Following mixed results in the early season, the U.S. Ski Team’s Liz Stephen raced to the top World Cup result of her career in last weekend’s 15 k freestyle in La Clusaz, France—a race she finished a half-second ahead of her friend and teammate Morgan Arritola.
Stephen is now at home in Vermont, training in advance of the 2011 U.S. National Championships in Rumford, ME, which begin on January 2. FasterSkier caught her to chat about the race in La Clusaz, her plans for nationals, and her schedule for the rest of the year.
FasterSkier: So, can you tell me about the race you had in La Clusaz?
Liz Stephen: It was awesome. The courses there are really hard—it was only a 2.5 k loop, but they’re pretty darn good climbs. I had a little bit of a rough start—I was in a lane all the way on the left, and the lane just kind of ended as the trail banked. I basically just waited for the field to go by and got back on the trail.
You just have to readjust—I never stressed out about it, and I knew that I had 15 k to pick a lot of people off. I caught up with Mo [Arritola] maybe halfway through the race, and we skied the rest of the race together, and that was really fun. The body felt good, and it was just a good day for sure—and it’s fun to be able to see top-10 not super-far away, either.
FS: When did you and Morgan go from working together to sprinting for a place?
LS: The second-to-last hill on the last lap, I knew there was a group of maybe three girls pretty close to us. And I also knew that Mo and I were not going to win any sort of sprint against anyone. We both kind of hammered up that hill, and just tried to hammer the rest of the course as much as we could. When we knew we weren’t going to be caught, we both knew it was going to be a little sprint-off between the two of us. We were glad we didn’t have other girls to sprint against.
FS: Do you feel like it was your best race of the year so far?
LS: I think it was—I had a pretty good race in Gallivare [Sweden], too. I think the fitness was
just a little better in La Clusaz. I think that was the best race this fall so far, and hopefully [I’ll] improve on that as the season goes.
FS: It seems like you’d had some tough races over the past few weeks. Did you feel like there was something specific holding you back, like technique or fitness, or was it different things?
LS: I think the technique—meaning the skate race [in La Clusaz]—definitely suits me better, still, at this point. I’m still working on the classic stuff. The Davos day [in Switzerland two weekends ago] was definitely a tough one. Tough with wax, and tough with, just—my body didn’t feel super-great that day, and it really didn’t feel good the next day. I was really hoping to be a little closer to qualifying in the sprint.
[It] felt really good to go home on a positive note like that, and with Mo. Everyone had a really strong fall—we almost had everyone score World Cup points, on the national team, that was over there. That was really exciting. Noah [Hoffman] had some great races, and it’s great to see Simi [Hamilton] qualify after having a little bit of injury trouble. It was a positive fall, and I think we left Andy [Newell] and Kikkan [Randall] and Bird [Kris Freeman] on a high note going into the Tour [de Ski].
FS: The result in La Clusaz—place-wise, it seems solid, but it also seems like the points there were not as strong. Do you feel like that’s a result you can hang your hat on, or do you feel like you still can do more this year?
LS: I certainly—I want to improve on that before the season’s out. But I also have to hang my hat on the fact that it was the best World Cup result I’ve ever had, with the exception of [the 2009] World Championships in Liberec. I had a little bit of a struggle last year; I think you have to take the positives out of the races, even if they’re not perfect races. Especially when you’re not going to be racing World Cups for a month going into World Championships. It’s certainly super-positive, but there’s definitely room to get better and improve. Just trying to make sure I keep the confidence high, so that I can still remember when I return to Europe—being able to pull that confidence back for [World Cups in] Drammen, and for World Championships.
FS: So, you’re hitting up nationals next, and then what?
LS: I’ll go to nationals with Burke [Mountain Academy] as my team, and stay with those guys, and it will be really great—and great to get some local races done. And then, from there, I think I’m going to be heading back out to Utah, and have a good two-and-a-half or three-week block of training out there, before flying to Europe to do some Scandinavian Cups before Drammen.
FS: Are you looking forward to nationals? It seems like the races should be more open with Kikkan Randall still in Europe.
LS: For sure. It will be fun to have it in the east again. No big travel for me. It will be fun just to mix it up in the national circuit again, after coming home from a long international debut.
FS: Are you going to race all the events at nationals?
LS: I think I’m just going to do the last three, and skip the classic sprint. [I’d] definitely like to be doing it, but just weight the other ones a little bit more.
FS: After those first few races, is there anything specific you want to work on before heading back over to Europe?
LS: I always want to work on getting my classic results to match some of the skate results. I want to go into a 15 k classic race, mass start, with the same confidence as I have in a 15 k skate race, mass start. There’s certainly all that to be working on—[and] the sprinting, and stuff like that.
I’m definitely on track to where I want to be going into Oslo and racing fast. And my fitness is definitely still coming, and still strong, and I’ve been healthy so far. Everything is definitely on track so far, and hopefully it will stay that way.
FS: Do you have anyone to train with at home?
LS: Those Burke guys are home for Christmas—there are a few kicking around. Corinne Prevot, Mitch Prevot. But I’m planning on training a little bit with Ida [Sargent] at Craftsbury over the next week or two. Other than that, pretty much on my own. Traveling to where the skiing’s good.
FS: Do you have snow in Vermont right now?
LS: I’m just driving home from Burke right now. They definitely have more than we have in Montpelier—it’s pretty bare in Montpelier, for sure.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.