Liz Stephen already has the reputation as one of the best hill climbers in the world. Whether it’s the Tour de Ski’s final stage or Lake Placid’s Climb to the Castle, it seems like Stephen’s constantly on the up.
The trend continued in Thursday’s Blink Festival opener, a 7 k uphill rollerski race in Lysebotn, Norway. With a time of 32:53.9, Stephen won the hill climb by 27.3 seconds over Norwegian Kristin Størmer Steira who finished with a time of 33:21.2.
In third place was last year’s hill climb winner, biathlete Kaisa Mäkäräinen of Finland, who finished 1:33.7 behind Stephen.
Having finished third in the same event in the 2012 Blink Festival, Stephen had high hopes of winning the esteemed 2014 rollerski race. However, Stephen knew that she needed a concrete plan in order to top the challenging competition. Knowing that she couldn’t rely her finishing sprint, Stephen decided to set a hard place from the beginning and break away with 2 k left in the race.
“I turned up the speed with about 1.5 k to go when the body was still feeling pretty good, though quite tired, and it worked out in my favor today,” Stephen wrote in an email. “It was really fun to ski with Kristin [Størmer Steira] the whole race until then and I am really happy to have been able to come away with a win today.”
The only other American to compete in the women’s race was biathlete Susan Dunklee, who finished in 21st position with a time of 38:43.9.
Dunklee, who just came off a large training block in Finland, said her legs felt heavy in the climb due to the recent volume of training but that she felt her result was solid.
In the men’s race, France’s Maurice Manificat won the 7 k hill climb with a time of 29:57.2.He was followed by Norweigians Martin Sundby and Sjur Røthe in second and third.
The first North American finisher in the men’s race was American biathlete Tim Burke who placed 15th with a time of 32:17.4.
Burke and 35th place finisher and teammate Lowell Bailey arrived in Norway only several days prior to the Blink Festival. Burke called the race both a “shock to the system” and “really tough,” but said he was pleased with his effort.
“I am not in my best shape, but I was really happy with my effort,” Burke wrote in an email. “It was a great experience to race with some of the best biathlon and cross country athletes on such a challenging course.”
Bailey agreed, stating that “extended uphill races are definitely not my forte” but that he was still happy with the race.
“If nothing less, it’s a good wake up for the body after traveling,” he wrote in an email.
Canadian Devon Kershaw also competed and finished 20th.
The Blink Festival continues Friday with a 10 k criterium race which will take place around a 900 meter loop. Stephen plans to ski aggressive as possible while staying on her feet.
“It can be terrifying to ski in a tight pack on roller skis when there is a lot of opportunity for crashing, but my goal is to relax and try to ski in the pack and work on my cornering and agility tactics in a tight pack,” she wrote.
For all three American biathletes, the plan is to race in the remainder of the Blink Festival biathlon competitions, which include a mass start competition and a sprint race.
“This is a great opportunity for me to test the techniques and shooting skills that I have been working on this year,” Burke wrote about the remainder of the Blink Festival. “I hope to qualify for the mass start competition [Friday]. It will definitely be a challenge, since they will only qualify five guys from around 50 competitors.”
Lander Karath is FasterSkier's Associate Editor from Bozeman, Montana and a Bridger Ski Foundation alumnus. Between his studies at Middlebury College in Vermont, he is an outdoor enthusiast and a political junkie.