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Northern Exposure: My Alaskan Adventure Vacation

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Reality-Check Time: Kayaking with an Olympian

I dragged my bruised body back to the hotel that night, proud of myself for keeping cool under pressure. After a good night's sleep, I was ready for my next challenge: an eight-mile kayak up Eklutna Lake, followed by an eight-mile mountain-bike ride back along the shore. I may not know how to wield an ice pick, but endurance sports? I like to think of myself as something of a veteran. But then I met Kikkan Randall.

The Anchorage-bred Olympian Nordic skier can check off her accolades as easily as items on a grocery list: U.S. Champion. World Cup Champion. Highest-placing U.S. cross-country female athlete in Olympic history. When the Alaska Travel Industry Association asked if I'd like to go kayaking with one of the state's most famous sports stars, there was only one answer. "Of course," I said, picturing us side-by-side in our boats, laughing and paddling at top speeds. During breakfast with Kikkan before our three-hour excursion, I purposely let slip that I had once been a member of my high school's varsity Nordic ski team. Me and Kikkan Randall, I figured, were very much alike.

Apparently only in gender. As soon as we dipped our paddles into the blue waters of Eklutna Lake, Kikkan, her husband, Jeff (also in pursuit of the 2010 Olympics), and our guide began to pull away from me. I tried to mimic Kikkan's powerful strokes -- she was built like a piston. Stroke, pull, stroke, pull went her paddles, as mine sputtered a puny strokestrokestroke.

As I fell farther behind, I put my head down, tapping muscles I'd never used before, and paddled like a madwoman. Ten minutes later, I looked up. About 400 yards ahead, the group had stopped. They were...waiting for me. Cheering for me. Like the "pity clap" used to boost the morale of the last runner to cross the finish line, their good-natured intention was embarrassing.

I shuddered. For all my athletic bravado, I felt like a scrawny-armed journalist who would have been better off in a paddleboat. By the time we made it to shore and scarfed down our turkey-and-Swiss sandwiches, I'd had enough of water workouts. I was ready for the eight land miles. As a runner, at least I knew I could count on the strength of my legs during the bike ride.

Except that as we cycled toward a waterfall the guide wanted to show us ("a slight detour," he said), I kept releasing the bike gears, astonished that first gear was so tough. The hills steepened; my quads began to burn. After 10 minutes of battling the sharp incline with every fiber of my being, I could no longer muster enough speed to keep my bike upright. So I got off and walked. I was officially a failure.

Just then, an ATV came rumbling by us and stopped. A man and his 8-year-old daughter hopped off. "You're Kikkan Randall!" the man exclaimed. "My daughter loves you! She watches all of your races." The little girl stared, starstruck, at Kikkan. And that's when it hit me, as I stood to the side, wheezing from the past five hours: This kid wanted Kikkan's autograph. She was an Olympian. Who did I think I was, trying to compete with her?

Next:  A New View


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