ANCHORAGE - There's a rhythm to Kikkan Randall when she steps onto her cross country skis and churns across a start line.
Kick and glide, kick and glide. Double pole up a hill. Crest and feel the lactic acid boil. Tuck and rest. Zoom around a downhill curve. Hit the flat and kick it in again, as she has thousands of times over the last decade.
"The days that things really click are when your muscles feel loose and you can almost count or repeat words to yourself in your head that kind of go along with each stride," she says.
Randall hit the rhythm two weeks ago at the U.S. Cross Country Ski Championships, methodically crushing fellow Americans in all four women's events: two sprints, a 10-kilometer skate race and a 20-kilometer classic race. That gave her 14 national titles, but she was looking ahead.
"It's about getting ready for the Olympics," she said. "Running my body through four races this week is going to give me really good workouts and really just help me find my peak form three weeks from now."
The 27-year-old Randall is on a mission to become the first American woman to win a cross-country skiing medal at the Olympics and to become an instant sensation at the end of a 10-year journey.
She began as a runner, winning seven Alaska high school track titles and three cross country titles, but growing up in Anchorage, skiing would have been hard to dodge.
Her uncle, Chris Haines, represented the United States in the 1976 Olympics at Innsbruck, Austria. Her aunt, Betsy Haines, was the first racer on the5-kilometer course four years later at Lake Placid.
Randall joined a ski team to cross-train between cross country and track seasons. Her ski coaches told her she had a lot of potential.
"It started to click that, 'Hey, the Olympics are three years away. They think I can be pretty good at skiing. I'm going to dive into this full time and see what happens."'
At 19, she qualified for the 2002 U.S. Olympics team. She showed up wide-eyed in Salt Lake City, and among some of the world's greatest endurance athletes, set her sights higher.
"My goal went from being fulfilled to all of a sudden, I had a new goal, and that was, I wanted to be competitive at the Olympics."
And so began the grind. Most of the female medal winners peak in their late 20s after a decade of training. Randall had eight more years to go.
Her face is not on bread wrappers and cereal boxes, like her counterparts in Europe, where cross-country skiing is a career path and tens of thousands of people show up for big races, but she did land sponsorships. She became a familiar face to Alaskans, hawking dairy products and Subway sandwiches. She skipped the college racing circuit and focused on skiing year-round.
"Your body goes through a transformation over those 10 years," she said. "When you're logging six, seven hundred hours a year of training, they're like building blocks and they build upon themselves."
Head coach Pete Vordenberg has watched Randall since 2002. At early international competitions, she routinely failed to advance in the sprint heats and sometimes finished in the 80s in distance races.
"In the face of, basically, getting killed every weekend, she would still be really upbeat, and had a lot of self-confidence and belief that she would get to where she is now and where I think she's on her way to," Vordenberg said.
Randall won her first national title in a sprint race in 2002. At the 2006 Olympics, she finished 9th in the freestyle sprint, highest ever for an American woman, and with Wendy Wagner, 10th in the team sprint.
She stayed passionate and patient, and after years of coming tantalizingly close to the medals stand on the World Cup tour, she broke through with a victory in a freestyle sprint in December 2007 at Rybinsk, Russia. At the FIS Nordic world ski championships last year at Liberec, Czech Republic, she won the silver in the freestyle sprint.
She has confidence that she has seen most of the variables confronting racers: snow that ranges from sugar to ice, fluctuating temperatures, courses that undulate or climb or stay flat, strategy to know when to hold back and when to put the pedal down.
"There's a lot to the feel of it. That's why we train so much, so you can simulate these race experiences when you're training. So that when you show up at the start line on race day, you're like, 'OK, I know how this should feel, and I'm going to go out and execute my plan.'
"We want to get the absolute best out of ourselves that we can, so you want to get as close to that red line as possible without going over it," Randall said. "I definitely have gone over it a few times and paid the consequences. The best races I've had is when just when you're right up nextto it."
There is an obstacle to Randall's hopes for a medal. The Vancouver Olympics will not feature her best event, the freestyle sprint, only the classic sprint.
"It's a little bit of a bummer," she said. "It would have been great to head into Vancouver with all the confidence of having an opportunity in a skate sprint to go for a medal."
Sprinting starts with a qualifying heat of 1.4 kilometers, then quarterfinals, semifinals and finals in head-to-head racing against five other skiers instead of the clock. The top skiers in each heat advance.
Randall has never made the top 12 - the semifinals - of a classic sprint race, but she's hopeful. The Olympics are all about challenging yourself, she said.
"Mostly what we're focused on is showing up, knowing we prepared well, and skiing our hearts out."
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