After claiming multiple gold medals at the Canadian National Championships, Olympic cross-country skier Kikkan Randall planned to cap a sterling season in Fairbanks at the U.S. Distance Championships this past weekend.
But instead of skiing in front of a home crowd of cheering Alaskans, Randall endured what she called a "very frustrating, scary and surreal experience" in a Fairbanks hospital, where doctors treated large blood clots that ran from her hip past her knee.
Left alone, the clots could threaten her life.
"This is by far the scariest thing that's ever happened to me," she said Tuesday.
Randall, who returned home to Anchorage on Sunday, first noticed soreness in her hips and left thigh last Tuesday. She wrote it off as lingering pain from a fall at the Canadian National Championships in Callaghan Valley, British Columbia late last month.
"It was a silly little fall," she said. "I got right back up. Nothing hurt. I could have bruised something, and I was probably a little dehydrated."
Despite resting all day Wednesday, "I was still tight and achy all night," she wrote on her Web site.
She hoped to race on Thursday and at first she thought her back had loosened up that morning. A few minutes on skis convinced her otherwise.
"I felt awful," she wrote. "My legs were just dead, especially my left one."
She skipped racing and saw a physical therapist on Friday.
When that brought little improvement, "I was starting to feel like something was really wrong," Randall wrote.
So on Saturday she visited the emergency room, where a doctor did an ultrasound and discovered the clot.
Randall's deep vein thrombosis, or DVT, occurs when a clot forms in the extremities, often a lower leg. Dr. Yves Rosenberg, a medical officer at National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, said 250,000 to 500,000 Americans a year suffer from clots. Other estimates place the number as high as 2 million.
Clots can break loose and reach the lungs, a potentially fatal condition called pulmonary embolism. Rosenberg estimates blood clots in the lungs kill 10,000 to 40,000 Americans a year.
Suddenly Randall was on an IV, taking blood thinners and undergoing a CT scan.
"It was weird to be laying in a hospital bed all hooked up to machines when two days earlier I had been skiing fine and thinking about racing," she said.
She was released Sunday and is taking a blood thinner called Coumadin. Today doctors will send a catheter up a vein and inject her with drugs designed to break up the clot more quickly.
"It sounds like if we can get it cleared out tomorrow, we can get it over with," Randall said.
Passengers logging heavy air travel and women on birth control are at higher risk for DVT. Randall flew thousands of miles competing on the World Cup circuit this season as America's best female cross-country skier and the first to win a World Cup race.
Compounding Randall's air travel was the long drive from Anchorage to Fairbanks for the distance championships at the Birch Hill Recreation Area.
Some endurance athletes are at particular DVT risk because they have a low resting heart rate. That means the blood flow to large muscles is reduced and may be more prone to clot.
"I'm lucky that this happened at the end of the season and not during it," Randall wrote on her Web site. "I'm lucky this happened while I was close to home, and I'm lucky that I have great people around me to help me get through this."
Still, she will need to be especially careful to not risk injury while on blood thinners.
"I probably won't get to do all the fun adventures I was planning for the end of the season, but at least I can focus on recovery and maybe pour my mental energy into the finishing touches for the wedding," she wrote.
Randall and fiance Jeff Ellis are marrying this year.
Find Mike Campbell online at adn.com/contact/mcampbell or call 257-4329.