Of the many story lines that came of the New York Marathon this November, perhaps the most inspiring was the performance of Kikkan Randall. The 35-year-old was racing in her first-ever marathon, yet she finished 51st among all women and 12th in her age group. It was impressive, even for Randall, one of the most accomplished cross-country ski racers in American history, especially when you consider that just 18 months earlier, she’d been diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer. Outside contributor Stephanie Joyce talks to Randall about her pattern of coming back stronger from tough times and failure, and where she goes from here.
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Peter Frick-Wright (Host): If not for bringing people inspirational stories of overcoming adversity, what are marathons for?
And of the many storylines that came to prominence at the New York Marathon last month, perhaps the most inspiring was the performance of Kikkan Randall. It was her first-ever marathon—she was 35 years old—and yet she finished 51st among all women and 12th in her age group. It was impressive, even for Kikkan, who is one of the most accomplished cross-country ski racers in American history.
Still, going into New York, she wasn't just looking to challenge herself by taking up a new sport: in May of 2018— about 18 months ago—Kikkan had been diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer. And here she was running a marathon.
Coming back stronger from tough times and failure is something Kikkan has been doing for her entire career. I mean, her extreme grit earned her the nickname Kikk-animal, back in high school.
Outside contributor Stephanie Joyce talked to her about how she got so tough, and how she came back, so fast.
Early last month, at the NYC marathon, one of the unexpected storylines was the exceptional performance of the masters division of women runners. Four women in their 40s finished in the top 15. The takeaway was, basically, that even if you’re getting past what people think of as your athletic prime, you can be young in running years.
Stephanie Joyce: Kikkan wasn’t feeling at the top of her game heading into the 2018 Winter Olympics. It was her fifth Games. She was a world-class cross-country skier—the first American woman with a shot at a medal—But six weeks before getting to Pyeongchang, she’d developed a stress fracture in her foot.
Kikkan Randall: And so I had to get back off of skiing, and I was aqua-jogging in the pool, and doing all these alternative exercises. And I wasn't cleared to start skiing until about three weeks before the Olympics.
Joyce: And even then, Kikkan wasn’t sure she would actually get the chance to race. The younger skiers on the team, who had come up behind her, were skiing really well.
Randall: So as we came to the Olympics, the coaches were going to be deciding who got to do what race literally the day or two before. Because we had a limited number of spots, and they had to pick the girls—the women—that they thought were going to be the fastest on that day, in that event.
Joyce: The coaches decided to give her a chance… and her first race was okay. Her second was a little better, but neither was a medal-worthy performance. And Kikkan wasn’t sure she’d get another chance. There were just a few days left in the Olympics, and only one more race for her to compete in: the team sprint. It’s a two-person relay, with handoffs every one and a quarter kilometers. One of the spots was definitely going to Jessie Diggins, the team’s up-and-coming star. But it wasn’t until thirty-six hours before the race that the coaches told Kikkan she would be the other skier.
Randall: I was really nervous about skiing the first leg. Because I was up against Marit Bjorgen and Charlotte Kalla, who are two very successful distance skiers. And since we're racing three rounds, I knew I was going to have to really stay with them.
So, you know, first lap goes through, okay, I'm sticking with them, I'm feeling good. Second lap, the pace accelerates. By the end of the second lap, you know, it was kinda down to three teams. And so if I could just hang on in that last lap. I knew barring disaster, we'd probably get a medal. So it was pretty wild to, uh, to be watching the three skiers come down that final downhill.
[Cut to audio clip from the race]
Announcer: As they come into the stadium, Diggin’s trying to get in on the outside. Jesse Diggins…
Randall: When they came into the stadium and, and Jesse, you know, was right behind Sweden. It was like, now is when we, we may make it, we could fight for like the silver…
Announcer: Outside, in the second place…
Randall: And then all of a sudden it was like, oh my gosh, we're fighting for the gold.
Announcer: Diggins, making the play around Sweden. Jesse Diggins to the line. And it is Jesse Diggins.
Randall: And... and then I got to run over and tackle Jessie. Um, and she still had enough breath to say: Did we just win the Olympics?
Announcer: The first-ever cross-country gold medal for the US.
[Clip fades, audible cheering]
Joyce: Winning an Olympic gold medal—in fact, winning an Olympic medal, period—was something Kikkan had been working towards for almost 20 years. She started cross-country skiing when she was five, in her hometown of Anchorage, Alaska. Her parents signed her up for a junior Nordic program that practiced after school, in the dark, under stadium lights.
Randall: I will admit that I did not love it at first. Um, I remember whining and complaining to my parents that it was cold and that it was boring. But they did a very artful job of reminding me that if I skied up the hill, then I got to go down the hill. And I could go off jumps and we could make slalom courses out of our poles. And we would play these games, like tag, on our skis. And after that first season or two, my parents said: Okay, if you, if you don't like it, you can try other things. And so I took a break for a few years. And then I came back to it because my cousins were doing it, and two of my aunts were coaching, and I really looked up to them. And then from there on, I loved it, although I didn't realize it was going to be my full time pursuit until I was about 16.
Joyce: That’s when Kikkan joined the very serious club team at Alaska Pacific University. The next year she was named to the US ski team. And by the time she was 19, she was on her way to her first Olympics in Salt Lake City.
Randall: When I was out there, kind of warming up for my first race, I was watching the skiers go by that I still had on my wall. And I just, I jump in behind them, and just follow them for a little while. And I probably trained a little too hard those two weeks, cause I was just having fun. Kind of testing the waters. And my best, my best race was 44th so I—I remember, even though I knew I was just getting there for experience, I still, it was still hard not to feel a little bit overwhelmed and a little bit disappointed to, to not be that more competitive. But at the same time, it just fueled the fire inside me to be competitive someday. It was after those games that I sat down with my coach and we kind of mapped out all the different steps we felt I was going to need to make to reach the podium. And once we mapped it out, it was going to be a ten year process. And, uh, that was pretty daunting at the time. But it also gave me a roadmap to... and allowed me to see that, that it was possible, but I just did it one step at a time.
Joyce: I mean, that's a pretty remarkable thing for a 19 year old to do, to map out a ten year plan and then actually stick to it.
Randall: Yeah. Uh, it's, it's crazy to look back on it now. I mean, I think at the time I thought, well, this is plan. Looks like it's going to take 10 years, but I'm going to work extra hard. I'm gonna make it happen way sooner than that. So that kind of motivated me in the beginning. And then as I've got… as I was working my way through it, there were definitely points when I felt very far from being on track. And, um, 2005, I remember being a real low point. Because I finished dead last at the world championships, and just was missing home. Our women's team got pulled out of the relay. Um, and then that next season, the US ski team decided to not fund any development skiers or any women skiers. So it was just going, man, is this even possible?
Joyce: In spite of those doubts, Kikkan stuck to the plan, and things did get better. She started climbing in the World Cup rankings and racking up podiums at various international competitions. So, heading into the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Kikkan was a gold medal favorite.
Randall: Up to that point, it felt like everything was coming together. And it was kind of like, Oh my gosh, wow. This 10 year plan, it really paid off. But what I found out that I had missed the quarter finals by five hundredths of a second. Um. I just, it's just… it's shock at first. You just can't believe that that one opportunity you've been working on for your entire life and all of a sudden it's done. It's over. And I did the best I could. Um, I tried to put the race behind me and focus on the three other opportunities we had in the relay events, um, for the rest of the week when those didn't pan out. I definitely was feeling pretty beat up at the end of those Olympics. But I knew life was going to be okay.
Joyce: How quickly did you decide to try again in 2018?
Randall: Um, I mean, I knew at the end of 2014 that even though I wouldn't get a chance at my best individual event in 2018, our team really had a good chance. And I also knew that I'd done so much hard work and that it was just getting to the fun part. Um. That I wasn't really ready to walk away, but my husband and I also wanted to start a family. So we kind of like looked at that four year period and I kind of wanted to race. I wanted to race the season after 2014 because I wanted to kind of prove to myself that I could be strong, and we had a world championship that year. And so I kind of went after one more season. Um, ended up kind of frying myself though, because I was, I was just a little bit too intent on proving myself.
And I was still catching up on all the sponsor obligations and things from 2014 and ended up a little bit, uh, flat that season and kind of fried and overdone.
Joyce: So you had a… you had a tough 2014 season, a tough 2015 season. Then you decided to have your son in 2016 you know, and.. some women recover really quickly from childbirth, but others don't. It takes, it takes a long time. How did you think about that risk at the time you made the decision: the risk that you might not be able to compete in 2018?
Randall: Well to me, really that that second, that last four years was kind of icing on the cake. Because if I looked back at my career up through 2014, I had won three overall Sprint Globes, which had never even been a possibility when I started. I'd won 13 world cup races, uh, two world championship medals. I’d had a very successful career. The only thing missing was that Olympic medal. And so I, I was very content with what I'd accomplished. So that if I didn't ever make it back after having a baby, that was okay.
Joyce: You know, you've been an athlete your whole life. You obviously, you know, see your body as something that's capable of a lot, but did, did having to give birth and then come back from that, did that change how you saw your body?
Randall: Yeah. I think anytime your body goes through a major change, um, it makes you kind of stop and really appreciate... Um, how it feels to be in really good shape. As I kind of gradually came back into top form, I was kind of recognizing the improvement at each stage. I kind of felt like every three weeks I would notice like, wow, I feel even stronger. And so it was kinda cool, because for probably 15 years. I had just been getting gradually and better and better and better shape. So I never had that chance to step back and, like, feel myself really getting in shape again. And being pregnant kind of gave me that opportunity. Um, and so I definitely came out of it with a greater appreciation for my body, for all the things I love to do.
Joyce: Kikkan had already decided to retire from skiing before she won the gold in Pyeongchang. She was 34, and had spent her entire adult life as a professional ski racer. She felt like it was time to try something new. So, the summer before the Olympics, she and her husband, Jeff, started packing up their house in Anchorage, getting ready to move to British Columbia with their son Breck.
Randall: Because my husband received this job offer and we had decided to commit to it. So it was, it was pretty wild, but it was also kind of exciting. An exciting way to really start the next chapter. Because I think, if I'd come back to Anchorage and, you know, after maybe the craziness of finishing the gold medal and the season, you know, a month later, the inclination would have been like, okay, it's May 1st, it's time to start training again. And so in a way to move somewhere different, it was like, okay, we're really starting fresh. And it was so crazy, uh, because of the gold medal, um, in addition to everything else that when I finally kinda got to Penticton, and we're here, had been here for a week or two, it was like, Oh my gosh, I could finally take a deep breath and think about starting this chapter.
Joyce: Yeah. What did that—when you finally had a chance to actually breathe, and be like, okay, now, it's time to think about what's next, how did that feel?
Randall: I was just… I mean, I was still recovering from this overwhelming experience of everything is so much happening so fast. And you know, some of it was just kind of like still that just in awe of like, wow, that 10 year plan, you know, that that whole thing, this dreaming about this, you know, we actually did it. And then also realizing like, okay, if I were to sit down and try to make a 10 year plan for the future and what my next goal is, now all of a sudden things are way less clear. And, uh, you know, it's like a little bit daunting to be like, okay, what is next?
So it just, yeah, it was a lot to think about, and figure out, but, but I was just in such a good place to, to really start tackling that.
And the last thing on my mind was that there was something lurking that was just going to change everything.
Joyce: Three months after she won at the Olympics, on Mother’s Day 2018, Kikkan was still settling in to her new home in Penticton, British Columbia. She remembers it being a warm, sunny day.
Randall: We live right across from these trails up on a mountainside. And so being so new to town, we're like, let's go explore. And I'm in the middle of May, they have these big yellow flowers that come out. They're called Balsam root. Um, and so there were just these yellow flowers everywhere. And Breck had just turned two years old, so he's kind of toddling around. And so we just out went out for this hike and, and I just remember going like, wow, we've moved to such a cool place and here we are all together. And, uh, it just, it was just such a great day. Um, and then getting ready for bed that night, I just happened to brush past a spot and a hard spot, and I thought it was my rib bone at first. And I kind of had the joke—joking thought in my head—of like, geez, it's been a month since I stopped strength training, and I'm already losing my muscle. Like I thought it was my rib bone poking out. But then, um, then I felt that, and it was actually like a little hard spot that was kind of moving around. And so I showed it to Jeff and he's like, yeah, that's kind of weird. And just instantly, I had this kind of sinking feeling about it. Like it just, it, it bugged me that it was Sunday night and I couldn't do anything about it until at least the next morning.
I just, I just wanted to know.
[Suspenseful musical break]
So the next morning I, I marched into the mammogram department at the local hospital and, uh, not knowing that I needed to be referred. Um, so then I went to the hospital to a walk in clinic, um, to see a doctor. And when I saw the doctor there, he's like, Oh, okay, well, you know, I feel something, but you're young and healthy, so it's probably nothing. Um, but let's go ahead and get the scans. So I said, great.
And then I went in for the mammogram and ultrasound and whatever they saw on the ultrasound was concerning. So then they did a biopsy. Um, and again, I'm still going, okay, well, it's probably gonna be nothing. Um, but when I, when I got the call and found out it was actual, like breast cancer, it just, I couldn't believe it. I mean, um, I just, I couldn't believe it. Coming off of feeling so strong, how that could, how that could happen.
Joyce: Was there a lot of denial? Like, this can’t be happening to me?
Randall: Certainly. Denial, and a lot of frustration of just like, this isn't fair. Like I've done all the right things. You know, I've taken good care of myself. I have so many things I want to do and, uh, I feel fine. Like this is, this can't be true. I think as an Olympic athlete, always feeling pretty strong, I just almost had this invincibility complex sometimes of just because I worked so hard and I take good care that I, you know, I can get through anything. And this was just one of those, the first things I had to confront that I was not going to have a whole lot of control over. I mean, I wasn't going to be able to outwork it or out will it. I was just going to have to really literally hope for the best.
Joyce: Being diagnosed with cancer wasn’t Kikkan’s first medical scare. Back in 2008, she developed a serious blood clot that landed her in the hospital and almost ended her career. But cancer felt really different.
Randall: First of all, you know, am I gonna live through this? And that the treatment itself was, was a lot more intimidating of either major surgery or chemotherapy, and radiation, and how that was going to feel, and how that was going to change my body for, you know, is it going to change it drastically for the rest of my life? And, um, but just. And I think too, when I had the blood clot, you know, Jeff and I were just about to get married, but when I got the cancer diagnosis, you know, we had Breck and just the, the reality of how it was going to impact my family as well.
Joyce: On July 11, 2018 Kikkan posted a short essay on her website, titled “New Diagnosis.” She disclosed that she had started chemotherapy earlier in the week, and promised that she would keep her fans up-to-date on her treatment through vlogs.
[Audio from vlog]
Randall: Hello, Kikkan here. Chemo day one is all wrapped up…
[Vlog audio ends]
Randall: I chose to be really open about it because of the experiences I'd had going through things like the blood clot. Like when I had the blood clot, I also kind of shared what was going on because I thought it was important that I let people know that here I was, this strong athlete, and yet it could happen to me too. And I also just felt like so many people had been on the journey with me through all the... all the athletic goals, and pursuits, and the highs, and the lows, that it was important to share this, to say this, you know, this is my life. It's not just all the podiums, it's, you know, it's ups and downs, and kind of gives some meaning to what I was going through.
[Audio from vlog. Randall speaks with a scratchy voice]
Randall: Hello from day 27. As you can tell, I’ve kind of lost my voice. It’s day six of second round…
[Vlog audio ends]
Randall: What I didn't realize was how much I was going to get back from, from being open. Like I just thought I'm going to be keeping everybody updated. I didn't realize how much, how important the support coming back to me, it was going to... the difference it was going to make in keeping my spirits up. In, you know, practical tips on how to get through this stuff that I, you know, a totally new world I was exploring. Knowing an audience is watching, I guess, Um, kinda helped keep me focused, and it reminded me to stay positive. And some of these things, um, that if I decided to be a lot more private about, you know, when I was having tough moments, you know, I could, I could have gotten no one, you know, I could've laid on the couch, I could have given myself a pity party, you know? Um, so it was just, it was just kinda cool to, to have that kind of like, to continue being a role model and being on display and how much it, it kept me accountable.
[Audio from vlog]
Randall: Hello from Day 130. Whew. Sounds like a lot. Today was full of follow-up appointments with my oncologist, my breast surgeon, and a check-in with the radiation oncologist. Everyone was in a really good mood given the pathology report from yesterday saying that all the cancer, as far as we can tell, is gone.
Joyce: How did your doctor actually deliver the news that you… that your treatments had worked?
Randall: With a GIF, on a text message, of a woman dancing. Yep. Um, so the, the best indicator that we had that my treatment was successful was when my breast surgeon went in and cut out the tissue where the tumor had been. Because she was able to see that the chemotherapy had, um, shrunk the tumor, um, to where it's... It actually had completely disappeared. Like, there was no visible sign of the tumor anymore. And so that was really good, because that's the best outcome you can ask for.
But at the same time, like, I know that this cancer thing, like, my treatment has gone well, and we have all the reason to be optimistic, but, um, you... they don't... they don't have a way to say: Hey, you've been completely cured. Like there's always a risk of recurrence, um, in a either local way or more serious way.
So, um, nothing is guaranteed. And again, it comes down to mindset. Say, well: I could be scared the rest of my life, or I can just say, you know what? I'm going to choose to focus that things have gone well. We're optimistic and I'm going to look forward.
Joyce: Not long after she got the all-clear, Kikkan signed up for the 2019 New York marathon. She had been planning to run the race in 2018—before she got her diagnosis—and even briefly thought about trying to do it that year, during treatment.
Randall: But after a couple of rounds of chemo, I realized that probably wasn't the smartest thing to do because my immune system was already compromised.
Joyce: Uh huh.
Randall: And it probably wasn't gonna feel that great. And, um, so I just decided I would go support my teammate who was going to run it. So I was there watching her run, and standing in the finish area, watching her come across the line. It just kind of made me realize like, okay, a year from now, I think I'll be feeling better, and I want to come back and I want to run this marathon.
Joyce: Not only did you sign up for the New York city marathon shortly after finishing cancer treatment, you wanted to run a sub-three marathon, which is obviously very fast. Why was that time so important to you? Why was it important to you to run fast?
Randall: I've always been someone who likes to go after something challenging. So I think for me to just run the marathon, um, wasn't, wasn't enough of a goal.
Like, I wanted to try to give myself something chase after. So I literally sat down and I said, well, my 5k time, I can do a five K around 18 minutes. So I thought, well, I’m going to have to run a little slower for the marathon. So I just kind of picked a pace that sounded reasonable. And, and to me, I was like, Oh, three hours. What I didn't realize is that 26 miles is a long way. That you have to not only run, you have to run that pace over and over and over. And I also didn't realize how hard it was going to be on my legs after coming off of such a ski background.
Joyce: Yeah, I can... I can imagine. But obviously, you made it. You ran a 2:55.
Randall: I would say 90% of the training over the summer really made me question why I signed up for this, and whether or not I was going to be able to get under three hours. Because I would do these long runs and I would be so sore. And I do like a tempo run and my goal pace would feel hard for like five miles. And then thinking about running an additional 21 on top of that.
Um, but then when it came to New York—to the race day—it just ended up being such a great day. Like, two of my teammates that I ski raced with, um, decided to come and run it with me, and we miraculously found each other all at the start.
So we're running along. It's like a, it's a beautiful day. Like, I think it was like a perfect temperature. Um, we're, we're running the pace, we're running all together, and then over the second half, of course, it got hard, but my legs were hanging in there and… to get in, under the, well, under the goal, and to have done it with my teammates on such a beautiful day. And then to be able to cross that finish line and just go... Like, all that's transpired in the past year, it's a, I don't know if I'll ever be able to do another marathon because everything went so well.
Joyce: [Laughs] Yeah, you don’t want to ruin the experience.
Joyce: Do you think that, in some form or another racing… you know, you're somebody who has lived the last 20 years of their life with, you know, a goal, a race to win, to plan for. Do you think that racing going forward is always going to be a part of your life in some way or another?
Randall: Yeah. I, um, when I retired last spring, I was so excited to, to not have a special training program, to follow the fact that I can, you know, just do anything. And if a friend called and said, we want to go ride, like, great, we can do that. But it would literally like get out the door and I would be paralyzed by indecision. Because I had so many choices of what to do. I couldn't decide. And so I realized pretty quickly that I like having a goal and I like doing a training program that helps me feel stronger as I go. Um, and so it was… it was so fun to have a goal this year that was something a little bit different than what I'm used to. Um, that kept me kind of getting out the door every day and building up to it. And then to have that really good performance. I mean, I felt like I was kind of floating off the ground for the whole week after that.
I love the endorphins and the feeling of a good race. And so I am realizing that, um, I think racing will be a part of my life. I love racing. I love the way it makes me feel and I love preparing for them.
[Music fades out]
Frick-Wright: That’s Kikkan Randall. She’s got two 50K ski races on the books for this winter… and she’s open to suggestions for other events she should enter.
This story was produced by Stephanie Joyce and edited by Mike Roberts. Music by Robbie Carver.
This episode of The Outside Podcast was brought to you by Bob’s Red Mill. Making ingredients that are the backbone of proper nutrition for athletes.
The Outside Podcast is a production of Outside Integrated Media and distributed by PRX.
We’ll be back next week.