8:00 a.m. The gun went off and the race was underway. Although the field was relatively small the competition was high. Joe Gray, like myself, was there trying to get the Skyrunning Runner Of the Year, US mountain runner JP Donovan looking for a podium upset on his rivals, and Swiss Mountain Runner Marin Anthamatten was there to crash the American Championship.
Instantly JP sprinted out like the race was a 5k and not the 24 mile mountain race we all knew it to be. Joe and I sat back and watched almost in disbelief. Within 70 yards of the start JP and a handful of others had already gone off the trail, catapulting me into the lead. With Joe and Martin in close pursuit. Within a mile JP retook the lead and held it to the top of the first climb: Mt. Elden. On top I rounded a bend with Joe and Martin in a small pack when we heard JP let out a yelp from behind us. He had once again gone off trail.
From the top of Elden our mini-pack of 4 ran on at an ever quickening pace. With the first climb and introduction out of the way it was now time to race. Martin took the lead onto a single track that disappeared into the forest. Soon we were at the first aid station which was a blur as we raced through.
Single track can be extremely fun to run and exciting to race fast on. This was the goal. Martin and JP took turns leading our procession as we hammered along. We started a descent on the single track and they took off. Joe and I followed through the dust kicked up into the air, trying not to breath too much of it in, while simultaneously needing all the air we could get. It was a fantastic single track zigging down a mountain side with Aspen and Pine surrounding us. In places there were rocks to jump over with leaves and needles softly nestled on the ground. Our feet pounded down the hill on the volcanic soil, disturbing the tranquility. Both Martin and JP were trying to drop Joe and myself. This was early to be racing, but it was a national championship race. On our decent we yo-yoed back and forth but no one was dropped.
I sat in 4th place not wanting to race yet and feeling everyone else out. Joe looked calm and comfortable, sitting and waiting as well. JP looked solid but was wavering slightly… he would slow down. And Martin, well Martin looked to be on a mission: drop everyone and run like the wind. We soon came into another aid station. This time Joe and I stopped for a brief respite, once fueled we left. We looked up and saw Martin and JP run straight down a road, while the trail turned off to the left. We both yelled and they turned and ran back. Consequently, Joe and I were now in the lead. The new trail, a wide and rocky single track with a slight unrelenting uphill, meandered through forest and mountain meadow.
Joe was content to let me lead, later informing me that I was doing a good job route finding. Marin quickly caught up and stayed in third. JP attempted to catch up but was soon dropped. The race was down to us three. While we ran we passed a few dozen runners from the 55k race. Now and then 1 or 2 would tag on to our group for as long as they could.
I set my own pace and the other 2 seemed content to just sit and wait. We covered another 4 miles and passed through yet another aid station. Martin decided it was time and put in a surge. Joe went with him, while I stayed back sitting knowing I could not match the surge. I was dropped and now officially in a solid third. Within a mile the trail disappeared and the route headed straight up a steep hill. I power hiked but my pace was slowing. I could tell I was now sodium & potassium deficient and started cramping. The cramps got exponentially worse. I finally topped the hill with a runner coming up only 100 yards behind. I followed the trail and soon hit yet another hill, this time running straight up a ski slope. I hiked up in excruciating pain while my muscles fired and flexed in random tetanus. I topped the hill and puked 2 or 3 times, the runner caught up and gave me some salt pills and passed me. I could barely continue. I ran, or rather staggered forward and down the hill to the next aid station which was at the finish line.
Although it was at the finish I still had another 4 miles or so straight up a ski slope and back down. I refueled and sat for a minute trying to get the cramping under control I figured I was now in fourth and had to finish strong. I soon left the aid and started up the last climb. I followed the flags and ended following them in the wrong direct only adding on at least a ½ mile. I topped out on the ski slope and started running down towards the finish. What place was I now? I had no idea. I thought I was 4th… maybe 5th now. I could not tell with the added 55k racers around.
I finished, glad to be done. I congratulated Joe and Martin. They reciprocated and told me I was 3rd. Really? I was in shock disbelief. Could this be true? After a minute I confirmed it was true. I was shocked. I was 3rd overall and therefore and had won the United States Skyrunning Series Championships. Crazy! But Awesome!