Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include the overall women’s course record, set by mountain biker Lea Davidson last year.
Before last Sunday, Liz Stephen isn’t sure if she had ever been to the top of Mount Mansfield’s Toll Road, which winds for 4.3 miles up 2,564 vertical feet in Stowe, Vt. Didn’t matter.
The 6th Annual Race To The Top Of Vermont was another hill climb, and the 26-year-old affectionately known as “spider monkey” on the U.S. Ski Team had a goal of winning, setting the run course record and beating mountain bikers in the process.
“My goal was to try and get both the record for the women’s run, but also knew there was an overall bike and run record as well that was worth a bit of money,” Stephen wrote in an email earlier this week. “So I was shooting for that as well.”
The runnning time to beat was 39:17.7 minutes, set in 2011 by defending champ Kasie Enman of Huntington, Vt. (the overall women’s course record was 37:18.7, set by m0untain biker Lea Davidson of Jericho last year). Stephen, who hails from East Montpelier, shattered the run record by nearly two minutes in 37:22 (and missed the overall record by about 3 seconds). She beat the first female mountain biker, Marilyn Ruseckas of Warren, by almost seven minutes.
Runner-up Ida Sargent, another Vermont native and Stephen’s teammate on the national team, explained she never saw much of Stephen in her third consecutive Race To The Top. Last year, Sargent placed third behind Enman, who was third on Sunday. Enman had a baby this spring and ran slightly behind Sargent for the entire race, but Sargent explained she could hear people cheering for Enman for much of it.
“[Liz] was gone when the gun went off so I was running my own race,” Sargent, 25, wrote in an email. “But there were lots of guys around me to run with. Liz was absolutely amazing and it was really cool to see her run that fast. She’s a speedy mountain goat!”
Add that to the list of nicknames for the World Cup phenom, who placed fifth at World Championships last season in the 10-kilometer freestyle individual start on a grueling course at 4, 700-feet above sea level in Val di Fiemme, Italy.
The toll road peaked at 4,393 feet atop Vermont’s highest peak.
“It’s true that I like to go ahead early when I can, but it doesn’t always work out,” Stephen explained. “With these types of races, it is pretty hard not to just go as hard as you possibly can. The goal for me was to pace it well so I could run as fast as I could.”
The fruits of her effort paid off and indicated her fitness was on track three months before winter racing resumes in Europe.
“However, I am a cross country skier and that is about fitness, power, strength, mental toughness, and technique, among other factors, so I will just keep training the way I have been training and preparing for the winter races,” she wrote.
Stephen also used the race as a fundraiser, publicizing her participation on a website to raise money for Vermont skiers gearing up for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. As of Friday, she’d raised $2,450 dollars. Sargent (Craftsbury Green Racing Project) was also included in the fundraiser.
“The fundraising effort has gone great, so far,” Stephen explained. “We will leave the fund up until the day the Olympics begin, so it will give people a good amount of time if they would like to contribute at some point between now and then. The response is always great in this area when you ask for help and support of one sort or another. We have such incredible communities that care about one another and want to be involved here in Vermont.”
Sargent has been recovering from Achilles tendinitis and hadn’t originally planned to race, fearing the consistent uphill grade could do a number on her.
“So I just went to the race planning to run and hike up and cheer for my teammates but then I got the race itch and couldn’t help not putting on a bib,” she wrote. “I was really excited to be able to race and mostly not have my Achilles bother at all. And I was a minute faster than last year which is a very promising sign about my fitness.”
Sargent explained she hasn’t been running as much this summer as past years and didn’t think too highly of her running shape going into Sunday’s race.
“It’s a really hard race but it was a beautiful day on top and awesome to see so many people out there running, biking, and hiking up the mountain,” she wrote. “The local support was incredible. It’s very inspiring and I’m very thankful!”
Stephen placed 10th overall and Sargent was 31st behind men’s winner Eric Blake of West Hartford, Conn, who broke the men’s course record by a minute and 2 seconds in 32:51.3. A 2006 Olympic nordic skier, Justin Freeman of New Hampton, N.H., was second in his debut Race To The Top in 34:42.3. Craftsbury GRP skiers Gordon Vermeer was fifth (36:14.6), Pat O’Brien was ninth (37:20.5) and Andrew Dougherty was 19th (39:57).
The top mountain biker, Gered Dunne won in 32:58.2, but Freeman edged second-place biker Jake Hollenbach by nearly 19 seconds. In an email, Freeman, 36 explained Blake started conservatively before making a small move about a half-mile in. Third-place finisher Josh Ferenc followed, and Freeman fell a few seconds behind.
“Around the mile mark Blake made a bigger move, dropping Ferenc, who faded hard,” he explained. “I ran with him for less than a minute and then started to gap him. I didn’t look back, but I could tell from listening to people cheer that I built a lead of between 20 and 30 seconds by about a mile to go. From there Ferenc was slowly gaining but not enough to catch me.”
Freeman beat Ferenc by 11.7 seconds.
“I was disappointed not to go under the old record, but I am actually pretty happy to be only two minutes behind Blake,” he wrote. “Josh Ferenc has defeated me handily the two previous times I have raced him this summer, so it was nice to come in ahead of me (I agreed with him that I am now a runner/skier, so he need not suffer the stigma of having been beat by someone who is just a skier). I will probably go back next year, and I think I have it in me to run about a minute faster.”
In terms of hill climbs, Freeman stated that this was like most others.
“It’s an uphill run, so it requires going really hard, but in terms of racing tactics it is pretty straightforward,” he wrote. “You go as fast as you can without building too much lactate. The grade varies a lot more than Mt. Washington, which gives some chances for something resembling recovery, but in the end it is like any other 35-minute hill climb.”
As for what’s next, Stephen and Sargent are due to meet up with the U.S. Ski Team in Lake Placid, N.Y., next week. The annual fall camp ends with the Climb to the Castle on Sept. 15 – a rollerski race which the multiple-time defending champion Stephen essentially owns.
“The Climb to the Castle is a great test of fitness as well as just a good, hard effort, both mentally and physically,” Stephen wrote. “I look at it as a good way to practice race prep routines and race day nerves, as this race makes me so dang nervous every year!”