The Tour de Ski turned into a tour de force Saturday for Anchorage skiers Kikkan Randall and Holly Brooks.
Randall, the U.S. Ski Team star who has been on fire this season, dominated the prologue of nordic skiing's most grueling challenge, a nine-day, seven-race, three-country palooza that began with a 3-kilometer freestyle race in Oberhof, Germany.
Randall won by 4.4 seconds, beating a pair of former Tour de Ski champions -- second-place Charlotte Kalla of Sweden and third-place Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland.
Brooks was 16.9 seconds back in 11th place, a solid finish in any circumstances but a particularly satisfying one for Brooks. She skied last season's Tour with a broken hand, an injury suffered when she slipped on ice while on a training run on Christmas Day but one that went undetected until she was halfway through the Tour, which she chose to complete before having surgery.
"All my bones are intact this year, so it's already a step above last year," Brooks said in a U.S. Ski Team press release. "I was really surprised with my result -- elated and relieved, actually. It's the best late Christmas present I could ask for.''
Both women will race again Sunday in a 10-kilometer classic pursuit. As the winner of Saturday's race, Randall will be the first skier on the course.
"It's really fun to be leading the Tour," Randall said in an email. "But I will really have my work cut out for me (Sunday) and the next six races. I hope to bring the same focus (Sunday) and try to keep myself in a good position near the front."
The Tour is the first competition after a short holiday break for Randall, a three-time Olympian, and Brooks, a 2010 Olympian.
The first period of the World Cup season -- which is broken in to three periods -- was a busy one for Randall and Brooks, who have already raced a ton this season. Randall, in fact, has yet to skip a single World Cup race.
"I took the last 10 days pretty easy and was unsure how my body would feel coming off the recovery break," Randall said. "Feelings weren't super-encouraging yesterday or this morning but everything was there once I got on course.
"... Conditions were actually surprisingly similar to Eagle Glacier, which gave me confidence going into the race. The snow was pretty soft in the last kilometer and the finish stretch into a stiff headwind was really tough. I knew I had to fight for every second."
Brooks said she benefitted from a last-minute advice via email from Erik Flora, who coaches Brooks and Randall at the Alaska Pacific University nordic center.
"He said, 'The prologue is a lot like running the mile, first quarter find the pace, second quarter be patient and fast, third quarter make the race, last quarter hold on and kick for the finish.' Today I was able to ski into the race rather than go out hard and messy and then die towards the end. I was tired at the finish, but it wasn't quite puke-worthy."
Skiers head to Switzerland After Sunday's distance race. The Tour de Ski has an off day on Monday -- Randall's 30th birthday -- and resumes Tuesday in Val Muestair, Switzerland, with a freestyle sprint. Action moves to Toblach, Italy, for races Wednesday and Friday, and then it's on to Val di Fiemme, Italy, for the final two races.
Petter Northug of Norway won the men's 4-kilometer prologue. Andy Newell of Shaftsbury, Vt., led the Americans in 21st place.
Absent from the women's field is Norwegian great Marit Bjoergen, the sport's most dominating skier in recent years. She was hospitalized briefly last week with an irregular heart beat but is expected to return to World Cup competition after the Tour de Ski wraps up.
Reach Beth Bragg at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4335.
By BETH BRAGG