She remembers the waves of colorful flags in Oslo and the noise. The stadium's deafening roar and the Scandinavian cheers with each pole plant. Nothing beats cross-country skiing in the country that invented it. In Norway, competing in the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships is like being in the Super Bowl. Three-time U.S. Olympian Kikkan Randall went into the February 2011 sprint quarterfinals gunning for the gold. The Norwegians had adopted her as their underdog, cheering her name as she glided up to the line, tip to tip with their reigning speed queen, Marit Bjoergen.
The gun. The push-off. And then, the fall. A Swede had stepped on Randall's skis in an aggressive move to get ahead. Randall spun out backward, fell to her knees and, in an instant, the pack was 100 meters away. Falling in a 1.3-kilometer cross-country sprint race is like taking a breather in the 100-meter dash. Lying on the cold, groomed trail, Randall watched the boots of the world's best skiers disappear in the distance. This was supposed to be her race. She was the favorite. She got up, hoped to God the pack would somehow tangle and crash before the finish line, and then accepted reality as she slid through in 28th place.
Taking the fast track
"To be competitive in the sprint cup and overall cup, you need a solid base of training that will last you through the season," said the 28-year-old Randall, who is prepping for an aggressive 2012 campaign. The importance of fitness to the Alaskan is obvious: She has spent the past 10 years gutting out tough workouts on the glaciers of Alaska's Chugach Mountains to pull herself up in the international ranks. When she began Nordic skiing -- as a cross-training season for her high school running career -- the U.S. presence on the world stage was feeble at best. With hubris afforded to a teen with two former Olympians in her family (her aunt and uncle were both skiers), Randall decided there was no reason she couldn't change that.
Luckily, the girl's built for strength. Randall has muscles that mean business: lean for long distance, with enough heft for explosive sprint power. During her junior year of high school, Randall began skiing full-time. She made the world team on her first try and qualified for the first and only Winter Goodwill Games. At 18, she raced in her first World Cup Championships in Finland, and made the Olympic team in 2002. In three short years, she had climbed to the top of the national rankings.
Still, the U.S. lagged behind in the international scene. At the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, Randall went in with the ambitious goal of placing in the top 20 in the sprint race. Much to everyone's surprise, she took ninth, the best Olympic finish in history by an American woman. "It was my breakthrough," said Randall. "It was the moment I went from participant to competitor."
Doubling her efforts
Randall's "solid base of training" took on a new level of intensity this spring after her fall at Oslo. She spent three weeks in Sweden training with their best skiers and discovered that she could push herself even harder, longer and faster.
My goal is to be prepared and be confident. If I can get faster and stronger, I'll be out front where no one can touch me.” -- Kikkan Randall
"I increased my training from 22 hours a week to 24½," said Randall. "That doesn't sound like much, but I can feel the difference in a four-hour session. Now I can go out harder and maintain that pace."
She began setting PRs on her training routes, pushing her body past its previous comfort levels. This past July, she put her fitness to the test by toeing the line for Alaska's grueling Mount Marathon Race in the small town of Seward, a lung-busting mile-and-a-half run up the mountain, and back.
"Sprinting up a mountain for 40 minutes will give you an accurate test of your fitness," she said.
She not only ran her personal best, but won the race, finally putting an end to her mother's gloating. "It's been a big joke in my family. My mom was a former winner and I spent 10 years trying to win that race. It's the one thing she's always been able to hold over me."
Randall is counting on that fitness to power her through the long season ahead. Last year, she competed in nearly 30 World Cup races. This year, she's ramping it up to 39, including the Tour de Ski, which consists of nine races in 11 days. Without the championship or Olympics in this World Cup season, it's all about grit. To be a contender, she needs to push her endurance. Already this season, more nations are on the podium and the field is faster than ever before. Even the U.S. team is seeing a surge in young, talented skiers. But Randall's got a game plan.
"My focus is on preparation. Be prepared and be confident," she said. "If I can get faster and stronger, I'll be out front where no one can touch me."
So far, so good. Two weekends into the World Cup season, Randall has already nabbed three top-10 finishes, placing high in distance and classic sprint races -- something she hasn't done before but that she plans on repeating. Three races down, 36 to go.