WILMINGTON, N.Y. — Liz Stephen (U.S. Ski Team) is a force to reckon with – even when she’s off her game.
From the beginning of Saturday’s 2014 Climb to the Castle, Stephen powered up the 5-mile course as if Therese Johuag was hot on her heels. Maintaining a steady pace as she rollerskied to the summit of Whiteface Mountain, Stephen secured her fourth win since 2011.
The 27-year-old has skied the challenging course faster each year since she began her winning streak. Her 2014 time of 41:50 was no exception, as Stephen finished 14 seconds faster than her previous record – a surprise given the strong headwind.
Despite having her fastest finish in the Climb to the Castle, Stephen felt flat and uninspired throughout most of the race.
“I didn’t feel super sparky. Some days you wake up and you are super psyched to go a race and other days it’s a little more about making yourself get psyched,” Stephen said.
Stephen said that despite excitement for the climb she had trouble finding her race mentality. She pointed to an exhausting 2014 U.S. Ski Team Lake Placid Training Camp as a possible reason behind her inability to find her racing mindset.
“Today was hard for me and I’m a little disappointed how I was able to mentally push today,” she said.
Despite any disappointment, Stephen was thrilled to earn her fourth win and see her teammates give strong performances.
Caitlin Gregg (Team Gregg) placed second and spent the majority of the race alone with Stephen hammering ahead in the distance. She said the sight of Stephen was an inspiration, but was ultimately the most difficult part of the race for the Minneapolis native who finished with a time of 45:25.
“The hardest part was watching Liz V2 up ahead of me. I was thinking to myself ‘Man, my V1 is super comfortable right now,’” she said with a laugh. “It’s really fun to watch her and to see where that next stage is.”
The rest of the women’s field was more congested behind Stephen and Gregg. A chase-pack including Stratton skiers Katharine Ogden, Erika Flowers, and Jessie Diggins (USST) in addition to Susan Dunklee (USBA), Mary Rose (SVSEF), and Annelies Cook (USBA) skied together for most of the course. It wasn’t until the last mile-and-a-half that Flowers started to pull away and break the pack.
Ogden quickly followed and soon took the lead in order to do her fair share of wind-breaking. However, when the junior skier looked back she found that she had sped away from her fellow competitors.
Ogden was able to hold the distance and crossed the line with a time of 48:12, which was more than enough to earn her third place. Flowers eventually placed fourth.
Like Stephen, Tim Burke (USBA) had a history of winning the climb before his victory on Saturday. The 2013 World Championship silver medalist crossed the Saturday’s finish line in first with a time of 38:19.
Due to the strong wind, Burke approached the race differently than he had in the past. Normally, he would have made a strong effort from the start but Burke decided that leading with such strong wind resistance would only exhaust him and allow others to draft.
“Today was definitely a little different than the other times I’ve done it in that there was a tough head wind today. It brought a lot of tactics into the race,” Burke said.
Burke eventually attempted to brave the wind and break away, but was followed by Welley Ramsey of the Maine Winter Sports Center (MWSC).
In what he would later call a “stupid” strategy, Ramsey spent much of his energy trying to catch Burke. By the time he reached the veteran biathlete, he was exhausted. Despite his fatigue he was able to finish with a time of 40:01 and finish in third place.
Russell Currier (USBA/MWSC) was also in pursuit of Burke for much of the rollerski race. While it was the 27-year-old’s first climb, he was able to maintain contact with the race winner for much of the race.
Currier said that he did his best to preserve his energy by staying out of the lead, but ultimately Burke played the “moral card” which prompted him take the lead for part of the race.
After several lead switches, Currier eventually lost contact with Burke but was able to maintain his second place position with a time of 39:02.
This year’s climb marked the end of U.S. Ski Team (USST) and U.S. Biathlon (USBA) training blocks held at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid. Members of both teams were required to participate in the race and were joined by other camp participants and various other locals ranging from college to master skiers.
Race organizers from the New York Ski Education Foundation (NYSEF) were initially worried that construction efforts would hinder the 2014 climb. Even though the top section of the road was paved only a day before Saturday’s race, the road had hardened enough to allow rollerski and car travel.