The U.S. Ski Team’s Liz Stephen was in Sun Valley for the last few days, attending the national championship in the 30 k classic and the SuperTour Finals. But she wasn’t racing: instead, she was limited by a foot injury to cheering from the side of the trail.
For the past month and a half, Stephen has been enduring severe pain while training and racing, stemming from inflammation in her heels near a bony enlargement called Haglund’s deformity. Fixing it will require another few weeks of recovery, or even surgery.
The problem is a serious one, according to her coach, Matt Whitcomb. But someone with Stephen’s training background, he added, should not have problems being prepared for the next year.
“She’s got such a good training base right now, and she’s coming off a pretty successful season,” he said. “I’m not concerned at all.”
In an interview on Monday, Stephen said that she has had the deformities on her heels for “forever.”
Only recently did they start causing her severe pain, beginning just before the U.S. Ski Team’s pre-World Championships camp in Norway in early March.
The deformities—essentially small bumps on the back of Stephen’s heels—aren’t painful in and of themselves, she said. It’s only when something, like a tight-fitting ski boot, is pushing on them.
“The problem is the pressure on it,” Stephen said. “If there’s no pressure, it doesn’t bother me at all.”
Through the World Championships in Oslo in late March and early February, Stephen attempted to simply ignore the pain, trying to take care of the problem with physical therapy. She said she asked her coaches and other people not to talk about it, “because it’s bad, it’s not going to get better, I don’t want to think about it.”
But after finishing her last race at Worlds, she had had enough.
“I just dealt with it the best I could, pushed through it, and then, after the 30 k in Oslo, I tried to ski the next day, and all of a sudden my mind, like, was over it, and I couldn’t do it any more,” she said.
There were questions as to whether she’d have to skip the next weekend of racing in Finland, Whitcomb said, but Stephen, along with another U.S. Ski Team coach, Pete Vordenberg, found a cobbler to help modify her boots.
She ended up racing in Lahti with huge chunks cut out of the heels of her Rossignols, and the backs of her feet fully exposed to the air. It was an innovative solution, but one that ended up being a temporary fix, because the plantar fasciitis she suffered from last season flared up again.
“With the cut-out boot, there was no support left, and those issues were coming back to bother me,” she said.
The boot solution was essentially the end of the road for Stephen’s season—now, she’s faced with two choices.
She can either have surgery, or hope that a program of rest and recovery for part of the spring, combined with custom-fitting boots, will be enough to fix the problem. She’ll make the call in just over a month, in consultation with U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association medical staff, after having seen three different specialists.
Her preferred option is to avoid surgery, and wait for the current inflammation to subside—which will likely take another five weeks—then try to find some custom footwear that will allow her to train without aggravating it.
In the mean time, she said, she can do any activity that doesn’t cause her pain, which, with some cut-out footwear, will be “most things.”
Surgery, Stephen said, is an option if that doesn’t work. It would be arthroscopic, and she’d have it on both feet, even though her right is less sore.
After doctors shaved off the bone, she’d be in a cast, laid up, for 12 days, with a three-month wait before she could make a recovery to running, and full activity.
If Stephen is forced to have it—and she said she’s doing everything she can not to—the surgery is certainly an undertaking. But at least, she added, it’s a good season to have the procedure done, since there are no big events like the Olympics and World Championships.
In the mean time, Stephen elected to skip the racing this week, to allow her foot to recover more quickly so that she can make her decision on surgery in the next month or so, rather than in late May. Her primary concern at this point, she said, is next season, and the season after, rather than SuperTour Finals.
By skipping the races, it will be a full month between the last time Stephen put anything whatsoever on her heel, and the timing of her final specialist visit, in April, she said.
“It would have been easy to jump in the Sun Valley races, and perhaps do quite well,” Whitcomb said. “But I think the recovery would begin the moment the races ended. She’s a couple weeks ahead of where she might have been, otherwise.”
Without the races, Whitcomb said, training hasn’t been much of a problem, because it’s the time of year for Stephen to scale back, anyway. He said her program is currently one strength workout and four creative, easy distance sessions each week, like double-poling on an erg machine, or on a stationary bicycle or in a swimming pool.
“She’s just doing the normal post-winter recovery block that she generally goes through,” he said.
In the mean time, she has been watching the races trailside in Sun Valley, in a flamboyant one-piece snowsuit, and helping out her high school alma mater, Burke Mountain Academy, as well as the organization Fast and Female.
“If you know her, you know that she’s quite bummed, but she hides it really well,” Whitcomb said. “I think it’s helping her pass the time until all these doctor’s appointments have concluded, but she’s doing fine—she’s staying on top of her game.”
Skipping the competitions has been “super-hard,” Stephen said, though it was still nice to be in town.
“It’s definitely a good time of year for that,” she said. “I’m bummed I can’t be more a part of it, but I’m glad I’m here.”
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Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.
March 30, 2011 at 8:33 pm
I have dealt with Haglunds’ deformity for several decades. Two rounds of surgery (1982 and 2008) have helped.
Skiing became a game of modifying technique to deal with the pain. Running became frustrating.
Get them fixed before the small underlying bone spurs compromise the achilles tendon.
This may be related to the lower leg issues many nordic skiers have been experiencing. Might skating with its minimal ankle movement, reduce the flexibility of the lower leg muscles and potentially cause more stress on the tendon attachment points such as the achilles insertion on the heel?
Get better! Skiing too much fun to suffer through!
March 31, 2011 at 11:53 am
I have bony feet. I cant wear any skate boot from the first “bumblebee” black and yellow solomons on. They have too much rigid support and rub my feet raw over the navicular bone. I have tried just about every boot, and have destroyed many by cut out sections and melting them with a heat gun. I have a pair of late 90’s Alpina i found used on ebay that are soft enough to work. I have no choice but to keep them alive. I have glued the soles back on twice and never walk on asphalt without rubber overshoes. I guess when they finally die I will become classic only skier.
March 31, 2011 at 7:40 pm
As a former athlete, I came down with mono multiple seasons and had to take some serious time off each spring. I would always worry that I was losing training, but each year, I was always back on my game. True, I don’t have any experience with Haglunds’ deformity, but I feel that surgery might be the better option. This way, Liz wouldn’t have to worry about experiencing major flare-ups mid season, but will be able to train successfully for the remainder of the Olympic cycle. It’s not like the 3 month recovery period is sedentary, there will be plenty of alternative options available. Liz could be training full time and hard core by July!
This is just my opinion and I’m a believer in being proactive. I get bummed for athletes that work really hard to have their seasons ended prematurely by injury.
April 1, 2011 at 8:47 am
I’m always leery of surgery. I like to try PT first.
I wonder if doing lots of pool running in lieu of regular running and rollerskiing might give her the needed fitness without aggravating the injury? It worked for Leslie Bancroft in ’88.
Good luck, Liz! We’re rooting for you.
April 1, 2011 at 1:20 pm
Ouch, that sounds scary!
2 winters ago, I was nearly unable to ski at all anymore, due to ankle pain. I later found, despite uneless professionals and countless types of shoes, that supportive insoles could take away the pain, apparently I am a severe overpronator. Shoes for that didn’t help though.
I changed my running style to midfoot landing, which had dramatically strengthened my feet/ankles, while mobilizing the ankles beyond what I would ever expect. Longer achilles/calfs seem to have been a positive side effect to the new running style, apart from a huge speed boost.
When walking an skiing/inline skating, etc, pretty static for the feet, I am still stuck with the arch supporting insoles. I could miles and miles in just sturdy socks over pavement though.
I guess I’m lucky my problem, which got me to quit athetics over 2 decades ago, could eventually be resolved. I hope Liz finds her way with her weakest link soon. Good luck!
April 5, 2011 at 5:27 pm
Just so folks know, you don’t need a “cobbler” to modify ski boots like this. All you need is a Dremel tool with a small cutting wheel. With a Dremel tool you can safely and cleanly carve off pieces of plastic, nylon or foam to relieve ski boot pressure points. Start with small modifications and only increase the area you modify after skiing with modified boots deems if necessary. And of course, wear eye protection when you work with a Dremel tool, it spins at 35,000 RPMs.