CAPE ELIZABETH — When Gemma Steel arrived in town for her first TD Beach to Beacon 10K in 2013, she brought the usual accoutrements of a professional runner.

Training shoes, racing flats, warm-up suit, cropped top, shorts, socks.

She also brought something unusual.

Brushes and paint for her watercolors.

The defending women’s champion, as it turns out, not only is adept on pavement. She also knows her way around a palette.

Over the past four years, Steel has illustrated two children’s books written by her twin sister Louise, a journalist, and wrote and illustrated her own, called “Spots vs Stripes.”

“That came about while I was there (in Maine) the first year,” said Steel by phone from her home in central England. “I was working on the drawings.”

Steel said she drew inspiration not only from Cape Elizabeth (a lighthouse appears on three pages) but from her time at a training camp with other elite runners at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester in 2013.

“It was quiet at the farm,” she said. “Not a lot to do there so it gave me time to think.”

More inspiration for the book, which tells a tale of six animals divided into two teams competing in a footrace to become king of the jungle, came from her host family’s bookshelves in Cape Elizabeth.

This week Emily Bugbee and her husband Alvin will welcome Steel into their home for a third straight year.

Upon first seeing some of Steel’s paintings from the collaboration with her sister – “Ziggy the Zebra” and “Chicken Dog” – Emily Bugbee was reminded of iconic Maine artist Dahlov Ipcar, whose kaleidoscopic images have graced numerous children’s books.

“I thought her painting style was similar,” Bugbee said. “I had met Dahlov because my mother was the librarian at Prince Memorial Library in Cumberland.”

One of Ipcar’s books, called “Stripes and Spots,” came out in 1961 and features a young tiger determined to hunt things with stripes and a young leopard doing likewise with spotted prey. Steel’s book includes a tiger, zebra and snail (all striped) racing a cheetah, giraffe and turtle (all spotted).

“The storyline is kind of cute,” Bugbee said. “And the pictures are just great.”

New England roads proved to Steel’s liking as well. Somewhat of an unknown because her background is in cross country rather than track, the 29-year-old Steel placed second in Cape Elizabeth and at the Falmouth road race on Cape Cod in 2013. She was runner-up again in 2014 at Falmouth and outkicked American Olympian Shalane Flanagan, bronze medalist at 10,000 meters in the 2008 Beijing Games, to win last year’s Beach to Beacon by a step in 31 minutes, 27 seconds.

“This girl has worked for so long,” Emily Bugbee said, “and to finally hit it big, it was really fun to be with her.”

“It was the turning point for me,” Steel said. “To outkick someone like (Flanagan), it came as a bit of a shock to me, as well as to Shalane, I think. … So it was nice to surprise myself.”

Steel went on to win the European cross country championship in Bulgaria in December. That race required another sprint to the finish, against British teammate Kate Avery, who was coming off the NCAA cross country title. Steel said prevailing in Cape Elizabeth allowed her to do likewise in Bulgaria.

This spring, in the same Healthy Kidney 10K in New York City won by North Yarmouth native Ben True, Steel was third behind two Kenyans, including winner Joyce Chepkirui, the 2013 Beach to Beacon champion who was prevented from defending her title by the Kenyan Olympic Committee.

Chepkirui is expected back this year, however. Because of illness and injury, Steel hasn’t run seriously since that race in May. Even so, she sounded excited to return to Cape Elizabeth, where she had her photo taken next to the statue of Joan Benoit Samuelson and exchanged books with another runner-author, Meb Keflezighi.

“It’s kind of like putting dye into water and watching it spread,” Bugbee said of Steel’s emergence over the past two years. “That’s what it’s been like to watch her. I’m dying to see her this year.”

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