The Rough Terrain

The Rough Terrain

Kikkan Randall had everything -- a long-awaited Olympic cross-country skiing gold medal in Pyeongchang, a family life with her husband and toddler son. And then she had breast cancer.


Kikkan Randall had barely caught her breath when she found the lump.

It was the evening of Mother's Day. She'd gone hiking after breakfast with her husband, Jeff Ellis, and their toddler son, Breck, a rare few hours of peace together. Nearly three frenetic months had hurtled by since she and Jessie Diggins had teamed up at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games to win a first-ever U.S. Olympic cross-country skiing gold medal.

The moment when the two women embraced beyond the finish line, screaming their euphoria, was both surreal in its perfection and methodical in its making. It came in Kikkan's final race in the last of her five Winter Games appearances, in a sport in which it once seemed U.S. athletes were doomed to frustration.

She was the constant: the teenage prodigy from Anchorage who became a barrier-breaking World Cup and world champion, the competitor-in-chief who raced with face paint and pink-streaked hair, the driven, playful spirit embodied by her nickname, "Kikkanimal.''

All the hoopla and media attention felt so gratifying after years of toiling under the radar. But she never second-guessed her decision to retire. She had a clear vision of her future. Now, her discovery presented a disconcertingly blank space.

Her fingers had skimmed over the unfamiliar hard spot by chance while she was getting ready for bed. That's weird, Kikkan thought. Was it part of a rib bone? She showed Jeff where it was and asked him to press on it. He guessed it might be cartilage. They agreed she should get it checked out.

Kikkan hadn't yet received her biopsy results in late May when she flew to Sweden to attend a good friend's wedding. She confided her situation to longtime U.S. teammate Liz Stephen shortly after they landed. Almost immediately, Kikkan's cellphone buzzed. Liz couldn't hear the other end of the conversation, but when Kikkan glanced at her with raised eyebrows, she knew.

"That whole weekend, she never once brought it up to our really good friends who were getting married,'' Liz said. "She wanted the weekend to be all about them. She had fun. You wouldn't have known or had any idea. Even I forgot, a lot of times. She just put it in the box: 'As soon as I get through this wedding, we'll open up that box and figure out what to do from there.'"

Kikkan was admittedly in shock. After a lifetime of anticipating what was around the next turn, she'd been blindsided. She was 35. Her bright, trusting little boy had just turned 2 years old. Sure, she'd had physical setbacks before, including a dangerous iliac blood clot. But she had treated her body like a sacred vessel. She had no family history of breast cancer. She felt so good.

She didn't cry when Jeff answered his phone at their new home in western Canada. But each call got harder. She broke down when she reached her sister Kalli. She texted some close friends because it was easier than uttering the words again.

Her mother was waiting with Jeff and Breck when Kikkan arrived home a few days later. "That's when the gravity of the situation really hit me,'' Deborah Randall said. "She was on the phone, trying to sort through insurance stuff. Breck didn't understand why she wasn't playing with him. He crawled up on her lap, and she started sobbing. It's the only time I've ever seen her do that.''

Kikkan has had little time to savor the crowning accomplishment of a year ago. She went right back into training, to keep herself in fighting shape. She decided she would document the physical and emotional distance she traveled and share her experience publicly. It turned into an exercise she never could have imagined.

"I've always talked about how important it is to overcome adversity and stay positive, and this where these lessons really come into play,'' Kikkan said. "It's great when you can overcome and push yourself 30 more seconds on a race course, or through a tough day at work, but when your life is at stake, it's good that I've had to listen to my own advice a little bit.''

She started from a different place than most people fighting cancer, with years of extraordinary fitness and focus on her side. Yet the disease can be an obdurate leveler. Letting the world see her at her most vulnerable was against Kikkan's grain in some ways, but she has come to regard it as just another way to lead.


Olympic cross-country skier Kikkan Randall documents her journey of recovery from her battle with breast cancer.

I hear her from downstairs before I spot her on the second floor of The Alaska Club fitness center east of downtown Anchorage: Whap-whap-whap-whap on the treadmill in what is unmistakably an elite athlete's cadence.

Dragging from travel fatigue, I'm tempted to hang back and observe, but I look at her flying feet, her ardent arm swing and the peach fuzz starting to spread on her scalp, and think, If she's doing it, I guess I have to. She has breast cancer. What's my excuse? I step on a treadmill behind her and begin to jog.

When I relate this to people who know her well, they nod knowingly. I've just experienced the Kikkan Effect, a powerful vortex evident long before her diagnosis. It pulls people toward her and spins them back out, doing things they might otherwise resist. They hear her in their heads: Come on. It'll be fun. We'll be better.

"That's how we all feel up here,'' says Rachel Samuelson, a physician who is part of Kikkan's posse of high school cross-country skiing and running teammates. "'If she's doing that much, at least I can do this much. I should at least be able to go on a half-hour run.'

"In high school, I hated getting up early. But for each of our birthdays, we would all go to the birthday girl's house at 6 in the morning and jump on their bed and have doughnuts in their room. That was Kikkan's idea.'' Samuelson pauses, then adds: "The only reason I say that is that I cannot imagine any of us coming up with that idea. Only Kikkan.''

She was a born original, a kid who wore her own uniform of khaki shorts and a Hawaiian shirt every day of junior high school, a whimsical ringleader who bought into the ethic preached by East Anchorage High School cross-country coach Harry Johnson: Be a team away from practice, too. The girls' team made capes and paper crowns to race in and doused themselves with glitter.

Kikkan owes her talent to both nature and nurture. Her father Ronn put her into alpine ski boots while she was still learning to walk. Two of her mother's siblings, Betsy and Chris Haines, were cross-country skiing Olympians. Her family's ethic was to be outdoors, moving, whenever possible.

Yet even in that animated household, Kikkan was so consistently positive, motivated and disciplined that "we joked she was an alien superhero,'' says her mother, Deborah, an Anchorage attorney who exudes some of the same relentless optimism. "She doesn't let life take charge of her. She takes charge of life.''

No one else could have induced her brother Tanner to go running at dawn in 15-degree temperatures. "She has a very great way of inspiring -- she pushes but not to the point of being obnoxious,'' he says.

Kalli, an actress and bartender in Chicago, says, "I've always revered my sister as this untouchable human, this god-creature -- toned and beautiful and strong.''

Everyone talks about her this way. Liz says: "She has been from day one the person I look to for strength in anything. She was the first person who I felt like embodied the ability to kick your ass and be the best in the world, but also be incredibly humble.''

It seems like a lot to carry. I ask Kikkan about this after her workout. We're doing our second lengthy interview, and I have yet to hear her say she is afraid or angry.

"I would say the moments that are toughest for me are when I talk about confronting the mortality of this,'' she says. "That piece, every so often, gets in my head and I think about my family.''

Her speech slows and her eyes well up and spill over. She keeps talking. I pull out a tissue and put it on the table between us. She ignores it.

"Things like this are indiscriminate,'' Kikkan says. "Doesn't matter if you're a good person or you're totally healthy. Sometimes this stuff just happens, and there's a lot worse things that happen to really good people, and they've come out stronger because of it. This is something I can get through, something I can manage. I try to acknowledge those things and reframe.''

She doesn't swipe at the tears, and they air-dry on her cheeks.


Jessie Diggins, left, and Kikkan Randall celebrate after winning cross-country gold at the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic Games on Feb. 21, 2018. EPA/DIEGO AZUBEL

The drama of Pyeongchang almost fizzled before it began. Kikkan was in a walking boot mere weeks before the Winter Games, working out in the pool rather than on snow, fearful she had a stress fracture in one foot. The coaches made a late call to name her to the team sprint event, in which two teammates alternate, relay-style, on six 1.25-kilometer loops raced full-tilt.

Twenty years of striving had funneled down to one last chance as the veteran trailblazer and team builder tagged off to her successor.

Their paths initially crossed when Kikkan was 26 and Jessie was a star-struck 17-year-old about to race junior nationals in Anchorage. Fresh from the World Cup circuit, Kikkan entered the room on a unicycle, leaving Jessie even more in awe. She waited in line to get an autographed poster, and when the supply ran out, Jessie fished through the trash, found an empty Rice Krispies box and carefully tore out a neat square. Kikkan signed it. Jessie still has it.

They paired up -- Jessie leading off, Kikkan anchoring -- to win the team sprint in the 2013 world championships, a new milestone for the U.S. team. Kikkan looked poised to end the women's Olympic medal shutout in the individual event at the 2014 Sochi Games the next winter. (The only other U.S. medal on the books is a silver won by Bill Koch in 1976). But on the bleakest day of her competitive career, Kikkan was eliminated in a quarterfinal heat by a maddening, heartbreaking 0.06-second margin.

The two women swapped roles in the team sprint in Pyeongchang. This time Kikkan led off and Jessie brought it home, passing Sweden's Stina Nilsson in the stretch and holding on to win by 0.19 seconds at the line.

Jeff was in the finish area, where he was working for the International Ski Federation. He was tasked with keeping athletes from bolting into the finish area too soon, to make sure working photographers got unimpeded shots. When he gave the OK, Kikkan launched herself at Jessie, and he stood holding his wife's skis with tears streaming down his cheeks under his sunglasses. They embraced at some point in the hubbub. They are a pragmatic couple and they figured there would be plenty of time to enjoy things later.

After a post-gold-medal media tour, Kikkan raced the last couple of World Cups and came home to Anchorage for a celebration. The prospect of retirement didn't faze her. She'd always had a firm grip on her emotions. She had so many plans that would fill the competitive void.

Foremost was to have another child after she and Jeff and Breck relocated to Penticton, British Columbia, where Jeff had taken a new job. Her peers had just elected her to be an athlete representative to the International Olympic Committee. She was brimming with ideas, fielding requests. As she and Jeff packed for the move, she thought her biggest challenge might be learning when to say no.


Kikkan shows the area of her breast where she had a lumpectomy. Ash Adams for ESPN

After the first numbing jolt of the news, the people who knew Kikkan best felt a near-mystical confidence that she would find a way to prevail.

"I think Kikkan's gonna be able to beat anything that's thrown at her,'' U.S. head coach Matt Whitcomb said last year. "I don't know if that's realistic, but .... What she can do is generally in excess of what most people can handle. That isn't to say it's easy for her. She's not writing as many of her own rules as she did.''

She had to scramble for traction initially, between jobs and countries, uninsured in either the U.S. or the Canadian health care systems. The U.S. Olympic Committee ultimately agreed to extend Kikkan's coverage, and she decided to commute to Anchorage for treatment. First would come six rounds of chemotherapy, three weeks apart, starting in July. Then surgery. Then radiation.

But first, she and Jeff decided to invest in hope. She underwent fertility treatments as a prelude to in vitro fertilization. The process initially yielded several embryos, but that number dwindled, achingly, to just one viable enough to be stored in the event that Kikkan is able to contemplate a pregnancy in the next few years.

Kikkan and Jeff, a former NCAA and Canadian national team 400-meter hurdler who later transitioned to ski racing, met at a postrace bowling social and were married in May 2008 under an arch of crossed skis. Beneath his amiable manner and easy smile is a high-level athlete's mindset and a deep understanding of what it takes to succeed.

Jeff often introduces himself as "Mr. Kikkan" without a shred of self-consciousness -- "When I stopped racing, and certainly when we had Breck, we both couldn't be hard driving at something,'' he said -- but after years of hopping from gig to gig to follow her career, they had decided it was his turn to pursue an opportunity in Penticton. They bought a house on a hill overlooking the picturesque town on Okanagan Lake and found day care for Breck a short walk away.

Right before Kikkan started treatment, Jeff embarked on a 34-hour solo drive from British Columbia to Alaska to return a leased car. He passed the tedious hours by listening to podcasts about entrepreneurship, and by the time he arrived in Alaska, he'd made up his mind about how they would wring something good out of the months to come. He would quit his new job, manage Kikkan's business and make sure Breck had stability.

Kikkan rode her bike to her first chemo infusion and wore tie-dyed running shoes that made her happy. She invited the media. Friends and family kept her company. She announced her diagnosis publicly on Instagram a day later, saying the color pink had taken on a new significance for her. She began recording her daily blogs, often alone in a bedroom in her mother's Anchorage condo, talking into a smartphone mounted on a tripod. She sent the clips to Jeff, who posted them on her eponymous website the next morning.

The couple collaborated on a project to create wildly colorful socks imprinted with the words "It is going to be OK!'' -- incorporating a pink K for Kikkan. Part of the proceeds would go to AKTIV Against Cancer, an organization that promotes fitness for cancer patients and survivors. She would wear the socks during infusions to keep her feet warm and her mind on track. More than 1,000 pairs sold in the first three weeks.

Support poured in on her Instagram feed and on kikkan.com. Jeff and Tanner shaved their heads when she did. Kalli and her co-workers at the Haymarket Pub & Brewery in Chicago concocted a Belgian Tripel beer called "My Breast Friend,'' infused with organic Egyptian hibiscus tea to impart a hint of pink, with a dollar per pint channeled into Kikkan's favorite charities.

"I knew I was well-supported as an athlete, but the number of people who have been sending me messages, notes, stopping me in public since the diagnosis is way beyond what I ever experienced skiing,'' Kikkan said. "When you're conquering the race results, you think you know what you mean to people, but I think it's even more powerful when you're in a situation like this, where you're not the strong, invincible one.''

It was an unintended consequence: a different kind of Kikkan Effect.


Radiation, the last major step in Kikkan's treatment, ended in January. Ash Adams for ESPN

There was a certain defiance in Kikkan's attitude when treatment started. She toyed with entering the New York City Marathon. Why not? It would be three weeks after her last infusion. She imagined the bad side effects would come in waves and she'd be able to train in between. In the end, she set the more modest goal of doing at least an hour of activity a day, mixing in weights and core work.

But the second round of chemo knocked the wind out of her. She'd picked up a bug, and the virus blew through her weakened immune system, bringing fever, congestion and profound fatigue. She recorded some blogs in a hoarse whisper, lying in bed.

Liz arrived for a visit that week.

"She barely got off the grass to come hug me after she had gone on a bike ride,'' Liz said. "I wasn't prepared for the deadness I saw in her eyes. It was thrown right in my face. Like, this is happening, you can't ignore this. You can't decide Kikkan's bigger than this. Nobody's bigger than this. You can mentally fight something in a super-positive and super-legitimate fashion, but it's gonna hit her like it's gonna hit another human.''

Kikkan recovered and gradually learned how to ride out the cycles of nausea and lethargy and fluid retention that caused her to gain as much as 12 pounds of water weight after an infusion. Curious about her new physical limits, she pushed herself on runs, mountain bike rides and roller-ski interval sessions. She set such a torrid pace on one hike that Rachel and another friend whispered to each other and decided to turn her around. Sometimes the workouts backfired. Other times, she momentarily forgot what she was up against.

Breck was thankfully too young to absorb much, beyond an obvious visual cue: He once pointed to a hairless mannequin in a display window and said, "Mommy!'' He sometimes seemed to intuit when Kikkan didn't have the energy to horse around with him, or could toss him into the air only 10 times instead of 20.

The blog presented an unexpected challenge. Kikkan and Jeff got feedback that she presented herself as too positive at times, that she was making the journey look too easy. She had to force herself off her default setting of upbeat role model and allow glimpses into times when she was hollow-eyed and discouraged. Jeff noticed that views increased when she had a bad day, and chalked it up to a collective fascination with how she'd react.

Kikkan grew more introspective as the weeks spooled out. She emphasized how spending a day idling indoors made her more apt to nosedive emotionally. Anyone could relate to that, she thought.

Day 36: "Catching my reflection through the car window in the mirror. I have no choice but to embrace it.''

Day 62: "I woke up from my nap today in a bad mood. All the things this has gotten in the way of, all the things this will affect in the future. I had to fight off negative thoughts. I think it's because I didn't get out for a workout. I will do that tomorrow, even if it's just for 30 minutes.''

Day 78: "Spent the day staring at the computer screen and I notice a huge difference in my coping skills, focus, and overall happiness.''

Day 110: "I hate when I have to admit I'm not superhuman.''

Kikkan traveled to New York the week before the marathon after all, not to race, but to accept an award from AKTIV. She stood at the dais at the New York Athletic Club in a sleeveless hot-pink dress, bald and lean, her bare arms still ropy with muscle, and told the luncheon gathering about the disappointment of Sochi. She described seeing the United States atop the digital scoreboard in Pyeongchang. She held up her gold medal.

"Right away, I committed to myself and to the public that I was going to stay active, because I knew that was going to be key not only to helping my body process and beat this cancer, but it was also going to be the mental part I needed to get through it day to day,'' she said.

"When you come into the doctor's office and they flood you with all this information, it's not the first thing that comes to mind. In fact, what they tell you is, 'Rest, be careful, take care of yourself.' And yes, that is to be respected for sure, but you can't just stop what you're used to. You've got to keep doing it,'' she says.


Kikkan, left, and her family open presents in Anchorage on Christmas Day. Ash Adams for ESPN

Two days after her Nov. 8 lumpectomy in Anchorage, Kikkan posted a short Instagram video in which she skied with one pole -- her left -- and rested her right hand near her hip to spare the side where she'd had surgery. She'd already been told she would have to go back in for a second excision to ensure no precancerous cells lurked in the margins. The ensuing pathology would dictate whether or not she continued her treatment as planned, or considered a possible mastectomy.

Kikkan didn't want to sit and churn about it. She and her high school girlfriends made a Sunday night date to meet at the Bear Tooth Theatrepub for a showing of "Face of Winter'' -- the most recent in the film series created by pioneering winter sport cinematographer Warren Miller. It was a throwback to their teenage days, when seeing Miller's latest release was an annual ritual at the start of ski season.

Thanks to Kikkan and Jessie, producers featured cross-country skiing alongside alpine and extreme skiing for the first time. Their images filled the big screen: Kikkan skidding on her knees toward Jessie, who lay spread-eagled on her back past the finish line; Kikkan's cheekbones flushed pink, her signature shade, the picture of health. The contrast between the elation of Pyeongchang and the reality just nine months later felt inescapably cruel.

The crowd erupted at the sight of their hometown heroine, larger than life. Kikkan watched herself from the front row, the reflected glow illuminating her face, smiling slightly, her gaze unreadable. A couple of her friends dabbed at their eyes. "I want to see it again,'' one murmured.

Asked to give impromptu remarks at intermission, Kikkan bounded onto the stage and enthusiastically plugged the local ski area benefitting from the screening. A knitted hat covered her shaved head. Her quadriceps still appeared formidably carved underneath her jeans. Aside from her skin tone, paler than usual, it was hard to tell she was sprinting for her life.

She reported to the hospital the next day to hear the full postsurgical report from her medical team, wearing a teal U.S. team jacket like a familiar suit of armor. Nurse practitioner Nancy Nibbe told her the overall prognosis was as good as it could be. The chemo had shrunk the tumor to nothing. The second excision would be done out of an abundance of caution.

Kikkan's surgeon Marilyn Sandford, a slender woman with a frank, irreverent manner, stopped by and asked why she wasn't using her right-hand ski pole in the Instagram post. "So much of what we tell women to do in recovery is myth,'' the doctor said. "No one's gonna break my sutures.''

Few words could have sounded sweeter to Kikkan in that moment. "You've given me a lot of ground to go, and that's when I tend to go,'' she said.

The pathology report came back clean.


They were apart for weeks at a time during Kikkan's radiation treatments, so when son Breck, 2, was in Anchorage, Kikkan spent as much time with him as possible. Ash Adams for ESPN

She's home now. Late one January afternoon, light streams into the living room from sliding doors that lead onto a wooden deck. Kikkan and Jeff are still hanging art on the walls -- settling in had to take a back seat to cancer treatment -- but the house feels like them, with sports shoes and boots piled in the entryway and the handmade pottery they got as a wedding gift stacked in a rustic cupboard.

Breck's PAW Patrol cars, Thomas the Tank Engine train tracks and Tonka Trucks fill the floor of a downstairs playroom. Kikkan likes to hang out there and listen to him ramble about his world, innocent and uncomplicated and untouched, she hopes, by what she has just been through.

A panoramic black-and-white photo of the Chugach mountain range near Anchorage dominates their dining room. Jeff has noted that it's hard to get Alaskans to leave Alaska, so he made sure Kikkan had a piece of it she could see every day.

Not that she's sitting still much. She perches on a couch backlit by the sinking sun and ticks off her itinerary for the next two months:

Park City, Utah, for a speaking engagement. Los Angeles, to do advance work for a gig with Princess Cruises. Minneapolis, to promote the 2020 World Cup event there. Hayward, Wisconsin, to race the 50-kilometer event -- a distance she has never done at race pace -- at the American Birkebeiner weekend. Beijing, for three exhibition races. Quebec City, for the World Cup final and a reunion of U.S. cross-country Olympians. Sponsor engagements in New England. An appearance for the American Cancer Society in Anchorage. Dartmouth College, to attend a two-week business school program.

“I knew I was well-supported as an athlete, but the number of people who have been sending me messages, notes, stopping me in public since the diagnosis is way beyond what I ever experienced skiing.”


Kikkan Randall

Kikkan laughs, knowing how absurdly ambitious it sounds. The saying "no" thing is not getting off to a good start.

"It's the excitement of getting control back,'' she says. "I get to say 'yes.' My energy is more predictable, and that invincibility complex comes back in.

"Living the best life is doing all these things."

She knows she has some rough terrain ahead. She's continuing on one chemo drug, along with hormone treatments to suppress ovarian function. The latter will continue for five to 10 years. If she's cleared to take a break and get pregnant, she'll ricochet from that back to premature menopause afterward. The invasive cancer is gone and she has done everything right so far, but the athlete's mantra of put in the work and you'll get the results doesn't apply here. Cancer isn't an opponent that can be out-skied in fractions of a second.

"Whenever I start to go down that road of fear of recurrence, being frustrated at what this has disrupted, at how this has altered me in ways that will never go back, I just kind of go, 'Well, we don't know,'" Kikkan says. "I could live a long, healthy life and never have a problem with this again. Or it could crop up in a really nasty way, soon. I have to do all the things I can to give myself the best chance, but I can't control that. It's worth trying to appreciate the moments you have right in front of you, because that's what you have control of.''

That word, control. It keeps cropping up.

"Your mind wants to go to the what-ifs,'' she says. "That could become really daunting and scary and bog you down. But you can't control it. You can't will yourself through that. I'd rather just acknowledge that, and bring it back to, 'OK, I feel good right now, I have this amazing family, I can do all this stuff. I feel way better than I did a couple months ago.

"That doesn't mean it's not a constant battle in my head. Occasionally I do let it get out of control, and that's where Jeff is great: 'Hey, we have all these things to be happy about. The prognosis is really good, we have Breck, and he's amazing.'"

Her voice, wobbling on the edge, cracks in wonder on the last syllable.

The next morning, I come along on the drive to the Nickel Plate Nordic Centre at 6,300 feet of elevation, above the clouds huddled in the Okanagan Valley. Kikkan and Jeff set off under a blindingly blue sky. The squeak and scrape of their skis on the corduroy-groomed trail sounds routine and happy as they disappear into the evergreens.

They return, exuberant, almost two hours later. "I can't wait to download the data from my heart monitor,'' Kikkan says. It's impressive: 23.78 kilometers, 680 meters of climbing, average heart rate 132, maximum heart rate 158, maximum speed 46.6 kilometers per hour.

Yet numbers can't measure what has transpired in the year since the gold medal. Life can open a trap door without warning under anyone, even the strongest person in the room. Dropping into that unaccustomed, fragile space shifted Kikkan from being one of a kind to one among many. All the more reason for her to urge anyone she can reach to try to find their own alien superhero within.


With the toughest part of treatment behind her, Kikkan is gradually finding her ski legs again. Ash Adams for ESPN