Kikkan Randall: The Exit Interview (Part II): Looking Forward

Gavin KentchMay 18, 2018
Kikkan Randall explores new rollerski terrain in Penticton, B.C., earlier this month, following her family’s move to Canada. (Photo: Kikkan Randall/Instagram)

As discussed last week in Part I of this interview, Kikkan Randall’s first-ever FIS race (that is, a race sanctioned by the International Ski Federation) occurred at U.S. nationals at Soldier Hollow in January 2000. Randall was 17 years old, the single youngest finisher in the race. Other athletes had been born in the 1960s and are now at least 48 years old. Randall raced in a first-generation Gold 2002 training suit for the fledgling Alaska Pacific University (APU) ski program. Every skier in the race had a FIS number starting with a 1.

Fast-forward 18 years and nearly 600 FIS races later. Randall’s final FIS race was the 30-kilometer classic mass start at 2018 Spring Series this past March in Craftsbury, Vermont. She crossed the finish line in third, leading out a four-racer chase pack to claim the final podium spot in the final race of her career. She followed U.S. Ski Team (USST) teammate Jessie Diggins and USST and APU teammate Sadie Bjornsen, who took first and second in a tight finish.

Randall was the oldest skier in the race by five years. She was the only athlete whose FIS number started with a 1; everyone else’s FIS number began with a 3. Earlier that week Randall’s competitors in the 10 k freestyle included Anchorage junior Molly Gellert (23rd overall), who had not yet been born when Randall did her first FIS race.

And even among the 30 k podium finishers, Diggins famously got Randall’s signature on a piece of cardboard at 2008 Junior Nationals in Anchorage, after Randall had run out of posters to sign before Diggins got to the front of the line. Bjornsen likewise looked up to Randall as a junior skier, then moved to Alaska to train with her at APU. Randall’s been doing this for a long time.

And when it was over, and when Randall had crossed her final finish line, she stood on the podium in a bespoke pink USA/APU suit, and sprayed champagne over her teammates. The next morning, she woke up as something other than a professional skier for the first time in nearly 20 years. She celebrated by leading a Fast and Female session in the area a few days later.

Randall’s first month of retirement was marked by lots of media appearances and a series of well-deserved honors. She was recognized by the Anchorage Assembly (which gave her a Kikkan action figure), U.S. Ski & Snowboard, the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame, and the APU Nordic Ski Team, among others.

And, perhaps most significantly of all, she inspired an ice-cream flavor in her honor. Gold & Glory debuted at Anchorage microcreamery Wild Scoops in early April, in advance of a “Welcome Home Olympians” celebration in nearby Town Square. The concoction involved “a sweet cream base with homemade GOLDen Graham toffee crunchies + pink strawberry sauce streaks,” store owner Elissa Brown explained on Instagram. “Topped with pink sprinkles and ‘gold medals’ while supplies last.”

The ice-cream honor was the only thing in a month of awards and media attention that threatened to make the preternaturally poised Randall lose her focus. “Wow,” said a clearly surprised Randall upon being asked by a FasterSkier reporter about the significance of having an ice-cream flavor named for her. “That’s quite an honor. I do love ice cream; I’ll have to go check that out.”

Gold & Glory Kikkan Randall commemorative ice cream at Wild Scoops microcreamery in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo: Julie Kentch)

Later that afternoon, Randall headlined the Welcome Home celebration for 16 local Olympians and Paralympians who had competed this year in PyeongChang. (Thanks to Paralympic alpine skier Andrew Kurka and his PyeongChang gold and silver, there were a healthy three Olympic medals in attendance. Another dozen or so local former Olympians joined the crowd, including skiers Nina Kemppel and Adam Verrier.)

Randall rode in on a pink fire truck. She joined the cheerleaders from her high school alma mater, East Anchorage High School, in dancing to the school fight song. She accepted the Skis To The City from Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, then sprayed a pink streak in Hizzoner’s hair. She listened as Alaska’s senior senator, Lisa Murkowski, praised the accomplishments of all the Olympians and told them that Alaska was proud of them.

Finally, Randall took the microphone and addressed a crowd of hundreds filling Town Square on a blustery, raw, sub-freezing April afternoon. Hordes of local junior skiers clambered on to the snowbanks immediately in front of the stage to gaze up at her, Anchorage Junior Nordic hats on their heads and rapt admiration in their eyes.

This is so amazing for us,” Randall said, “to come back to Alaska, finally, after a long and hard season traveling the world, to come back and get to celebrate with all of you guys that have been such an important part of making this gold medal and this Olympic team happen. We couldn’t be more proud to represent the state of Alaska.”

She praised the support of the community and of her teammates, and detailed all the contributions from others that had made success possible.

Randall ended her remarks by forecasting a bright future for American skiing: “It’s been a fairytale ending to an amazing journey. And now that my career’s coming to a close, I can’t wait to see what this next generation is going to do. Because they know it’s possible, we know we have the community and the support system to make it happen, and they’re going to take this far beyond. This may be the first medal in women’s cross-country, but it’s not going to be the last.”

So that’s what’s next for U.S. skiing, but what’s next for Randall? Part II of this interview answers those questions.

Note: The following story is based on an in-person interview with Randall in late April. FasterSkier’s narrative is in bold; everything else is a direct quote from Randall.

So, what comes next? Randall largely answered this question last fall; go back and review the second half of this FasterSkier article for the full version of this answer.

The short version is that she’s going to serve on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Athletes’ Commission, take on a larger role with Fast and Female, and finish up her MBA through Alaska Pacific University (the school, not the ski team). Oh, and by the way, along with husband Jeff Ellis, parent their son, Breck Stuart Randall Ellis, while settling into the family’s new home in Penticton, British Columbia. And maybe it’d be nice to earn a living, too.

Randall is asked whether the preview version of her new career, as written out last fall, is still accurate. Here’s what she had to say:

Yes. That’s still the tentative plan.

The gold medal, of course, has opened up some new opportunities to do some more motivational speaking, which I really enjoy doing, and would love to have a couple opportunities nationally a month to do that.

So that’s one part adding to the mix, and then the IOC role has turned out to be a little more than I knew I was getting into. I didn’t realize I would be on the USOC [United States Olympic Committee] Board of Directors, and so actively involved with other groups that kind of funnel into the IOC. So figuring out how to manage the time commitment there, given that it’s all volunteer.

And my source of income, which has been racing, is now shifting, so figuring out how to do all these things that I’m passionate about, and I love, and I want to contribute to, but still be able to provide for my family.

… And then realizing there’s only 24 hours in a day, and I want to be a good mom, and I want to be physically active, and still see my husband, and do all these other things. So it’s going to be – after the last 20 years being pretty darn predictable, it’s now a whole new scheduling challenge and energy-management challenge. But, there are so many good things to look forward to, that I think will help me transition out and give me really good focus, new passions.

I’ve heard that some athletes really struggle after they retire because you are so passionate about your sport, and it gives you so much structure and daily accomplishment, that when you don’t have that anymore, you can really just kind of go into a mental tailspin. So having these great things already lined up that are going to be really engaging and fun to work on I think will be really helpful.

Randall may be understating things somewhat when she talks about the structure and daily accomplishment of being a full-time athlete; she has trained twice a day, 48 weeks a year, for most of the past 20 years, and duly recorded every workout. That’s a lot of daily structure.

But there is also a certain broader rhythm to the seasons that attaches to this lifestyle – starting up training again in May, volume in June, intensity in the fall, and so on. Randall is asked, in an interview conducted in late April, what it is going to feel like to not be beginning a new training year next week on May 1, or to spend a complete summer uninterrupted by training blocks on Eagle Glacier, or to spend mid-November somewhere other than far northern Scandinavia for pre-World Cup races. Randall is quick to acknowledge the magnitude of the change, while still concluding that it’s time to move on.

You know, I’ve been surprised at how quickly I’m starting to realize that it’s gonna feel pretty weird. I did my last race, just coming up on the one-month mark, and, while I’ve been excited to finish a great career, to be able to now go and do new opportunities and things, it is kind of settling in, the fact that I won’t have the excuse to go out and train twice a day, and do all these exercises. And most importantly, that I won’t be meeting up with my teammates, who have really just become such close friends, and coaches and everything.

So I know it’s going to be a pretty dramatic stretch, and April has been kind of a free pass, in that it’s always kind of the time of year when we are flexible. It’s felt pretty normal so far, but as next week starts, and summer drags on, I’m sure it’s going to be pretty strange.

But all good things come to an end, and I think it’s still the right time to transition out, so it just gives me a greater appreciation for what I’ve been able to do, and recognizing what parts of that life I want to continue forward – you know, I want to stay active and fit, and it’s just going to be a new challenge of how to figure out how to do that, while balancing everything else.

That challenge, for an elite athlete, often involves coming to grips with the fact that they still love moving and being outside, yet by definition will spend the rest of their life older and slower than when training was their full-time job.

Two models for how to negotiate this post-career period (which, it should be noted, represents multiple decades and the majority of one’s life) are suggested, the Adam Verrier model and the Nina Kemppel model, corresponding to two local former Olympians.

Briefly put, Verrier moved to Anchorage after his college ski career ended, qualified for the 1994 Olympics, then stayed in Anchorage and basically never stopped racing. He has won nearly every notable trail race in southcentral Alaska, and placed on the podium of the 50 k Tour of Anchorage, the unofficial citizens race championship for the state of Alaska, eight times between 1995 and 2007, including three victories.

Kemppel, by contrast, raced in four Olympics from 1992–2002, then ultimately returned to Anchorage after earning an MBA outside of Alaska. She has lived here for years, and presumably remains quite active, but does not seem to have entered an official running or skiing race since returning to Anchorage. “I’ve become more and more of a weekend warrior because of my job,” Kemppel told the Anchorage Daily News in a 2012 article noting her return home.

Randall is asked with which pole of post-career racing she envisions being more closely aligned.

I probably hope for something in between. I am already recognizing that with family commitments and some of the – I mean, the gold medal changed the reality a lot, in terms of what opportunities are available, and my position with the IOC is going to be very busy. So while I love the idea of just staying super-fit and doing all that, it’s going to be a challenge to be able to do that. But I also love being able to be active every single day, so I hope to be able to build that into my new life.

As far as racing goes, I don’t have any real plans in the near future. I’ve always been interested in trying some mountain biking stuff, and I think it’d be cool to dabble with some new sports. There’s a big triathlon community down in B.C. where we’re going to be, so maybe that’s something to get into. [Randall has at least one victory and four runner-up finishes in Anchorage’s Gold Nugget Triathlon, one of the largest and longest-running women’s-only triathlons in the country.] Having races in the future is a good motivation for just making sure you get out the door every day, and you have a plan of what you’re working towards. So I like that idea, but I don’t need to necessarily keep racing at a high level all the time.

And ski racing-wise, it would be fun to do some events I’ve never done, like the Birkie and stuff, but I don’t know at what level I’ll be racing.

But I do really enjoy racing, I love the opportunity to just get out there with everybody, put the bib on, and go push yourself, so I think I’ll continue to do some of it.

[Randall has often spoken of shifting into a race gear or finishing gear when she is racing well, or of being unable to make that shift when she is not. She is asked what it’s going to be like, two months or two years from now, when she’s at the point in a race when all of her training and experience tell her that it’s time to make that shift, but her body won’t let her do what her mind wants to.]

I’m sure that’s going to be tough. Thankfully the number of years I’ve been competing, I think I do have a nice window of time where that’s not going to just disappear overnight. But I can tell already, in the last month where I haven’t done a whole lot, and all of a sudden jumping into doing things a little harder again, it’s like, Whoa, what are you doing? So yeah, I’m sure it’s going to be tough to not be as fit as I would have been in the last 20 years… but that’s just the way it goes.

That world-class fitness was not easily won. Over the course of her career, Randall increased her annual training hours consistently and substantially, from roughly 300 in high school to nearly 800 by the height of her career, adding in intensity along the way. “You hadn’t trained hard enough if you hadn’t started crying,” Randall once told Outside Magazine of 2008, “the year of intensity.” (It is worth noting that 2008 also saw Randall undergo two surgeries for the blood clot that nearly killed her. But they were both in April, so presumably she didn’t miss too much training. She would win her first World Championships medal, Liberec, Czech Republic, in February 2009.)

But when asked what she won’t miss about this lifestyle, the first thing Randall mentions is not the staggeringly difficult Level 4 bounding workouts, but rather the simple quotidian drudgery of preparing for and completing two workouts a day, every day, over and over and over again.

I think always having to do two workouts a day. Over the last couple of years, especially once we had Breck, it was hard at times, to just go, I’ve got to change my outfit again, I’ve got to go out there, maybe the weather’s not great, and I know I’ve got two hours to log. And just putting in the amount of time out there – it got tough. So some of that part I won’t miss, just having to do it all the time.

Having the time open and available for new things now, not having to just constantly change outfits – into training clothes, out of training clothes. And traveling with so much gear. It’s just been nice to do a couple trips now where I just pack a couple things, and off you go, not have to drag a ski bag all around the world.

The APU men pushing each other during a workout at an Eagle Glacier training camp, July 2015. (Photo: Zuzanna Rogers)

Going up on the glacier was always – it was such a great training environment, and it was such an amazing resource to have, but you could never really appreciate it in the moment when you’re up there. When you’re on Day 2, and you’re staring down five more days of just what you know is going to be a lot of hard training, and just knowing you have nowhere to go, you’re stuck up there, you’re away from your family. And so, I won’t miss, again, just having to do that … at the same time, I think I’m quickly going to miss the opportunity where I got to do that.

So it all comes into perspective: When you’re in the midst of it, you can’t wait to be done with it and not have to do it anymore, but then quickly you realize, like, what a cool opportunity it was.

Now that Randall is no longer in the midst of it, she has one heck of a formidable resource: 20 years’ worth of training logs and data. And she has saved all of it, too, starting with a log provided by her high school coach, Harry Johnson, at the East High Cross-Country Team, and continuing through to more recent versions contained in an array of spreadsheets.

Unsurprisingly for an athlete who has spent much of her career raising others up along with her, Randall is decidedly magnanimous when asked what she plans to do with all this training data.

Erik [Flora] has all my logs, so he has all that data, and he’s of course free to use it however he sees fit. The U.S. Ski Team also has all my logs. I know they’ve already integrated a lot of stuff into their planning for the development pipeline, and kind of what we’ve learned.

So yeah, it’s all open and available to those guys to use because I hope that my career can help just make the road better for the next group coming through. Because I learned a lot off of what people before me did, and what worked for them and what didn’t work for them, and then we kind of progressed that forward. And I think already we’ve been able to create a totally better training environment than when I even started. So keep pushing it forward, and I’m glad that that information’s out there.

And it’s pretty fun to be able to get to the end of it now, and look back over the progression and the work, and what went well, what didn’t, and all that stuff.

And I’m so glad that I recorded all that, because part of my log, too, is comments on training every day, and that in a sense is a diary for me, because I haven’t really recorded that anywhere else. And now that my career spans so long, it’s so nice to be able to go back and read through that, and realize what was going on in my life day-to-day, through all the years and the training. And it also helped my relationship with my coaches, to best understand what was going on with me, and to be able to adapt the training around that.

While presumably no athlete has ever said that the physical hardware itself was the point or the telos – as opposed to the hard work that went into winning a race, the pride of accomplishment, the friendships made along the way, etc. – the fact remains that Randall’s personal trophy case is extensive. There’s an Olympic gold medal, for one. But also three World Championships medals. And three Sprint Cup Crystal Globes. And a medal for third overall in the 2012/2013 World Cup standings. And 29 World Cup podium medals.

And even, if you go go back far enough, 10 Alaska state high school championship ribbons, three for cross-country running and seven for track, in distances from 800m to 3,200m. (Fun fact: Randall never won an Alaska high school state cross-country skiing title, but she did go on to have a more successful post-high school ski career than the girl who consistently beat her, Service High School’s Tara Hamilton, who went on to ski for the University of Denver and “only” won an NCAA national title.)

Randall is asked where all these awards currently are, and what she plans to do with them.

I’d love to find ways to get it out there. It’s been so fun, just carrying around the gold medal already, sharing it with everybody; it’s something for people to see, to look at. One of my crystal globes is at the L.L.Bean store in a case, so that’s already kind of being shared. The other two right now are just kind of sitting at home in their carrying cases. And I’m not sure exactly where my World Championships medals are; they’re packed somewhere in the move. But it would be fun to, I think, have some displays out, share it around.

Kikkan Randall with her third consecutive Sprint World Cup Crystal Globe, 2014. (Photo: Fischer/Nordic Focus)

Because, now that we’re kind of starting fresh with the new home in B.C., and as Breck grows up, and Jeff has some incredible accomplishments of his own, I would love our family space to be a little bit about our future, and not so much about my past in particular. So if I can get my awards in places that can inspire others, and people can share that piece of history, I think that would be better than just having it at my home somewhere.

I’d love to see something here at APU, to really celebrate the connection of what we do with the ski team, so that everyone knows about it, gets to feel a part of it. And then the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame, of course, at the airport is a pretty cool demonstration, and who knows where else in town we can have some sort of display maybe. Anchorage certainly deserves a lot of the credit for this.

As Randall observed, her focus in life is currently on the future of her family. But it’s worth noting that her husband, Jeff Ellis, was no athletic slouch himself; he was a World Cup skier for Canada who scored a podium in an Alpen Cup race as well as multiple podia in NorAm races. All of which begs the question, what will Randall and Ellis do when an 8-year-old Breck tells them he wants to do a local running race, or an 11-year-old Breck announces he wants to join a junior ski team?

I would like to follow a lot of the lead that my parents had for me, in that they really felt like they wanted to let me direct the choices. And so when I got interested in something, and wanted to do it, I was welcome to try it.

And then the rule was, once I signed up for something, I was committed to that for at least that season. And a lot of times, I would get excited, sign up for something, and then get into a few days of practice and go, ‘Yeah, I don’t think I want to do this.’ But my parents were like, ‘No, you committed to it, so you’re going to see it through to the end of the season. And then once the season is over, if you want to move on to something else, you’re more than welcome.’

So I think I’d like to follow a similar thing with Breck – introduce him to some things that, you know, both Jeff and I are interested in, because we’d love to let him have a similar experience, but let him guide it. If he’s interested, he can keep doing it; if not, he can move on to something else, and just kind of learn that, once you commit to something, you’ve got to see it through.

And then we’ll just see where it goes from there. I hope to be supportive of whatever direction he takes, and if he gets excited about competitive things and training and wanting to take that route, just support him along the way. So we’ll see.

And finally, the woman who was, famously, the only mom on Team USA at PyeongChang (less fun fact: it was ultimately too expensive for Randall and Ellis to bring Breck to South Korea with them, and he spent the Games with his grandparents in Canada), who nursed an infant from birth through the first month of the 2016/2017 World Cup season and who spent two winters traveling through Europe with a child and a ton of baby gear in tow, is asked how much 2-year-old Breck understands about Mommy’s job.

I think the coolest part right now is, because he’s not necessarily going to be aware of the specifics of what I do, he’s just been around it. He enjoys watching people ski by, he wants to put on skis himself and try it. He’s just kind of being unconsciously subjected to the lifestyle and the people, and that’s been really fun.

And the night before the team sprint, I was Facetiming with him – he was back in Canada with Jeff’s parents – and I said, you know, “Tomorrow Mommy’s got a big race at the Olympics, do you have anything to say?” And he just said, “Gooooooooo!”

And I think he was saying “go,” because my mother-in-law has coached him a little bit to say “Go go Mommy!” So he was kind of saying “go,” but at the same time it almost sounded like, “Gooooooold!”

And last year at World Championships, when he was just 10 months old, he was playing with the bronze medal, and then this year I gave him the gold medal, and he actually kind of looked at, and then he just dropped it and walked away. And since then he’s seen it around a lot, so he’s getting a little bit more interested in it … but he won’t realize what it is for a while, but I think it will be really cool to show him that he was a part of it, and it will be interesting to see what his take on it is later on.

I know that Kateřina Neumannová – I thought it was such a cool moment, and I was there in Torino when she won the 30 k, and her two-year-old daughter came running out to the finish area. I just always loved the image of that.

So a couple years ago, when I first got my pink Kikkan poles, she got in touch and said, “Kikkan, I need a pair of your poles.”

I’m like, Kateřina Neumannová’s getting in touch with me? Like, ‘Whoa, you’re my hero.’ And she’s like, ‘My daughter just absolutely thinks you are amazing, you are her favorite racer, and if I can get a pair of your poles for her birthday, she’s trying to decide between tennis and ski racing right now, and I’m hoping she’ll choose skiing, hoping that this will help.’

And I was like, ‘But does your daughter know who you are? And she’s like, Yeah, it’s kind of a she could care less who I am kind of thing, I’m just her mom.’

[Randall sent the poles to Neumannová. They were appreciated:]

So it will be funny to see what Breck’s reaction is to it all. I think it’s cool that he got to be a part of it, and we’ll get to show him the pictures and everything. But what he’s going to really grow up with is knowing me as his mom, beyond the career. So the focus gets to be on our family and on him.

* * *

Disclosure: The author is an Alaska Pacific University masters skier who grew up doing Anchorage youth sports in the same generation as Randall; they skied together in Anchorage Junior Nordic in the early 1990s.

Gavin Kentch

Gavin Kentch wrote for FasterSkier from 2016–2022. He has a cat named Marit.

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