June 1. That’s the date Kikkan Randall’s had in her head for a while now, and it has nothing to do with a milestone or a checkup involving her first child.
That’s when she’s getting back at it.
“I know I’m not going to be able to jump right in cold turkey to what I’ve been doing in the past so it’s going to be a gradual build,” Randall said on the phone from Anchorage, Alaska, earlier this month, about three and a half weeks after baby Breck was born.
“Just talking with Erik [Flora], my coach, we’ve been trying to set it up so there’s different little stages to clear before moving onto the next thing,” she explained. “First building up the volume and then adding the intensity as each intensity feels good and then hopefully be a kind of normal training rhythm by the end of July into August.”
Normally when she’s home for the summer, Randall, a four-time Olympian and three-time overall Sprint World Cup champion, trains with her team, Alaska Pacific University (APU), about four times a week. The rest of the week she trains solo or in small groups, and this summer, she plans to do a little of all of the above.
With her coach, Randall has formulated a plan that works for her, her husband, Jeff Ellis, and most of all, Breck.
“This first time at home has been so wonderful, just to have no schedule and spend some time getting to know Breck and be here for him,” she said. “That’s been great, but I also know that I miss training so it’ll be nice to have a blend where, it’s not like I have to disappear off to work for 8 to 10 hours and then miss him all day. I can go out and do my work and come back and be with him and then go out and do it again.”
For the coming 2016/2017 race season, the 33-year-old Randall, who has been competing at the sport’s highest level since she was 19, plans to spend the entire winter in Europe on the World Cup circuit. That will involve traveling with Breck, her parents and in-laws at times, and eventually an au pair. Jeff will be there, too, as he works for the International Ski Federation (FIS) Cross Country marketing support.
“We’re going to rely on our parents a little bit, they’re going to come over in intervals on certain weekends and periods and then there’s going to be a point in the middle of the season where we’d like to find a European-based nanny to help out,” Randall said.
With the challenges of coordinating caregivers comes the cost of traveling with at least one extra person, like a nanny, on the circuit. While Randall retained her spot on the U.S. Ski Team’s A-team based on her FIS world ranking and Red Group status from two seasons ago and could potentially have much of her room-and-board costs covered by FIS, she anticipated the need to make different arrangements.
“While I want to be as much a part of the team as I can, I don’t want to be disruptive and I think living in a hotel room with a baby for a whole year would be challenging,” she said.
For the holiday break in late December, Randall and her husband reserved a condo in Davos, Switzerland, for a more-homey alternative and they are hoping to find a similar setup in Sweden before World Championships in Lahti, Finland.
“We’ve started to formulate a plan, but we have a lot to learn, but we’re excited we get to bring [Breck] on this journey,” she said. “And our parents, we’re lucky that they’re able to assist and that’ll get us going, and we’ll learn the ropes as we go.”
It’s a Boy!
On April 14, after 13 1/2 hours of labor, Randall gave birth to her son, Breck Stuart Randall Ellis. The gender was a surprise, but they had a boy name ready.
A few years ago, Jeff did a mountain-bike race called the Breck Epic in Breckenridge, Colo.
“He came back with all this stuff, a T-shirt, a belt buckle and it said the name of the race on it and I thought, ‘Oh Breck, that sounds really cool! That could be a good name,’ ” Randall said. “So we just kind of had it tossed around for a while and when it came time to narrow it down, we just liked the sound of it. It’s kind of unique, but still simple.”
Breck’s middle name, Stuart, is his grandfather’s first name, dad’s middle name and great grandmother’s maiden name.
“It relates back to a royal clan in Scotland, apparently, so that’s got some fun family history,” Randall said.
His second middle name is Randall, and Ellis is his last name.
“The whole process has been so fun,” Randall reflected. “The pregnancy went great and toward the end, the anticipation was building and building, and we ended up inducing my labor so things progressed pretty quickly that day, so it was kind of fun to get to the point that we were pushing him out…”
(Ed. note: Fun and childbirth aren’t usually part of the same sentence, but we digress.)
“When he came out and he got put on my chest, that’s such a strong emotion at that point, it’s hard to put into words…,” she continued. “I kind of felt like it was the end of a ski race, particularly something like the Tour de Ski where it’s so hard and so painful and you’re pushing, but you just want to get to that finish line and then when you do it’s just like that bliss of laying in the snow, of course one hundred times greater, but kind of that similar feeling.”
So what’s harder — the hardest ski race she’s ever done or giving birth?
“It was a different kind of pain than I’ve ever experienced before,” Randall said of the latter. “I was curious to see how it would feel to the toughest race or VO2max test or tough intervals or something like that, but instead of being like a lactic-acid burning pain, it was almost like a flu, crampy kind of pain and I think the hardest part was just not knowing when it was going to end.”
It eventually did end and Breck, 8 pounds, 11 ounces, was born. Within two weeks he was back up and slightly heavier than his birthweight — thriving in his new world — and in the 90th percentile for length and 60th for weight.
“He’s a little string bean; he has big feet,” Randall said with a laugh. “He’s got a really good temperament, doesn’t get too fussy … He loves to be in the front carrier or the Chariot, that instantly puts him to sleep. I think he was used to riding along with me for the nine months.”
Now a month-and-a-half old, he’s up to 11 pounds and out of the newborn outfits and diapers.
“He’s awake a lot of the day now and even giving us some involuntary smiles,” she wrote in an email. “Can’t wait until the real ones start!!”
This week, Randall goes in for her six-week checkup, at which point she’s hoping the doctor will give her the “all-clear.”
So far, she’s done some easy rollerskiing and biking the last three weeks, in addition to walking and “testing the waters” with the SkiErg.
“I feel like I’m healing up pretty well. I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how intact my abs feel and everything still feels like it has good tensions so I’m happy about that,” she explained. “… I’m trying to really keep this first six weeks as just an opportunity to heal and get my body ready to train, but just being careful so I don’t risk getting injured.”
Regardless of how anxious she is, Randall asked the doctor to give it to her straight and what the most conservative approach is to returning to physical activity.
“I have definitely been antsy and wanted to test things a little bit so it’s nice to have that voice in the back of my head that says, ‘No, just go on six weeks, be careful,’ ” she said. “I also have been in touch with Marit a little bit and she said to be cautious about coming back. She maybe feels like she pushed it a little bit.”
Three months after having her first child, Norwegian legend Marit Bjørgen injured her hip while jogging in March, having previously completed a 42-kilometer ski race. She and Randall have exchanged some text messages in the time since.
“I think you need to be cautious for caution’s sake,” Randall said. “But it’s so hard because you’ve essentially taken off a weight vest and you feel light.”
In terms of goals, Randall’s focused on getting in shape for the U.S. Ski Team (USST) camp in Anchorage in mid-July. She figured that would give her six weeks of training beforehand. That Eagle Glacier camp will likely be her first time on snow.
Beyond that, she plans to spend most of her summer and fall at home, with the exception of the USST October camp in Park City, Utah, and a trip north of Toronto to visit Jeff’s parents. Asked if she’ll take Breck along for some workouts (i.e. in one of her two Thule jogging strollers or in a front or back pack), Randall said she’d like to.
“I could get in some good workouts with him, which would be fun, and Jeff will be along as well so we can do it as a family, and then there will be some times when I can just get out the door and do a workout and get right back. I think it’ll be a nice balance,” she said. “I have a lot of really good training opportunities right out my door for times where I just really need to go get in a workout and be right back and hopefully I’ll be able to join in some team sessions with APU as well, but that will really depend on how [Breck] is adapting to the schedule. Hopefully I can get it in that way, but we’ll have to just wait and see.”
Come fall, she plans to start the season in Europe with the rest of the team on the World Cup in late November. Her goal is to be in top shape by February for World Championships.
“Other than that it’s going to be a lot of playing it by ear and seeing how my body responds to things,” she said.
After a year off and now a mother, will she be the same racer? Randall said she’s not sure.
“This is a big question mark right now. There were certainly days where I was training while pregnant and as we got toward the end it was getting harder and harder and I felt a little more disconnected from those days when I was in peak shape. I just started to feel like, ‘Woah, getting back to that level is going to be challenging and racing every weekend and every discipline is going to be hard,’ ” she reflected. “Then on the other hand, I hear these amazing stories of women who say they only got stronger when they came back, training with that weight vest for at least six months of the pregnancy, and those nice physiological adaptations that you have throughout the pregnancy and then of course the change of focus, the fact that you don’t take your training time for granted any more, you maximize the time you have and you have this other thing in your life that is so important that you don’t sweat the small stuff.”
Her friend and fellow Olympian James Southam told her that having a child gave him new motivation to do his best and set a good example.
“I’m really curious to see how it feels,” Randall said of racing. “I know there’s parts that are going to be really challenging, just getting back into shape and trying to still be able to handle that high load with this new lifestyle, but on the other hand, I feel refreshed. My body is refreshed from a little break, my mind is refreshed and that could open totally new doors.”
Randall’s not alone. Several other top World Cup women have also had their first children in the last year, including Finland’s Aino-Kaisa Saarinen (in early May), Slovenia’s Katja Višnar (last November) and Bjørgen (in December). FIS has taken notice and is initiating new rules that give caregivers (i.e. a nanny) World Cup accommodation travel rates and access to venues, according to Randall.
FIS Cross-Country Event Coordinator Sandra Spitz said she could not comment on the changes until after the FIS Congress in early June.
“I’m not really sure how to explain why this kind of [baby] boom hasn’t happened in the past,” Randall said. “This [past] year, it’s probably no coincidence that there was no major championship, if anyone had to miss a season this was the one to do it and you still have two years now leading into the Olympics. But we certainly had years like this in the past, so why now? I don’t really know how to explain that, but I think it is really cool, but I think it’s maybe becoming a little bit more acceptable. Maybe teams and sponsors are being a little bit more supportive so it’s not this scary unknown … There’s a support system for that.”
She’s hoping this group of women, all of which plan to continue competing, can prompt change and show that one can continue with their career after starting a family, rather than have to chose one over the other.
“I think [FIS is] recognizing, too, that it’s worth their while to keep the top athletes in the sport versus them leaving to have a family,” she added. “Any way you can encourage that is good for everybody.”
As she held Breck in her arms, he cooed and grunted; she laughed and reviewed the last few weeks.
“I don’t think I could’ve imagined just how happy and content I would be,” she said of motherhood. “When he’s just as cute as can be cuddled up, sleeping on my shoulder or when he’s just spit up for the third time and we’ve had to change his outfit and he’s spit up all over me, I seem to just really love every moment of it. And also how relaxed I’ve been able to be through it. I feel like I enjoy every moment and I’m just loving it.
“It’s so crazy how your life really does change in an instant,” she continued. “You go from being completely independent to now always having this responsibility, but suddenly I can’t imagine that that life would be satisfying anymore because it’s so fun.”