Statistically speaking, only 2% of people who enter a marathon will finish under three hours. The 2019 TCS New York City Marathon was a bit above average, with nearly 3% (1,563 of 53,508 runners) breaking the elusive three hour barrier. Yesterday, four familiar cross country skiers joined the speedy club of athletes who have achieved this result.
Brian Gregg was first across the line, stopping the clock at 2:44:30 (6:17 per mile average). Next came a trio of Kikkan Randall, Liz Stephen, and Ida Sargent who worked together until the final miles. Randall finished in 2:55:12 (6:41 pace) followed by Stephen who was just 25 seconds behind. Fading behind her former teammates as they cruised through Central Park, Sargent made her way to 67th Street in 2:57:22.
A lot has changed for Randall since the 2018 TCS New York City Marathon where she stood in the crowd watching Stephen run by wishing she were out there too. FasterSkier caught up with Randall shortly before she headed to New York from her home in Penticton, BC to reflect on her experience with cancer treatment, marathon training, and what lies ahead now that she is back to feeling strong and healthy.
Randall was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer in June of 2018 after discovering a lump in her breast on Mother’s day. She underwent six rounds of chemotherapy from July to October, followed by a lumpectomy in November. She continued to receive infusions of the Herceptin infusions every three weeks through July 2019 to stop the proliferation of the cancerous tissue. Though she is now finished with treatment, she will remain on anti-hormone medication for the next five to ten years to reduce the likelihood that the cancer will return.
In her typical fashion, Randall stayed active and positive all the while. With the support of her medical team, she explored the boundaries of what was possible physically during treatment. She explained that her doctors told her, “If I felt good, go for it.” And she committed to staying active, even if it was just for ten minutes each day or as simple as playing with her son, Breck.
Randall shared her journey openly throughout in order to inspire and encourage others going through similar challenges. She posted daily video updates for the first five months of her treatment on her website and continues to share her experiences through her Instagram and other social media outlets.
“I think back to where I was a year ago and I just feel incredibly grateful for how good I feel and the fact that everything has gone so well,” said Randall. “ Now I’m just staying optimistic that it’s going to stay that way.”
Randall explained that it is difficult to say whether her experience with treatment and how her body responded was what she expected.
“Cancer is something I really never had on my radar until I was getting that diagnosis. So not knowing what to expect, chemo was for sure the hardest part of it. It just knocks you down. It knocked my immune system down and I felt fluish between rounds. Overall, I still think I faired fairly well.”
She continued that she was relieved to be finished with chemo last October. As the lumpectomy was a minimally invasive surgery, she was able to recover quickly and began to feel as though she was getting back on her feet, despite continuing with radiation.
“Some people said, ‘Oh, you’d be surprised how tired you get.’ So I was ready to be heavily fatigued and set up my lifestyle around the fact that if I needed to sleep a lot and not be accountable to too much, I was ready to do that. But I actually had the opposite effect.
“I was getting further from chemo, so feeling better and better as I went through radiation and I was in Anchorage, so I was able to ski a lot which was awesome. I did a 10k ski race the second to last week [of treatment].”
That is not to say Randall was immune to the effects of seven months of cancer treatment.
“I think by the time I got to the Birkie and did that, I didn’t feel awesome in the race. I felt like my legs were just really empty and I didn’t have a lot of power climbing on the hills. I think that was maybe the point where I went, ‘Oh, maybe there is a little bit of lingering fatigue.’ It wasn’t like I could barely make it through the day, it was just when I went to access that gear that I’ve always had, it just wasn’t quite as strong as I was used to.”
Randall finished 12th female in a time of 2:48:19.4.
Her version of retirement has not seemed to involve the change of pace one associates with the word. At the cessation of her treatments, Randall hit the gas, resuming her involvement in organizations like Fast and Female as well as saying “yes” to many speaking opportunities. This has created a busy schedule laden with frequent travel. Randall explained that she is navigating how to balance these opportunities alongside her desire to stay active and also have quality time with her family.
“For so much of the last 20 years, I had to be so in tune to getting enough sleep and rest so that every moment that I was training was effective. Now it’s more about, if I can exercise, it’s a bonus. I ultimately want to keep myself healthy, but that’s kind of a baseline, and there’s a lot of other responsibilities now.”
She continued that since training is no longer her primary focus, she is less concerned about the recovery aspects of her former lifestyle. She does not dwell on staying up late before waking up early if it means creating time for her family or other responsibilities.
“Which I think in some ways has come back to bite me,” Randall laughed. “I appreciate now why we take such good care of ourselves as athletes, why we get enough sleep, and have good nutrition, because it makes you feel so much better. So when I let myself get busy and don’t focus on that as much, after a week or two I start to feel it and snap back around.”
Randall expressed gratitude for the many intriguing opportunities she has been presented, from motivational speaking events to podcasts to traveling to China and hopping into a city sprint event on the streets of Beijing. Case in point: at the time of the call she had recently returned from the U.S. Ski Team Gold Medal Gala in New York City only to return the following week for the marathon. She acknowledged that she does not aspire to always be this busy, but after being somewhat on lockdown through treatment, she was “excited to finally do things again.”
She went on to describe the very relatable experience of fitting in her marathon training around all of this travel. One noteworthy experience took place this summer aboard a Royal Princess cruise ship. Randall was a guest speaker on the cruise from Vancouver to Ketchikan.
“I had to do my two-hour long run on the track around the deck, which wasn’t ideal but it’s the way I fit it in. I’ve been getting up at 5 am to get in workouts before I travel or before a day of appearances. I’ve just been trying to be creative — it hasn’t been ideal, but it’s been good enough.”
The TCS New York City Marathon on behalf of Aktiv Against Cancer has been on Randall’s radar for quite some time. She explained that her affiliation with Aktiv began in 2012 when the U.S. Ski Team was racing in Oslo, Norway. The organization invited Randall to an event and each subsequent year, the USST would go to partner hospitals in Oslo and workout with cancer patients in the exercise rooms that Aktiv funded.
“When I learned about the organization, I really believed in what they’re doing and that’s getting physical activity to be a prescriptive part of treatment, because I’ve learned through several experiences is a great way to deal with challenges… It was always incredibly inspirational and powerful to see the camaraderie [the patients] developed.”
Because of these experiences, she and her teammates, Liz Stephen and Ida Sargent, who were all slated to retire at the end of the 2018 season committed to racing that fall.
“That was the plan last spring when I came out of my career, then the co-founder of Aktiv actually called me and told me that were having an awards luncheon a couple days before the marathon and wanted to honor me with an award for the work that I had done.”
Randall accepted this invitation and expressed that she would be humbled by the award.
“A couple of weeks later, I got my cancer diagnosis, which was completely out of the blue. So I called them back and said, ‘You know what? I think our connection just got a lot deeper. I’m about to start treatment, so I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but I hope to be able to come to the luncheon.'”
Randall entertained the idea of still trying to run the marathon despite being in treatment, but quickly realized after a couple of rounds of chemotherapy that it would not be smart to push herself in that way. She still attended the luncheon and spectated to support Stephen in her run.
“It was so inspirational to see so many people out there running and at that point I had just finished chemotherapy, so it was just a chance to watch the racers come in and think, ‘Okay, next year I want to be back here. I want to be racing. I’m just going to believe that I’m going to be feeling good again.”
This optimism motivated her to raise money for Aktiv throughout her treatment.
“Along the way when I was going through treatment, I was wearing these brightly colored running shoes to remind myself to stay positive and hopeful through the process, and my husband came up with the idea to come up with some happy sock that would capture that same idea and be something we’d be able to pass out to other people going through a challenge.”
The couple came up with the slogan, “It’s going to be OK” with a signature hot pink K. They collaborated with the Vermont based company Darn Tough to design brightly patterned socks and with USST sponsor LL Bean to create blue and pink headbands, which were sold through Randall’s website. $2 from each purchase goes to Aktiv.
“Through that project, we’ve been able to raise over $10,000 for Aktiv. We’ve sold over 5000 pairs of socks. It’s been so cool to see that these socks have been giving people hope.”
Though running often accounts for many hours of a yearly ski training program, Randall had not been spending much time on the roads during her career and consequently entered a marathon training program cautiously.
“I knew that the biggest thing to respect for the marathon was going to be getting enough running in — getting my legs ready to handle the pounding. And I knew that this would be quite a bit of an increase [in running volume] from what I had been doing in ski training.”
She contacted her former high school running coach who wrote her a training plan and began to slowly increase her mileage beginning in April.
“That’s been really helpful because I think it’s built up at an appropriate progression. And because I was able to stay pretty close to that plan all the way through, and I’ve made it through without any injuries — knock on wood.”
While long runs and track workouts have largely taken the place of the multisport nature of her former regimen, Randall has continued to dabble in other physical challenges throughout her marathon buildup. At the beginning of September, Randall traveled to Seattle for a one mile open swim across Lake Washington with the organization Swim Across America, which raises money for cancer research and clinical trials through the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.
Since this event, Randall has locked eyes on the marathon, even dropping the regular strength training sessions she completed until early October. As a test of her fitness, she ran the Okanagan Half Marathon on October 20th, taking the win for women with a time of 1:23:47.
She has enjoyed the new challenge, but will also be happy to vary her modes of exercise.
“I have to say — I’ve rollerskied three times this summer, and each time, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I love this.’ Because I’ve been prioritizing the running training, I haven’t been on rollerskis as much, I haven’t been on my mountain bike as much, so I miss that and I’m looking forward to getting back to that before the snow flies, then ski a lot this winter.”
What’s next on Randall’s athletic calendar after the marathon? She explained that she is hoping for a few new ski experiences this year, possibly including the Ski to the Sun race in Mazama, Washington, which last year was raved about by winner Liz Stephen. Randall is also interested in returning to the Birkie to see what she could do in good health.
“Then next summer, trying some new things — maybe an off-road triathlon or a mountain bike stage race or something fun. I do love racing, I love preparing for things, and I am loving these events where I get to meet up with teammates and friends and get to go out and hurt so good.”
Ski racing aside, what Randall is looking forward to most is spending quality time with her husband and son.
“I’m just excited to be out on the snow with my family this winter. Breck is three and a half, so he’s excited to get out on snow.”
Though Randall could not have predicted the turn of events that unfolded after her retirement, the opportunity to inspire others through her cancer journey is aligned with how she originally envisioned using her gold medal platform.
“Coming off my career, I had hoped to be active in different causes and bringing awareness to the power of positivity and a lot of things that I learned through my athletic career that can be applied to the things we tackle in daily life. I thought it was going to center more on being a mom, training through pregnancy and coming back after, and how to balance being an athletic mom. I also was heavily involved with Fast and Female, so it was going to be focused on keeping girls in sports, and my position with the IOC.
“Now I have this cancer experience thrown into the mix as well. I’ve always enjoyed being able to share my stories of what I’ve learned through my ski career to help motivate and inspire others, so I had hoped to do some public speaking and I’ve had some really cool opportunities since I finished treatment to be out sharing my experiences, both as an Olympic athlete and as a cancer survivor now and as a mom.”
Randall plans to continue accepting motivational speaking positions, remaining involved with the IOC and U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC), and collaborating with her partners.
She also hopes to stay involved in cross country skiing in a more hands on level. This summer she had the opportunity to work with a few junior programs, including the national junior camp in Park City. She is also on the board of the National Nordic Foundation (NNF).
“I’ve got a lot of different balls in the air right now and a lot of fun projects to be involved with, and I’m realizing that there is a limit in what is physically possible, especially with things that involve so much travel. I think over the next couple of years it’s going to be finding which opportunities I can make the most impact in and trying to find the right balance.”