On icy trails 40 miles south of the Arctic Circle, a pair of Alaska cross-country skiers used a three-race series this weekend in Kuusamo, Finland, to assert themselves as two of the world's best.
Kikkan Randall, 28, joined the world's elite not just as a sprinter but in all disciplines, a notion she solidified Sunday with the 16th fastest time in a 10-kilometer classic pursuit at Kuusamo's Ruka ski facility.
The World Cup universe had viewed Randall as a sprint specialist, but now she ranks sixth in the overall World Cup standings after turning heads in the Ruka Triple, a series in which she impressed every time out -- fourth in a classic sprint Friday, 12th in a 5-kilometer freestyle Saturday and 16th in the pursuit.
Holly Brooks, 29, ascended into the ranks of the World Cup's top 30 overall standings by producing a career-best finish for the second straight day.
A 2010 Olympian from Anchorage, Brooks placed 22nd in the pursuit for her best result in a classic-technique distance race, a performance that followed Saturday's career-best 17th in a freestyle distance race and placed her 23rd in the Ruka Triple.
Brooks now ranks 26th in the overall World Cup standings and 21st in the distance standings.
"It was obviously a breakthrough weekend for Kikkan and for the women in general," U.S. Ski Team coach Chris Grover said in a press release from the ski team.
As for their placement in the Ruka Triple mini-tour standings, Randall placed sixth and Brooks 22nd. Both women are part of the Alaska Pacific University nordic program.
"Last year I was super psyched to finish in the top 20 here, so to be sixth today is a real breakthrough for me," Randall wrote in an email. "I'm also super fired-up about our women's team results as a whole. We've got some incredible momentum going right now, and it's so fun to be a part of it."
Randall, a three-time Olympian from Anchorage, has long been the nation's top skier. Right now, Brooks is indisputably the second-best.
Each race remains a learning opportunity for Brooks, who, until 2009 when she began training seriously, was a coach for APU and not a member of its elite training group. Things Randall, an Olympian at age 19, learned long ago are things Brooks is learning now.
"For example, take one second to wipe the snot off your face and you lose two places. Lesson learned: Don't wipe the snot off your face," she wrote.
Brooks is getting her first taste of World Cup racing in Europe -- until the season-opening races in Norway the week prior to the Ruka Triple, her only World Cup races had been in North America. So far she likes what she sees.
"This weekend was awesome," she said in an email. "Today's race was an absolute blast. Four laps on a 2.5-K course felt a bit like roller derby. It seems like we were always going up or down, with very little flat skiing or double-poling at all.
"Conditions have been treacherous here in Ruka -- walking to dinner is a chore, the ice is so bad. I'm almost surprised that a World Cup athlete hasn't (had) an injury from the slippery roads and paths."
Overnight snow helped ease those conditions, and Grover, Brooks and Randall all reported that the Americans had great skis.
Norway's Therese Johaug won the pursuit in 27 minutes, 51.5 seconds, almost nine seconds ahead of runner-up Marit Bjoergen of Norway (28:00.1), who claimed the Ruka Triple title thanks to wins in the classic sprint and 5-K freestyle. Randall finished in 29:27.2 and Brooks finished in 29:31.2. Two of their U.S. Ski Teammates had top-40 finishes -- Liz Stephens was 36th (30:01.1) and Ida Sargent 37th (30:01.8), while Sadie Bjornsen was 62nd (31:10.1).
Randall had a more grinding week than the other Americans -- Brooks and the others failed to advance out of Friday's sprint preliminaries, while Randall went from the prelims to the quarterfinals to the semifinals to the finals.
"Today was definitely a hard race," Randall wrote. "I ended up skiing most of the race by myself and had to hold off a hard-charging pack in the last 2-K. I was really happy to hold on to sixth place. ... My body was feeling a little tired after the previous two days, but I was still able to put up a good fight."
Next up on the World Cup schedule are freestyle sprint and team sprint races in Duesseldorf, Germany, where an 800-meter track will be set on artificial snow on the city's promenade.
"I am looking forward to a few easy days, maybe some central European sun and coffee, and then getting fired up again for the sprints in Duesseldorf," Randall said.