Every July 4th in Seward, Alaska, there's a race called Mount Marathon. It's not a marathon. It's a different kind of ordeal.
One of the oldest-known races in the United States, dating to 1915, it's a 3 1/2-mile torture that goes up and then back down a 3,022-foot mountain. You come down in about a third the time it takes to go up; in all, the winner -- at least on the women's side -- takes just over 50 minutes. Outside of the Iditarod, the sled race, it might be one of Alaska's premier sporting events. Big local bragging rights are involved -- for instance, Nina Kemppel, who raced in four Olympic Winter Games over her cross-country career with the U.S. Ski Team, is a nine-time winner.
In the Randall household, there was this: Mom Debbie won the race in 1975. Aunt Betsy, who competed as a cross-country skier in the 1980 Lake Placid Olympic Games, won it three times, from 1979 to 1981. Daughter Kikkan -- well, as a cross-country skier, Kikkan might well have won a world championship silver medal in 2009, might have recorded two World Cup wins, might last season have become the first American woman ever to make the podium (third) in the final World Cup sprint standings …
But she had yet to win Mount Marathon.
Four times she was a runner-up.
Until this past July 4.
When Kikkan, racing side by side with Alaska Pacific University club teammate Holly Brooks for most of the race, finally broke through -- winning in 52:03, Holly 19 seconds behind.
The U.S. Ski Team leaves for Europe in just a few days; the World Cup cross-country season starts in Norway on Nov. 19. Kikkan Randall just wrapped up a summer of training that makes you understand fully the dedication and drive of championship athletes.
They are indeed different from the rest of us.
Mind you -- this isn't even an Olympic year.
There are two long years to go, in fact, before we even get to the Olympic year. This is the kind of year where even the most seasoned pros can find it difficult to sustain their energy.
Even on vacation -- in Maui, at the end of April, with her husband, Jeff Ellis -- a really, really fun day was not to idle on the beach with fruity drinks. Oh, no. A really, really fun day was to go for a three- or four-hour bike ride.
"Every once in a while he looks at me and rolls his eyes and tells me I'm crazy," she said, laughing.
Then again, she said, when training for the winter season began in earnest on May 1, those bike rides meant "my body wasn't starting from total standstill."
Look, let's face it, Kikkan said: "I definitely like to be doing stuff."
Training in the back-country in Alaska with her Alaska Pacific club team.
Doing a triathlon and setting a new PR in the running leg. In Alaska, when they hold a triathlon in May, they have to make allowances for the swim portion -- they do it in a pool.
Heading to Sweden for more than two weeks of training with the national team there. And here was a revelation. It used to be that the Europeans thought little, if at all, about the American cross-country performers. Now that Americans are winners in the sprints, though, the Europeans have noticed. "Two years ago, I was there to learn and watch. Now they are there to observe me," Kikkan said.
Back to Alaska for Mount Marathon and then several weeks of "pretty hard weeks of training."
Cut in with all of that were visits to schools for a program called "Healthy Futures" and work with another initiative that Kikkan supports called "Fast and Female." She said, "I benefitted from having great opportunities to play sports and then be active. It empowered me. I want kids to have those same opportunities that I did. A little hard work pays off -- you can do anything if you have belief in yourself."
Which is where she finds herself this World Cup season. She has proven herself in the sprints. Now -- the distances.
She said, "Every year I am getting closer. It just takes time to develop fitness and the confidence to race with those girls. In a couple years, I can be challenging for the top in the distance races as well.
"Kris Freeman," one of the top American men, "has been so close several times, Kikkan said. "He has shown it is possible."
Kikkan is 28. In Sochi in 2014, she will be 31. If she were a gymnast, at 31 she would be an old lady. For a cross-country skier, it's entirely different. She said, "I feel like I am just now entering my stride. Most people would be winding down. Mine is just now speeding up."