop me off.”
As a result, Randall is skipping the next two World Cup weekends in Otepää, Estonia, and Rybinsk, Russia, before everyone gets a two-week break from the World Cup, which resumes again on Feb. 14 with a classic sprint in Östersund, Sweden.
She’ll fly to Östersund on Jan. 26 and train there with her husband, Jeff Ellis, who is working for the International Ski Federation’s (FIS) media department at the Otepää and Rybinsk World Cups, until her next race.
“[It’s] always good to get some quality time with your husband while on the road,” Randall said.
Meanwhile, the rest of the U.S. Ski Team will hold a pre-World Championships/pre-Östersund camp in Davos, Switzerland. Randall opted to Sweden because she wanted to train at sea level.
“I’ll meet up with everyone again when they come for the [Östersund] World Cup,” she explained.
FasterSkier: How does it feel to be back?
Kikkan Randall: It definitely feels pretty surreal to be back. I’ve had many dreams when I’m on the World Cup where I come home and then all of a sudden I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m home! I’ve gotta go back!’ so it feels kind of like a dream right now because I don’t think I’ve been back in the winter for probably five years. But it’s been really nice, I’ve just been hanging out with my family, taking a couple days off training and just laying low and having fun spending time with them. I got to open some Christmas presents and birthday presents the other day that were going to be waiting for me until April, so that was kind of fun, and then now that I’ve had a few days to get my feet on the ground, I’ll ease back into training.
FS: How did you make this decision to come home?
KR: Before Christmas, the last couple races in Davos, I felt like I was making really small steps forward back to kind of race form. We had a nice long break over Christmas and I just did some conservative training and then we knew the Tour de Ski would be a good test to see where things are at. I got through a few races of the Tour, and again I was making maybe small steps but not the big jump that I’d hoped.
Then we had to look at the big goals of the year [at World Championships] in Falun, and I wanted to make sure I could try to make a drastic change in my racing before then, and to keep kind of eking along on the World Cup, we felt like small changes were possible, but really figured a change in scenery, a change in pace, and a time to actually come home where you can actually recover and recharge was the best way to ensure good performances in Falun.
It wasn’t an easy decision to leave the racing circuit, especially with sprints coming up in Otepää and Rybinsk, but with Falun being my big goals, I wanted to really try to make a drastic change. It’s worked for some athletes in the past, and even though it’s a long [way to] travel, home is always the best place to be to get your motivator back.
“Home is always the best place to get your motivator back.” — Kikkan Randall
FS: Were you open to the idea when Flora brought it up?
KR: I think we talked about it two or three days before I left so it was a pretty quick turnaround. When he first proposed it, I could see the merits in it, but I wasn’t ready to just leave the circuit. I felt like I was pretty firmly on the fence in terms of whether to come home or whether to stay. So I just kind of did another race or two to kind of see where I was at and talked to a few people then just kind of decided, OK, I think home is the best way to do it. As soon as I did, I felt a little bit of relief I guess and I think that confirmed that it was the right decision.
FS: Had you originally planned to train in Ramsau, Austria, after leaving the Tour de Ski early then race both World Cups in Estonia and Russia?
KR: That had definitely been the plan. It had always been part of our plan to only race five stages of the Tour, because I did want to race in Otepää, so it was going to be Ramsau and then up to Otepää and then onto Rybinsk, and then I had already started to change my plans a little bit — originally I was going to go to Davos with the team before world champs, but then decided I would rather have some time at sea level leading into the championships to really dial things in. So I had already started to look at going to Sweden early, skipping Davos, so that’s kind of the plan I’ll pick up on from when I go back.
FS: Of the races so far this season, which stick out as bright spots or signs of improvement over others?
KR: From the ways things started off in Ruka, the sprint there actually wasn’t so bad, it was decent [she was 16th in the classic sprint].
But then Lillehammer was quite a ways off where I wanted to be so I felt like we were really building back from there [she placed 43rd in the skate sprint and 63rd in the 5 k classic, and 58th overall in the Lillehammer mini tour].
The first weekend in Davos was a little bit better, but still not quite right [she was 20th in the skate sprint], and then the weekend after that in the sprint where I got into the semifinals I started to feel a little bit more like my normal self [she placed ninth], so those were improvements.
At the Tour, the skate prologue was decent [22nd], the skate sprint was decent [10th], the classic races were not great [44th in the 10 k classic, 42nd in the 5 k classic], and I think part of that was they weren’t my best conditions and not my best formats. So I think the skating’s going well, but I feel like I don’t have all my gears and so that’s when I knew I needed to make a change.
FS: How fatigued are you feeling at this point?
KR: It’s been really subtle and that’s been the hardest thing. It’s not been like in the past where I’ve gone through a really hard training block and been super [spent], so it’s been hard to manage, so now we’re just going to be super sensitive to it and hope it goes OK.
FS: What’s your plan, training-wise, for the next week or so before flying to Sweden?
KR: I go back on the 26th so from now until then I’ll just get back into a good training rhythm, nothing crazy just to make sure my body’s in a good place. Then when I go back to Sweden, I’ll have almost three weeks before the World Cup in Östersund, so that’s a good training period to actually work on fine tuning things with some good interval training and then hopefully rest a little bit going into [the] Östersund [World Cup]. And off we go. So I think it’s still a good amount of time between now and Falun and we’ve got some good plans to put in place. And then we’ll just do the best we can and see what happens.
FS: You said the last time went home in middle of season was five years ago?
KR: I guess it was 2011 before Oslo World Championships.
FS: Was that planned and did it work well for you?
KR: It was. It did actually. I felt like I came into pretty good form at the World Championships there so since that worked it made this decision a little bit easier.
(There, she placed ninth in two team events — the classic team sprint and 4 x 5 k relay — was 18th in the 30 k freestyle mass start, 26th in the individual skate sprint and 32nd in the 10 k classic.)
FS: Looking ahead to this weekend, will you be waking up to watch the sprints in Otepää? And how are you feeling about missing out on that classic sprint and team sprint?
KR: The team has been skiing really well and I have the utmost confidence that they’re going to keep that confidence going so I’m going to leave it to them to do their thing. For me, I’m here at home to truly take a break from the World Cup scene so I don’t really have any big plans to get up in the middle of the night to watch the races. I know it’ll go well and I’ll look forward to catching up with them and their stories when I see them again in a few weeks.
FS: How are you feeling about your classic sprinting in advance of the individual race at World Championships?
KR: I know if I can get my body into a good place then all the rest of that stuff kind of takes care of itself. I can’t make any specific efforts at this point, just try to get in some good, quality training and if I show up in a good place, then I’ll give it what I have and what will happen, will happen.
FS: How excited are you for the skate team sprint in Falun?
KR: I’m very excited. When I already switched my attention onto this season, that was obviously one of the biggest goals. I want to be in a good position to be on that team and to defend our title. The fact that skating’s been going a little bit better is encouraging. That’ll be motivation over these next couple weeks. … The 4 by 5 relay has always been a big target. We’ve been wanting to go after a medal in the championships for that. Again, I’d love to be in a position to be on that team and contribute to helping us fight for a medal.
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.