FAIRBANKS — Liz Stephen’s strategy Friday evening was to keep her deficit manageable in the classic portion of the skiathlon so she could unleash her superior skating in the second half of the 15-kilometer race.
The plan worked perfectly, and it brought the 21-year-old a U.S. Cross Country Ski Championships pursuit title for the second straight year.
“To keep them within 20 seconds is pretty good for me,” said Stephen, of the U.S. Ski Team, of how much she trailed Swede Kristina Strandberg and Anchorage’s Kikkan Randall at the midpoint transition. Holly Brooks, an assistant coach with Alaska Pacific University Nordic Ski Center, was also 16 seconds ahead.
After an efficient gear exchange, Stephen first swallowed Rebecca Dussault (Saab Salomon Factory Team), then set her sights on the aforementioned trio.
Before long, she caught them on her favorite terrain — a long uphill on the Tower Direct trail at Birch Hill Recreation Area.
“She just did a really quick V1 jump skate to pass us, and she kind of hopped in front and took the lead from there,” Brooks said.
Halfway through the skating portion, though, Strandberg was virtually on Stephen’s ski tails, and Randall and Brooks were still within four seconds.
Stephen then broke the race open the second and final time up the exceedingly steep Competition Loop climb.
“She just kind of took off on me,” Strandberg said. “I had no chance to stay with her.”
Said Randall: “My legs were just a bit heavy and tight on the steep stuff, so when Liz came by she just looked really really smooth. ... My triceps and quads started to seize up a little bit.”
Friday’s race was the longest of Randall’s season. “So it’s just a good experiment,” she said.
Randall added that she was excited to see Stephen skiing so well and enjoyed the battle with Brooks, one of her coaches at APU, toward the end.
On an overcast day with the temperature in the 20s and the trail softened following an inch of fresh snow, Stephen crossed first in 47 minutes, 36 seconds. Strandberg (Saab Salomon) hung with Stephen the longest and was rewarded with second place in 47:52.
Since Strandberg is not eligible for U.S. awards, Randall claimed the U.S. silver medal in 48:01, topping Brooks by 10 seconds.
Fairbanksans Becca Rorabaugh and Kate (Pearson) Arduser placed eighth and 11th, respectively.
Brooks hasn’t raced much this season but showed her fitness by winning the Tour of Anchorage and placing second to Dussault in a photo-finish at the American Birkebeiner in Wisconsin last month. She didn’t know what to expect on Friday, however, and was a little surprised by her performance.
“I didn’t really have any specific goal,” Brooks said. “I’ve never really raced with this field before, so there’s lots of unknowns.”
Fitting workouts in can be a challenge for the 26-year-old coach.
“A lot of the training happens when I’m training other people,” she said. “It’s accidental training, let’s just call it that. ... And then I have a few sessions on the side.”
Next up at 11 a.m. Sunday is the 30K classic that concludes the championships for the women.
Part of Stephen’s preparation will involve an ice bath.
“Fill up the bathtub (with ice) and it’s 10 minutes in the cold water,” she said. “It’s seems to really help the recovery, but it’s certainly not as nice as a bubble bath.”
Randall, who made her mark on the World Cup as a sprinter, said she thinks she’ll enter the marathon as well.
“Hopefully the pain of this one will wear off over the next day and a half, and I’ll be psyched to go again, twice as far,” she said.