Since wrapping up a successful camp in Norway with two top-10 results at Toppidrettsveka, U.S. Ski Team (USST) veteran Liz Stephen has been enjoying some time at home in Park City, Utah, working on her double pole and preparing for another busy winter. She skipped the weeklong USST camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., so she would not have to travel and could instead work more on some personal goals.
“As you get older, and apparently I am doing that, [traveling] definitely begins to wear on you a little more,” Stephen, 28, said in a recent phone interview. “I want to be ready to be on the road for four months, and I needed to stay close to home for a little bit to settle before the season.”
So stay home she did. But for Stephen, staying at home does not mean taking it easy. She, as well as several other USST athletes, left Norway wanting to improve her double-pole strength and technique. Even though double pole had already been a main focus for Stephen this summer, she learned even more improvement was necessary if she wanted to compete amongst the world’s best. So Stephen has been doing a lot of lower-core-activation exercises, both before double-pole sessions and before strength workouts. She has also been doing some shorter duration double-pole sessions where the focus is on having high-quality technique and energy rather than double poling for extended periods of time and risking a relapse to her old double-pole habits.
However, improving her double pole has not been the only thing Stephen has been doing during her extended time at home. She has also been enjoying one of her favorite activities, running. According to Stephen, the fall weather in Utah has been gorgeous, and there is no better way to enjoy it than by going for a run.
“I feel so lucky every time I can lace up my shoes and I am healthy enough to go run a 17-mile loop just quick in the morning. I hope I am able to do that my whole life,” she said. “When you’re running, you’re just enjoying being active and healthy and I think that keeps all the other workouts that maybe you don’t love as much in perspective because you know at least once a week, you are going to get a big run in.”
For the two-time Olympian, going for a run is the perfect way to clear her mind, but it also is a great workout. Stephen even uses running as a means to improve her classic technique, sometimes running with poles for a more classical-style workout and bounding up hills to improve kick power. After all, skating has traditionally been Stephen’s stronger technique, and in order to achieve her goal of being on the podium either at the end of the 2016 Tour de Ski or Ski Tour Canada, she said her classic skiing has to improve.
“When you’re running, you’re just enjoying being active and healthy and I think that keeps all the other workouts that maybe you don’t love as much in perspective because you know at least once a week, you are going to get a big run in.” — Liz Stephen, U.S. Nordic Ski Team member and two-time defending Trail Run National champion (and the winner of the inaugural Park City Red Bull 400)
On Sept. 20, Stephen raced in her fifth-consecutive XTERRA Trail Run National Championship, which took place at Snowbasin Resort near Ogden, Utah. The race is a half marathon (13.1 miles) that features two big hills and a final, mile-long incline to the finish.
Right out of the start, competitors ascend a two-and-a-half mile slope that also includes the steepest section of the course. After storming back down, the racers climb roughly 1,000 feet in another two-and-a-half miles to the high point and then descend to the low point of the course. Finally, there are a few more hills before the finish.
“I’ve gotten a little faster since they have changed the course and I think this is my fourth time on this course. It’s a great course,” Stephen said.
For Stephen, the competition at the trail-running nationals varies. The last two years, she won handily, as no other woman came close to matching her pace. But three years ago, Lindsey Anderson, a steeplechase Olympian from Utah, battled with Stephen for the entire race before dropping her on the last half mile with a strong finishing kick. The year before that, Morgan Arritola, a former cross-country skier and current world-champion mountain runner, finished minutes ahead of Stephen. This year, Stephen’s closest competition was Alayna Szucha, an 11-year-old girl from Evergreen, Colo. Szucha finished 17 minutes behind Stephen with a time of 1:45:32, averaging 8:03 minute/miles. Stephen won in 1:28:39 with 6:46 as her average mile pace.
“I actually didn’t run with a single person the entire 13 miles so it felt a bit lonely at times, but I have to say, the most inspiring and just crazy thing is that the second-place girl is 11 years old. It was her first half marathon,” Stephen said. “I got a chance to chat with her for a little bit after the race, just like a fired up little kid … It’s going to be fun to have a little penpalship with her and maybe send her some cross-country gear, see if we can give her the bug.”
While Stephen did accomplish one goal at nationals — winning — she did not accomplish her other goal of beating her previous year’s time. Despite having perfect weather this year compared to last year’s windy and rainy race day, Stephen could not quite match her pace from 2014.
“Being a little slower than the year before was a bit of a bummer, but at the same time it was like 40 seconds slower or something, which, in a 13-mile race, isn’t too much when you take a step back. I was happy with it and I just had fun,” Stephen explained.
However, the Trail Run Championship was not enough for Stephen. On top of nationals, she did the Beach to Beacon 10-kilometer race in Maine earlier this summer, where she finished as the seventh woman, and the USA’s inaugural Red Bull 400 in Park City last weekend.
In the Red Bull 400, contestants charge up the large-hill (HS134) ski jump landing, onto a ramp that goes up to the jump takeoff, and then up the stairs to the top of the in-run. Organizers even placed cargo netting across the incline so competitors could more effectively crawl up the extremely steep sections of the jump. Five hundred racers came out, ready to test their limits.
After winning the qualifier, Stephen managed to hold off the University of Utah’s Veronika Mayerhofer, an NCAA champion from Austria, in the final to win the event.
“I tried to stay out of the nets as much as I could; I didn’t want to trip and you don’t have as much control over your limbs as usual,” Stephen said. “I tried to stay out and use it where I needed to. Most of it was a hike with your hands and legs.”
Meanwhile, on the men’s side, U.S. nordic-combined Olympians Bryan Fletcher and Billy Demong placed in the top 10, with Fletcher in fifth and Demong in ninth, and cross-country ski Olympian Torin Koos finished seventh.
For Stephen, all of these events both contribute to her fitness and her love for running. After all, summer — and early fall — are the perfect times to take advantage of her desire to run competitively.
“Running has a really special place in my heart because I grew up doing it and it’s so pure,” Stephen noted. “I really love the sport of running so to be able to compete and get my competitive fix and racing in during the summer by running is really perfect for me.
“All you need is a pair of shoes and a pair of shorts and you’re out the door. And I think that being able to use [running] so much for training keeps [cross-country skiing] really happy and fresh for me.”