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Elizabeth Stephen captures her third U.S. Cross Country skiing crown of the week

US Distance Championships

Mon, Mar  30, 2009 - By Matias Saari

FAIRBANKS — Morgan Arritola nearly didn’t enter the women’s 30-kilometer classic on Sunday that wrapped up the U.S. Cross Country Ski Championships.

Elizabeth Stephen is glad her good friend on the U.S. Ski Team raced, and she had trouble keeping Arritola’s torrid pace for the first half at Birch Hill Recreation Area.

Kikkan Randall was just thankful to reach the finish line without a litany of cramping muscles fully seizing up.

Kate (Pearson) Arduser feels she’s just coming into form and had mixed emotions about the Nordic ski season coming to a close in her hometown.

And 47-year-old Sue Forbes knew she was overmatched competitively, but she raced for the sheer enjoyment of it.

While Stephen, Arritola and Randall comprised the podium, Arduser placed ninth and Forbes was the 30th and final finisher — and each had a story to tell.

Arritola skipped Friday’s 15K skiathlon and was considering the same for Sunday’s marathon.

“I was a little physically and mentally burned out. It’s been a long season and I haven’t been feeling great,” Arritola said. “I talked myself into this race and decided that I was just going to give it everything I had.”

So Arritola charged to the front and pushed the pace for much of the first 15K. Only Randall, Kristina Strandberg and Rebecca Dussault were within four seconds at that point, with Stephen 7.5 seconds back and hurting.

“I think blistering might be a good word,” Stephen said of the early pace. “It was really fast. I was having a lot of trouble hanging on ... but I knew that if she dropped me, I wasn’t going to be getting back on.”

Stephen weathered the storm, and Strandberg and Dussault lost contact, turning the event into a three-woman race. On the fourth and final lap, Stephen assumed control as Randall of Anchorage finally fell back.

“My objective was just to break Kikkan and it happened that that’s where a little gap formed from Morgan, too,” Stephen said.

Randall bent, but didn’t totally break, due to cramps.

“First I felt my triceps, and then my lats, and then I was getting something across my lower back, and something across my front abdomen,” Randall said. “And then my hamstring and my quads. .. It was like everything.”

Those maladies made it impossible to keep contact, and Randall believes she knows why they occurred.

“I trained really hard for sprinting this year, and it paid off at World Championships (where) I got a silver medal,” Randall said. “But, you know, these distance races, I’m maybe not quite as ready for right now.”

Stephen prevailed in 1 hour, 38 minutes and 20 seconds, while Arritola was runner-up 14 seconds later and Randall took bronze 49 seconds back.

Arduser was ninth and felt strong enough to be the only female who stayed in the tracks — instead of running with a herringbone technique — on three trips up the notorious Black Funk climb.

“I’m happy with today,” said Arduser, a Lathrop High School graduate who now lives in Cordova and Anchorage. “I pushed really hard and did my best.”

Arduser wouldn’t mind a few more races this season but will instead “mellow out for the month of April” before resuming her training as she strives for a spot on the 2010 Olympic team.

Forbes knows about that, as she skied in the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France. She grew up in Anchorage and spent time in Fairbanks and Valdez before moving to Molokai, Hawaii, 14 years ago. Forbes still visits Alaska every spring and didn’t hesitate to jump in against girls less than half her age.

“I just like racing,” said Forbes, who plugged along to finish 27 1/2 minutes after Stephen. “I knew I was not going to be anywhere near the top, but I just decided to go.”

The next youngest competitor was the 33-year-old Strandberg.

“I wish more masters would come out and race,” Forbes said. “You know, why not?”