With the Winter Olympics little more than a year away, Anchorage’s Kikkan Randall continued to reach new heights Thursday, this time bagging a career best in a World Cup classic-technique distance race.
Randall was part of a huge chase pack in the 10-kilometer mass-start race, vying for a bronze medal with four other skiers and eventually finishing sixth, less than three seconds out of third place.
Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk set a furious pace, winning in 28 minutes, 58.4 seconds, 14 seconds ahead of Finland’s Anna Kylloenen (29:12.8).
Less than four seconds separated third-place Maiken Caspersen Falla of Norway (29 minutes, 26.6 seconds) and seventh-place Kristin Stoemer Steira of Norway (29:30.2). Randall clocked 29:29.0.
“It was a good hard effort and that was my No. 1 goal for today,” Randall said in a press release from the U.S. Ski Team. “I definitely had to dig deep there at the end and I didn’t play my cards right in the finish but overall I’m happy with the race.
“We knew Kowalczyk was going to set a hard pace at the beginning and then the Norwegians kind of went with her. I just tried to make sure to start the race at my own pace knowing that things would come back together in the middle hopefully. I’m really glad I did that because I even felt a little flooded on the first lap but then felt a lot better on the second and third laps.”
Two other U.S. Ski Team skiers scored World Cup points by finishing in the top 30 — Sadie Bjornsen, skiing her first World Cup race of the season, placed 25th (30:39.6), and Holly Brooks was 30th (30:52.2). Like Randall, Bjornsen and Brooks train at the Alaska Pacific University Nordic Ski Center.
With her victory, Kowalczyk vaulted past Randall in the overall World Cup standings. Kowalczyk is second in the world and Randall moved down one spot to third; both trail Norway’s Marit Bjoergen, who owns a sizeable lead even though she didn’t make the trip to North America.
Randall is having the season of her career, which is saying something considering that last season she captured the World Cup sprint championship.
Viewed as a sprint specialist in recent seasons, Randall has become a medal contender in distance events this season. The World Cup keeps three sets of standings — overall, sprint and distance — and Randall ranks fifth in the distance standings. She’s first in the sprint standings and third overall — despite spending much of the summer in a walking boot because of a stress fracture in her foot.
“The season started out stronger than I thought and I’m really enjoying being considered one of the top distance skiers now,” she said. “I still have to remember that I’m making small increments.
“I’m happy with the race. It was right in line with where I think I am right now.”
A three-time Olympian, Randall is expected to lead the U.S. team into the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. At this point, an Olympic medal as the only thing her resume lacks.
Thursday’s race was the first of three on the trails used for the 1988 Winter Olympics. The series marks the second and final weekend of World Cup action in North America, and as a result a big contingent of U.S. skiers competed.
The three APU women led the way for the Americans. Ida Sargent was 31st (30:57.6), Rosie Brennan of APU was 35th (31:31.8), Sophie Caldwell was 43rd (31:59.0), Chelsea Holmes of Girdwood was 47th (32:47.1) and Caitlin Patterson of Anchorage was 50th (32:51.7).
Holmes trains in Sun Valley, Idaho, and Patterson, a former NCAA All-American at Vermont who is in her first post-collegiate season, trains in Craftsbury, Vt.
In the men’s 15-K, Germany’s Tim Tscharnke triumphed in 41:14.8.
Kris Freeman of Andover, N.H., led the Americans in 14th place (41:48.7). Noah Hoffman of Aspen, Colo., also scored World Cup points for the U.S. squad with a 22nd-place finish.
The top Alaskan in the men’s race was APU’s Erik Bjornsen, the third U.S. finisher, in 36th place (43:34.8). David Norris of Fairbanks, who skis for Montana State, was 48th in 44:34.0.
Racers will spend Friday training. Racing resumes Saturday with a sprint race.
Reach Beth Bragg at email@example.com or 257-4335.
By BETH BRAGG
Anchorage Daily News / adn.com