Last February was a shining, defining moment for cross country skier Kikkan Randall. With a beaming smile and tears in her eyes, Randall stood on top of the podium at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang with her teammate Jessie Diggins.
The pair had not only captured gold in the team sprint, they became the first American women to ever win an Olympic medal in cross country skiing. The victory was especially sweet for Randall, a 35-year-old mother and five-time Olympian who had been chasing a medal since her first Olympics in 2002.
But the Olympic joy would be cut short, when just a few months later Randall discovered a lump in her breast. On her way to a friend’s wedding in Sweden, she got the call: Randall had Stage 2 breast cancer.
Fit, young, and with no family history of breast cancer, Randall was initially stunned by the diagnosis. But the determination that made her an Olympic champion quickly kicked in.
“No question her whole athletic career prepared her for this,” says her husband Jeff Ellis, who lives in Penticton, Canada with Randall and their 3 1/2-year-old son, Breck.
Last fall, a week after finishing chemotherapy, Randall watched in awe as her former ski teammates ran the New York City Marathon. Inspired by the race, she vowed to return as a competitor.
Now cancer-free, Randall is set to run the iconic race on November 3, 2019 to support AKTIV Against Cancer, a nonprofit that promotes physical activity for cancer patients. So far, Randall has raised more than $10,000 for AKTIV through selling socks on her website.
As a veteran Olympian, cancer survivor and marathoner-in-the-making, Randall has learned a lot along the way about how to thrive on life’s toughest days.
In a series of interviews with Women’s Running, Randall shared her key messages for athletes facing setbacks, be it cancer or injuries, and life after the disease.
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Super impressed with all the runners in today’s @nycmarathon !! Got a nice view of the finish courtesy of @aktiv_usa ! Watched a few World Cup ski friends finish their first marathons and soaked in the energy of 50,000+ people running together across NYC! #aktivagainstcancer #26milesisalongway
Keep moving. Continue to set goals.
Fresh off her Olympic experience and years as an elite athlete, Randall was in great shape when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2018. Even though she faced a rough road ahead, which included surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, Randall was determined to maintain some fitness.
“I made the commitment to stay as physically as active as I could through my treatment, and that was super important,” she says, noting that she did cardio and strength training. “Knowing I could do a workout every day, even at lower level, it felt like a little victory.”
Not only did easy exercise help with fluid retention caused by cancer-fighting drugs, it lifted her mood and gave her a sense of control.
“Be open-minded about what you can do,” Randall says. “Always be willing to try. I had a ten-minute rule for myself. I would go out and try to do something for ten minutes, if it went well I would keep going, and if it was too awful, I would go home and rest.”
Surround yourself with people who give you hope.
Just as Randall needed a powerful support system to get her to five Olympic Games, she leaned on a strong team to get her through cancer treatment.
Her husband, Jeff, kept her focused on her good prognosis, while her toddler son, Breck, provided a much-needed distraction from her worries. Her parents took care of her while she received treatment in Alaska and the list goes on.
Liz Stephen, Randall’s ski buddy, was with her when she received her diagnosis and visited Randall on days when she felt especially terrible.
“Everybody around me was just really proactive and positive, and that encouraged that side of my personality,” Randall says.
She also drew inspiration from Gabe Grunewald, who died in June after a ten-year battle with adenoid cystic carcinoma. Last fall, Randall met Grunewald at an AKTIV Against Cancer event.
“I just finished chemo a week earlier, and she was just congratulating me and was so positive,” Randall says.
In May, Randall ran the Brave Like Gabe 5K as a virtual participant to show support for Grunewald, who was in the hospital at the time, battling complications from cancer. Randall recalls struggling through the solo run.
“I thought, ‘I’m out doing this for Gabe, so I’m not going to quit.’ I came back at the end of that run, and I felt recharged and I sent her a picture,’” she says.
Since Grunewald’s death, Randall says she’s as motivated as ever to run and honor her role model’s memory.
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What does brave mean to me? It can mean so many things to each individual person, but for me it is all about….remaining positive in the face of incredible adversity! My friend Gabriele "Gabe" Grunewald is a professional runner battling a rare cancer for the 3rd time and is looking for our support through her virtual 5k, the Brave Like Gabe 5k! I would love to see as many people as possible support Gabe and her foundation as they work to raise funds for rare cancer research. The virtual 5k can be run at your convenience, with friends or solo, timed or not, and as part of a @strava leaderboard if you're interested in keeping score! Each registrant runs in support of a newly diagnosed person with ACC — a rare, incurable cancer for which there are currently no effective treatments. So join us as we run on hope toward more cures, treatments — meaning more miles for Gabe and patients just like her. #bravelikegabe5k #runningonhope Sign up through the link in my bio to learn more! Link: https://www.flipcause.com/secure/cause_pdetails/NTA4NDk=
Be patient with your fitness comeback. Celebrate your progress.
Randall says her body bounced back well after the rigors of cancer treatment, but women shouldn’t expect to immediately regain their fitness.
“As soon as you finish treatment, you are so motivated you’re like, ‘I just want to get back to the way I was.’ It takes time,” she says, “And there are some lingering (treatment) effects that take a while to iron out.”
As you gradually build your fitness, remind yourself how far you have come already.
“Celebrate what you can do is my biggest thing,” she says.
Even for Randall, an Olympic champion, marathon training has been a grind, starting with the intense pounding on her legs she didn’t experience in skiing. In addition, she had to adjust to the fact that, unlike in skiing, she can’t use downhills to recover.
Aiming to finish NYC under three hours, Randall will have company from friends Liz Stephen and Ida Sargent, also retired cross country ski Olympians, who are running the marathon, too.
“I love the fact that have significant butterflies in my stomach as I think about the goal I’ve set, and the physical challenge of racing 26 miles,” Randall says.
But her first marathon is about much more than chasing an athletic goal.
“I’m celebrating the fact that my treatment’s been effective, and we have a good, optimistic look forward on being cancer free,” she says. “I’m just really grateful for that.”