Liz Stephen just wanted to have fun. Winning her second straight national championship distance ski race took care of itself.
Stephen, of the U.S. Ski Team, left best friend Morgan Arritola behind shortly after the midway point of the 30-kilometer classic at Birch Hill Recreation Area, using a challenging course to her advantage to win in 1 hour, 38 minutes and 49 seconds.
â€œI was so excited to come out and race today, not because I wanted to win so much as just because I wanted to go out and ski a 30K with my friends,â€ Stephen said. â€œI just went cross-country skiing in the woods, which is my favorite thing to do.â€
The 21-year-old Vermont native is proving she does that extremely well, wrapping up a banner season that also saw her win a bronze at the Under-23 World Championships in Italy and take a race recently at the Canadian National Championships.
Sunday’s event became a two-skier contest after the second of four laps, as Stephen and Arritola gapped Norwegian Sigrid Aas (a prerace favorite who wound up sixth), Swede Kristina Strandberg and former Alaskan Nicole DeYong.
The course had three gradual climbs and two exceptionally steep ascents â€” one that approached a 20-percent slope leading from the â€œBlack Funkâ€ to the top of the ramp, and another that took racers to the top of the South Tower Loop. Those are where Stephen, just 5-foot-2 and 110 pounds, eventually shed the competition.
â€œIt was a good place to pull away. Those hills hurt for sure,â€ said Stephen, who like most racers did a running herringbone up the hills as the race progressed.
Stephen earned a 18-second lead on Arritola by end of the third lap and then coasted to a 90-second win for her third national title, worth $1,200.
Arritola was runner-up in 1:40:20 while Strandberg took third among 20 starters in 1:41:19. Kasandra Rice of the Alaska Pacific University Nordic Ski Center used a late surge to overtake Kristina Owen of CXC for the bronze position on the U.S. podium.
For Arritola, second place was just fine.
â€œWe were working together, but Liz is skiing really well right now,â€ Arritola, also of the USST, said. â€œShe dominated again. For sure it’s fun to see a teammate and friend do well, so I’m psyched for her.â€
Arritola will spend about 720 hours training this year, many of them with Stephen.
â€œWe’re pretty much inseparable,â€ Arritola said.
When they separated from Strandberg, the Swede didn’t chase.
â€œI pretty early realized that I didn’t have that extra gear that I needed to really compete for it,â€ she said. â€œRather than trying to go with them and blow up, I realized that I had to do my own race. Honestly, I didn’t think it was going to be good enough for third.â€
With the result, Strandberg clinched two distance series titles, but perhaps her biggest reward is gaining a World Cup start next season by virtue of winning the overall SuperTour.
â€œFor me, being Swedish and competing in the U.S., that might be the only way to get onto the World Cup,â€ she said.
After a break before resuming training, Stephen and Arritola will likely see Strandberg there. But foremost of Stephen’s mind on Sunday was thanking her coaches and teammates, and expressing gratitude to those who helped make the Spring Series memorable.
â€œIt was awesome to race here,â€ Stephen said. â€œThe spectators, all the volunteers, everyone does such a great job.â€
Matias Saari writes for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. This article orignally appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. http://www.newsminer.com/