Stevie Kremer admits she's been living in a bit of a dream world.
The 29-year-old elementary school teacher from Crested Butte, Colo., spent the past year living and teaching in Trieste, Italy, and she's returning from her European adventure this month as one of the world's top trail runners.
Kremer's emergence didn't happen overnight, but her ability to run the rugged trails of the Alps put her on the podium of several top races in Europe, where the sport of trail running is at its competitive peak.
Not bad for someone who really started running only four years ago.
Kremer was born in Germany but grew up in Connecticut, where she played soccer, tennis and golf. She spent four years attending Colorado College in the shadows of Pikes Peak in Colorado Springs but didn't discover her knack for the sport until she moved to Crested Butte.
"I only ran a little bit in college to stay fit, but I wasn't fast," says Kremer, whose effervescent personality belies a deep-rooted toughness. "I ran my first trail race in Crested Butte and I was really slow, but something clicked. I've never liked running on roads much, but I really loved the feeling of running on trails, being part of the mountains and challenging myself on the terrain."
With a dominating win at the rigorous Mont Blanc Marathon on June 30 in Chamonix, France, and her second straight runner-up finish at the historic, 19-mile Sierre-Zinal trail race in Switzerland on Sunday, Kremer is returning stateside as one of the favorites to win the women's race at the Aug. 18 Pikes Peak Marathon, America's signature trail race up and down the iconic 14,110-foot peak.
The Pikes Peak Marathon is the third race in the Skyrunner World Series, in which Kremer is second in the points standings behind Sweden's Emelie Forsberg.
"Trail racing in Europe is just a completely different scene," Kremer says. "The trails are very steep and technical, but the biggest thing is that everyone seems to have a connection and a deep appreciation for the mountains. And no matter where you go, there are hundreds and hundreds of spectators cheering you on, even if they don't know who you are. It's truly amazing and something you just don't see in the U.S."
Last year was a breakout year for Kremer on the European circuit. She was seventh in the World Mountain Running Championships 5.5-mile uphill race in Ponte di Legno, Italy, and won the World Long Distance Mountain Running Challenge at the Jungfrau Marathon in Switzerland the following week, helping the U.S. win the team championship in each race.
In addition to her runner-up showing at the Sierre-Zinal race last year, she took second in the Smarna Gora Mountain Race 10K in Slovenia in October, which helped her finish sixth in the World Mountain Running Association Grand Prix -- the first time an American has cracked the top 10 in the 14-year history of that series.
Her strong results led her to being named the co-winner of the 2012 USA Track & Field Trail Runner of the Year and helped her land a spot on an international racing team sponsored by Salomon, a French manufacturer of trail running shoes and other outdoor sports gear. Team perks include a modest stipend, plenty of gear and travel expenses to compete in races around the world.
"What makes Stevie so good is that she can handle technical terrain," says Colorado's Adam Chase, president of the American Trail Running Association and manager of Team Salomon. "Plus, she's got a great attitude and she's always positive, and that goes a long way in trail running."
Last month, Team Salomon sent her to the grueling 25-mile Hout Bay Trail Challenge in South Africa, and she won in a course-record time of 4 hours, 34 minutes, 55 seconds.
"That's the toughest and most technical race I have ever competed in, especially when adding the weather and unfamiliarity of the course, but also one I will never forget," she says.
While Trieste is a lovely seaport cradled in a small strip of land between the Adriatic Sea and Italy's Slovenian border, it wasn't actually an ideal place to train for trail running races. But Kremer took it all in stride, sneaking in road runs before (and sometimes after) eight hours of teaching 6-year-olds and taking weekend trips to run on trails in other parts of Italy, as well as Austria, France, Slovenia and Switzerland.
While her year abroad has taken her to new heights, Kremer admits to being a bit homesick for her beloved mountain home.
"Although there are some hills and trails where I was living in Italy, I definitely missed living right in the mountains where trails surround me. Life is pretty darn good in Crested Butte in that way," she says. "But I have had the amazing opportunity to travel to mountains all around Europe -- something I would have never been able to do had it not been for this year abroad. The places I've been able to explore so far are absolutely amazing.
"The entire last year has been like a dream in many ways, but it's a dream I don't want to wake up from anytime soon."
Brian Metzler is the editor-in-chief of Competitor Magazine.