The term photo finish is not one solely reserved for horse racing. Sprint racing on cross-country skis can offer up some exciting finishes with racers separated by fractions of a second.
In fact, much like a horse race, skiers can go from leading the race comfortably as they near the finish line, to being overtaken by multiple racers making a strong push over the last 300 meters.
Kikkan Randall’s early success as a skier came in these sprint races in which raw power is the greatest advantage. She has had to develop her endurance over the years, something her coach Erik Flora said is both natural and by design.
Flora said most athletes grow into their endurance, but in Kikkan’s case her training over the past ten years has been set up specifically to increase her endurance, and they have gotten great results.
Kikkan showed her versatility recently in the U.S. National Championships in Anchorage, Alaska by winning two sprints and two distance races, a feat Flora equates to a runner winning the 800 meter race and a half marathon in the same week.
“To do what she did is extraordinary,” said Flora.
As a 19-year-old in the 2002 Olympics, Kikkan was primarily a sprinter, perhaps putting her in the right place at the right time to gain Olympic experience through a relatively new form of racing.
“I was skiing pretty well in the distance, and had there just been distance I would have had a shot of making the (Olympic) team, but the sprint definitely solidified my spot,” said Kikkan.
Kikkan’s mother Deborah Randall remembers a time when sprints didn’t exist. When Deborah was a collegiate skier in Utah, the only races were the 10 or 20 kilometer distance races.
Sprints are only around 1500 meters and are raced on closed courses, making them much easier for spectators to watch.
In Europe sprint skiing is a big draw; it is not unheard of to have 100,000 spectators watching sprints in Germany, for example.
Within sprints and distance races there are also freestyle and classic forms of skiing. Freestyle looks more like speed skating on skis, while classic forces the skiers to keep the skis parallel throughout the race.
“Classic is not Kikkan’s forte,” said Deborah Randall. “She had terrible technique, but she has gotten better. Now when we go skiing, she tells me how bad my form is.”
Kikkan’s chances for a medal would be greatly improved if freestyle sprints were a part of the Olympics, but they are not. She will be forced to use the classic style in all Olympic events.
For those of us not familiar with cross-country skiing and what the racing entails, Coach Flora was nice enough to explain a few things.
“People think of cross-country skiing as a sport where you go at sort of a jogging pace and disappear in the woods for an hour and maybe you see them once or twice, but it’s actually a very dynamic, high speed event,” said Flora.
A typical sprint will have six athletes racing and will use tactics similar to cycling tactics. The first 90 seconds of the race will be used establishing position, then the racers will start heading into a series of different turns. How a racer navigates these turns will be a key factor in determining who wins.
As in cycling or auto racing, draft also comes into play.
“There’s a huge amount of draft. It’s unbelievable,” said Flora. “That’s probably the biggest thing coming into Vancouver. Depending on the snow conditions that day, draft can be the difference between first and sixth in your heat.”
Racers in a sprint will average somewhere around 35 kilometers per hour on the flat parts of the course. They will be as slow as 15 KPH on the uphill portions and can reach 75 KPH on the downhill portions, all of this in pretty close proximity to one another.
“There are a lot of parallels between cycling and sprint racing, just because it is a pack race,” said Flora.
For a taste of sprint skiing, take a look at the video below, or watch the video of Kikkan winning the silver medal at the World Championships last year.