Keith Johnson, Deseret News
Jill Stevens, part of the <A HREF="" TARGET="_blank"></A> Racing Team, would rather lose sleep than miss exercise.

Jill Stevens doesn't have any difficulty making time to exercise. It's finding time to rest that proves to be the real challenge.

She tried her hardest to relax when she was in China a few weeks ago chaperoning a youth group for 10 days, but she ended up going for a run on the Great Wall of China "for exercise, and just to be able to say I ran on the Great Wall of China," she said. "Fitness is addicting."

The soldier and reigning Miss Utah has run in 14 marathons and is so determined to work out regularly, she has to schedule a week's worth of rest. "I try to give my body a break once a year," she said.

Exercise has always been a big part of Stevens' life, and her commitment to it hasn't waned since being crowned Miss Utah just more than one year ago. If anything, winning the beauty queen title has fortified her drive.

"The pageant world has really gone downhill. There have been some girls in the past who have given it a bad name," she said. "I wanted to show that I was an athlete and that I wasn't a typical pageant girl."

She's made her athleticism very clear in the past 12 months by running five marathons. She's also represented her military and pageant sides in addition to her athleticism by wearing a tank top at every race that reads "MISS UTAH, G.I. JILL."

"These last five marathons, I was just trying to break the stereotypes of pageant girls," she said.

Her military background — Stevens joined the Army National Guard seven years ago and was a medic in Afghanistan — certainly makes her an exception to the mold and has given her the chance to travel nationwide speaking about her experience.

"I've been to over 17 states speaking in the last year," she said. "I never thought my life would get to this point."

And on the morning of each speaking engagement, she can be found sweating it out in the hotel fitness room, or running on the streets of the unfamiliar city, because no matter how hectic her schedule or tired her body, "I'd rather lose sleep" than go without, the top-10 finisher and America's Choice winner at the Miss American pageant said.

No single running experience has drained the Utah native as did the Honolulu Marathon she ran in December 2004, she said.

"That was, to this day, the toughest marathon I've ever done," she said. "I was struggling so much that I wondered how I was going to finish."

The Honolulu Marathon Stevens ran in actually took place in Afghanistan, where a unit of soldiers based out of Hawaii she was serving with wanted to create the first-ever marathon in Afghanistan and got it sponsored by their home state's marathon in Hawaii.

When the difficult terrain caused her to feel as though she couldn't go on, Stevens thought of her unique position as the leader of a pack of women running in the country's first marathon, which helped her to forge ahead, she said.

The women she encountered in her experience abroad had self respect and goals despite the fact that hardly anyone believed in them because of their gender.

"It hit me (and) I actually became proud to not only be an American, but an American soldier fighting for these women ... They live in these countries where no one believes in them and they still forge ahead ... they still continue on," Stevens said. "I thought of these women and they have really given me a lot of strength."

Stevens was the first woman to complete the race and she came in seventh overall out of more than 180 runners.

Three-and-a-half years and nine marathons later, Stevens is now a member of the Racing Team, and will compete in the Freedom Festival 10K this weekend and the Deseret News marathon July 24.

Stevens has written a book in her time between fulfilling her Miss Utah responsibilities — which will end when the new Miss Utah is crowned July 6 — and running in marathons. Due in bookstores in mid-August, her book is titled "It's All Good" and chronicles her life up to this point. She hopes it will motivate young people to follow their dreams, though she said writing it was a bit surreal.

It will tell about her military and pageant experience and encourage readers to be brave in all "our different combat zones."

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