FasterSkier would like to thank the Mirror Lake Inn for providing lodging and meals in Lake Placid this weekend.
WILMINGTON, N.Y. — One thing was clear to the women’s field racing the Climb to the Castle on Saturday morning: Liz Stephen (U.S. Ski Team) was not messing around. Her competitors expected a hard effort from the traditionally strong climber, but her half-mile gap on the rest of the field just three miles into the 5-mile race up Whiteface Mountain left no room for doubt that Stephen was in good shape.
She won the climb just over five minutes ahead of Jessie Diggins (SMS T2/USST) on a cool, windy and misty morning. Last September, the weather on race day was warm and calm by comparison, and yet Stephen beat her own winning time from a year ago by over a minute.
The Climb to the Castle has come to mark a fall transition for skiers; a switch from high volume training to more focused intensity, an early test against other top U.S. athletes to measure how well summer work is paying off, and a reminder that the racing season is just around the corner. Stephen’s dominant performance sends a clear message: she’s ready for winter.
USST head coach Chris Grover was surprised at how fast Stephen skied.
“She’s had one great time trial after another this summer,” he said. “It’s really good for her to know her training’s going so well.”
Stephen herself didn’t sound surprised at the finish as much as excited. Her plan at the base of the climb had been to not stress about the end result and enjoy the race.
“I went into it without so much of a plan, I just wanted to ski hard the whole time,” Stephen said at the top. “This race is uncomfortable no matter how you ski it and I was just picturing someone right in front of me. I thought I heard poles the whole time. It’s good to play tricks with your mind because on the World Cup there’s always someone there and every second matters.”
Stephen hadn’t realized she’d created such a huge lead and kept skiing as if someone would catch up to her at any moment.
“I was getting some updates, but the fog was heavy. And I’ve seen Jessie come back from minutes back before, so I knew the race was not locked up until the finish line,” she said.
Diggins knew the fight for the win was over the moment Stephen made her first breakaway.
“Liz took off and we were like, ‘Sweet, see ya! Maybe one day we’ll be a climber like you but not today,’ ” Diggins said.
With Stephen out of reach, the race for second unfolded between Diggins, Ida Sargent (CGRP/USST), Sophie Caldwell (SMS T2), Hannah Dreissigacker (CGRP/USBA) and Clare Egan (CGRP). A fairly strong wind forced skiers to take turns pulling from the front.
“It was fun to have someone to ski with this year, last year I was by myself,” said Sargent, who finished third. “This year skiing with Jessie was really fun, taking turns leading and just making it to the top as fast as possible.”
A climb like Whiteface is practically designed to inflict as much pain as possible, so the goal for many skiers on Saturday was to simply maintain it at a manageable level and hope their legs were there for the finish.
“I think the technique held on until the last five minutes, so I’m pretty happy with the process goals,” Diggins said. She focused on keeping her skiing “light and quick and not bogged down,” but also on practicing her mental approach to racing.
“When the going gets tough, instead of thinking about, ‘Wow, this hurts, this sucks,’ [I was] thinking about ‘OK, how can I keep my technique together, just keep moving?’ ” Diggins said.
As hard as the climb was, there is no rest for the weary. The U.S. team had a strength session to look forward within a few hours of finishing the race.
“That’ll be fascinating to watch,” Diggins said.
— Matt Voisin contributed reporting