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What Goes Through The Mind Of A Cross-Country Skier During An 18-Mile Race?

By Lisa Costantini | Dec. 10, 2015, 4:47 p.m. (ET)

Kikkan Randall competes during the women's cross-country sprint qualification at the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships at the Lugnet venue on Feb. 19, 2015 in Falun, Sweden.

Four-time Olympic cross-country skier Kikkan Randall might prefer sprint races to the longer courses, but the 32-year-old certainly knows a thing or two about going the distance. Having competed in her first Olympics at the age of 19 in Salt Lake City, she has been in the sport almost half her life.

Currently taking the season off to have her first child in April, with Canadian skier Jeff Ellis, she talked about racing longer events like the 10-kilometer, 15-kilometer and 30-kilometer (men also compete in a 50-kilometer – that’s more than 31 miles).

“If I break the longer distances into pieces in my mind, it becomes surprisingly manageable,” she said.

“The best reference I ever heard on how to race a (30-kilometer) was from a coach who said to think of it like a book. Every few kilometers you’ll go through different chapters — some will be good chapters; some will be bad chapters. But through it all, you just think about getting to the next chapter.”

What She Does Before She Starts “The Book”

Nordic skiing is a sport that requires a lot of training, not just in the gym but out of it as well. Because of that, Randall said she works with a sports psychologist.

“When I was younger, it started off just exploring the different avenues of sports psychology, like goal setting, relaxation, dealing with the positive self talks, those kinds of things,” she said. “I gained a good awareness of all the mental skills. Now we work on focus and keeping yourself in the moment in those long races.”

When the pace starts to feel hard she admitted that it’s easy to go, “Oh man, I have a long way to go. This is hard and I’m not doing as well as I wanted to,” but she said you have to be able to pull yourself back into the moment so you can focus on what is ahead of you. “You have to be able to focus on what you can control,” said Randall.

“Keeping that in mind has been really helpful for me in preparing for some of the bigger races where you come in and there’s all this pressure and attention. Because when I stand on the start line, I am definitely nervous about the time and the distance and how hard it’s going to be. But once I get going and focus on those small chunks, time really does fly by.”

Kikkan Randall competes in the women's team sprint classic final during the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games at Laura Cross-country Ski & Biathlon Center on Feb. 19, 2014 in Rosa Khutor, Russia.
The Beginning Of “The Book”

The first five kilometers of the race are what Randall finds to be the hardest, “because you realize you have so long to go and you’re adjusting to the brutal pace,” she said.

A 30-kilometer (18.64 miles) women’s race usually takes 75 to 90 minutes – “a long time to stay focused,” Randall mused. “But every successful lap or section you complete, it builds your confidence and gets you excited for the next one.” That’s not to say her mind doesn’t get the better of her sometimes. “In those longer races, there’s a lot of time to think out there. Especially when you get a feeling like it’s not going as well as you want.”

In a game of focus and patience, she said she coaxes her mind through one kilometer at a time by using strategies she has picked up over the years. “I pick out a few key words before the race that if I feel like I’m getting distracted or negative, I can remind myself of those key words.” Some examples she gave were “quick, flow, relax.”

“Just repeating a few of those words over and over again can bring my mind back,” Randall said. “And then it allows me to clear my mind a little bit and that seems to get me back in the groove.”

“It might only be a couple words, but it can be powerful.”

The Middle Of “The Book”

The middle for Randall usually feels like it comes after the first four or five kilometers. “That’s when you feel your strategy. You get into a rhythm and start ticking away the kilometers,” she said.

The middle is also where she starts to feel a mix of exhaustion and energy, with the realization she’s halfway through. “But you also realize you have to do what you just did all over again,” she said. “It still feels like a long way to the finish. So that is always the crucial point in the race for me. If I can keep myself staying positive and focused to the halfway mark, that’s usually when I find my confidence. Things get better and better the closer I get to the end.”

The End Of “The Book”

The race starts to really come alive for her the closer she gets to the finish line, but that doesn’t mean Randall would describe it as fun. “It’s definitely painful and you’re focused and in the moment of what you’re doing. But it’s cool to get to those later stages of the race where you’re really try to get every bit of your effort out. It’s a feeling of accomplishment after you complete those long distance races.”

Her Review Of “The Book”

“It’s a thrilling story — you never know what you’re going to get — but it always has a good ending.”

She added, “just making it through the journey of something like that and going through the different chapters is such an experience. And whether I’ve had the successful race that I’d hoped for and set my goals for, or whether I didn’t, there’s always something you learn.”

Just like any good book.

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Kikkan Randall

Cross-Country Skiing