With the winter Olympics coming up soon it would be great to have one of our own, a runner, to root for in Vancouver. You think that, because track is part of the summer games, that we do not have such a person and you would be wrong for Kikkan Randall of Alaska is a runner but also a cross country skier. She is also America’s best hope for a medal in the discipline.
For the record let it be known that this will not be her first Olympics but her third. Kikkan, pronounced “key” “ken”, placed 9th in the sprints at Turin: the best American finish in the sport ever. At the last World Championships she earned a silver medal to become the only American’s to medal at Worlds. Last month Kikkan proved that she is in excellent condition by winning national titles at four distances, so she has four individual events from which to choose. At Canmore, Alberta last weekend, she placed 10th against world-class competition and was the leading American.
Cross Country running, of course, has much in common with its Nordic counterpart, as an aerobic sport. In deed Kikkan credits her running with making her a better skier. The periodization of base build-up, intensity & speed development & tapering are much the same. As a former Ohio resident, I recall many friends, who put on skis during the winter months as a preferred training regime or at least an alternate cross-training program. The weight training espoused by many running coaches is also much the same, as are the dietary issues. It should be noted that XC skiing is hardly unique for Alaskans. For example Becca Rorabaugh, who from 2003 to 2006 placed in the top ten at State in Alaska (9th in 2006 for West Valley in Fairbanks) also competed at Canmore last weekend. Alyssa O’ Connor & Pat Madden of Summit were XC skiers in Oregon as I recall as well. The sports just compliment each other so well.
First let us look at Kikkan’s resume as a runner. To start with she is one of Alaska’s all-time great runners. As a freshman in 1997, she placed 2nd at State behind defending champion Darcy Dugan of Dimond. Kikkan claimed the State title in 1998, 1999, & 2000. That in itself is a stellar record but Kikkan had a good deal of running experience long before she reached high school. She began by following her father to road races, when he competed and ran the Terry Fox run. She even ran in the Bartlett Turkey Trot, which her father organized. After her freshman XC campaign she joined the sorority-fraternity of runners, who accepted the challenge of meeting the best at the Foot Locker West Regional. In Harrier Heaven I noted that Kikkan had finished 10th in the Regional in 1997 but did not know much else except her final time of 18:16 & that she finished right behind Elaine Canchola of California. Happily Kikkan was kind enough to take time out for her Olympic preparations to chat with me about her running past, as well as her Olympic goals. Like a true runner she called me during the Super Bowl, which neither of us seemed to miss!
That year Kikkan had joined a group in Anchorage that tried to foster the sport & provide an opportunity for those, who aspired to greater challenges. The group, that trained together during the summer & then after the high school cross country season, was organized at least in part by Marcus Dunbar. Marcus was a quality runner in his own right & is now a masters runner (he competed in the Portland Track Festival last summer). He also built a solid program as coach of the Kodiak team, that has won a number of state titles but probably he is even better known as the father of Trevor, who placed 2nd at Foot Locker Nationals in 2008 & is one of the favorites for next weekend’s USATF Junior National Championships in Spokane.
At any rate in 1997 the group trained for two months after State & then headed down to Fresno for the Foot Locker West Regional. Another runner of note in the group was Darcy Dugan, the two-time Alaskan champion. Kikkan’s memory of the event is interesting in its own right and has an Oregon touch as well. She recalled that it was exciting “just to get so close to nationals” and being surprised that there were “so many girls” on the starting line. The coaches held their spots on the starting line, as they went to warm up, but then shortly after her return she recalls “a little girl in blonde hair & in basketball shorts”, who strode up to the line and promptly stood in front of her. That blonde was none other Oregon State champion Mariel Ettinger of La Grande. Once the race started that was pretty much all that Kikkan or anyone else saw of Mariel as she raced away to an eleven second victory in a time of 17:40. An intelligent racer, Kikkan ran her own race during the early stages but in the last kilo she saw “her rival” ahead of her and put in a surge to catch her. She finally caught Darcy and thought the race was close to the end only to find that there was another 600 meters to the finish. Making sure that she remained in front of Dugan she picked up the pace and passed a number of runners down the final stretch. She missed qualifying for Foot Locker by just two places: interestingly enough she finished ten seconds behind Sara Bei (Hall), who went on to win the 2000 championship. Also of note is the fact that Mariel finished 2nd in the nation the following week. Of course Kikkan was happy simply to beat her rival & noted that it was the first time that she defeated Darcy. Darcy would go on to place 2nd behind Kikkan the next two years, so with a record of 1 -1 2-2 Darcy Dugan was a quality runner in her own right. In 1997 Darcy placed 17th at the West in her only attempt.
As Alaska has its state meet a month earlier than everyone else, Alaskan competitors at Foot Locker are at a disadvantage when it comes to peaking. And of course they run in a bit more snow but Kikkan said that she simply took pride in the extra training and always felt that, if she worked hard enough that good things would happen. She also had fun with the fact that many people from the main 48 states have scant knowledge of Alaska. Kikkan was asked if she lived in an igloo or got around by dog-sled. (Memory recalls a teacher-recruiting meeting at Portland State, when some sharp student asked how many teachers get eaten by polar bears every year.) It offered a bit of fun to tease before straightening out the quizzical but Kikkan stated the Alaskans have a great running spirit & take pride in what they do.
Kikkan was unaware before our chat that Foot Locker now qualifies the top ten out of each region & exclaimed “Oh my gosh!” She also jokingly wondered how qualifying might have changed things for her. She also noted that after the race, when she & the other top finishers signed permission forms, that she realized “the magnitude” of the race for the first time and dedicated her training for another shot at Foot Locker. In 1998 Kikkan returned to the regional as a state champion, but the race had moved to its current location at Mt. SAC. She initially thought that the challenging hills would be to her advantage & was even thrilled to have a special introduction before the race as a champion. Better yet she started in “a special section.” The first goal in the race was to improve but the second for sure was to qualify. As in the previous year, she ran her own race early yet was in 12th place at the two mile mark. She was expecting to move up in that final mile but on Reservoir Hill she “hit the wall.” She recalls little after that other than tired legs & finishing. (132nd) After crossing the finish she “passed out” probably due to dehydration & heat exhaustion. “It took an hour to get out of it.”
From that point on fate seems to have played a hand and a number of injuries that spring changed things a bit. Beyond that the East Anchorage High School student lost her coach, when he moved. He still coached her from a distance but it was hardly the same. Kikkan continued to run and added two state titles to her resume. In order to train with a group & lessen the threat of injury, she became involved with a local ski group. She had success & regained her health as well and with that came a change in focus and thoughts of Foot Locker faded. Ms. Randall further enjoyed the camaraderie of the group and also noted that numerous Alaskan runners, like Darcy, struggled with injuries, when they went to college & ran in the lower 48 states. Thus Kikkan concentrated her efforts in skiing.
Beyond the training & periodization already, we chatted about a number of things of interest to runners including a comparison of the two sports. As noted there is much similarity in cardiovascular issues but the lack of pounding sets skiing apart. Although both take a great deal more training than some other sports the lack of impact leads to less injuries. The weight work is a bit different but for the most part similar. Certainly XC skiing allows for a more varied body weight than does running.
Both sports also need to be quite concerned with diet, as well as the weight to strength ratio. Food & caloric intake is a concern for both sports & there is a need to optimize food sources. Kikkan likes to be “lean and mean as possible” yet understands that weight must vary depending on the period of training. As ferritin is a concern, as in running, red meat is important but of course carbohydrates are important as well. Anorexia, especially among females, is also a concern, yet it is less of one for skiers. Sensibly, when looking at the various issues, Kikkan prefers to err on the side of caution. As a high caliber athlete Kikkan has regular blood checks.
Surprisingly, as a younger individual, Kikkan has suffered a problem that needs to be reviewed as well & that is the fact that she suffered a blot clot in 2008. It seems almost stunning and certainly she did not see it coming and more importantly at first she had no clue as to how it occurred, but in looking back, Kikkan has some understanding of why it happened and this is something from which we can all learn. There were four basic factors that appear to have contributed to her problem & they seemed to have come together as a “perfect storm” of events. The first a fair amount of travel over a long duration. Certainly the flights to Europe saw long stretches of time with no movement & Kikkan now makes sure that she gets up to walk once an hour to keep the circulation proper. She also wears compression clothing, which aids in blood-flow. The second issue was dehydration & the remedy for that is obvious. A third factor was the birth control pills, that we now know can lead to circulatory issues. That issue she eliminated. That last issue was that she had a certain genetic precondition, which can be viewed by blood tests, that made her more susceptible. Of course as a young person, who is in top physical condition, Kikkan like many had felt immune to such problems. She found out the hard way that precautions must be taken & now prior to long flights even will use blood-thinners to lessen the likelihood of another clot.
Kikkan’s husband, Jeff Ellis, is also an athlete, who started out running. He ran the 400 meter hurdles in Ontario, Canada & also was a XC champion. Jeff ran for the University of Kentucky & also at Chapel Hill. He turned to skiing & has had success. He represented Canada in 1999 at the World Championships & narrowly missed the Olympics in 2000. He had hopes of joining Kikkan as a Canadian Oly member this year but it did make the team. Naturally they met at a competition & had much to share in experience.
XC skiing, like its running counterpart, gets slighted when it comes to publicity. Certainly, if you look at the articles that are part of the Olympic build-up there are articles on ice skating & downhill skiing & even snow-boarding but there is little coverage given to the Nordic events. Sports Illustrated in fact, despite picking Kikkan as an athlete to watch, merely noted that Kikkan filled in for Sarah Palin in 2008 as a judge in a cooking contest. Thank you SI!?! Consequently I asked her, if the lack of publicity aggravates her or even motivates her and she shared that it motivates her to achieve better results. Philosophically she added that “Americans love to see Americans win medals” and, when that happens, XC skiing will receive attention. Hopefully Kikkan can attend to that issue herself, as she is America’s most likely female medalist. Her only “hiccup” is that the sport utilizes two types of skis: the classic & the skate & this year the competitors will use the classic in the sprint, which is not her strong suite. Still she is a former medalist & “the animal”, as she refers to herself, is willing to accept the pain & the challenge. Unlike running Kikkan has some idea of what the Olympic course will be like for, although courses vary in terrain & altitude from venue to venue, XC ski courses tend to be molded to strike a balance with a third of the course up-hill, a 1/3 of the course down-hill, and the remainder flat. Seems rather fair actually.
In another week the winter Olympics will begin and the running community has one of their own for whom to root. Kikkan still is a runner too, who during the summer runs road races & mountain trails & in the fall competes in XC (running). Check out her web page (http://www.kikkan.com/) and on one of the pages is a picture of her running XC. She stated that she “still loves to run” and proudly related that recently she set her PR for the 5K. And wouldn’t it be great if a former Foot Locker runner claimed a medal in the winter Olympics?!
If all goes well you can see Kikkan in the following events. She’ll probably be easy to spot too - just look for the skier with pink in her hair flashing over the snow. 2/15 Olympic 10K skate 2/17 Olympic Classic sprint 2/22 Olympic Team sprint 2/25 Olympic 4 by 5K Relay 2/27 Olympic 30K Classic mass start