Legends of the Trail - Page 8
Smead nearing the finish line at 14,050 feet during the 2011 Pikes Peak Ascent.
Takes on the Euros
“In those days, I was getting a course record every time I raced.” Colorado’s Chuck Smead is not afraid to tell you how it is. In reference to his 1970s dominance of American running, he isn’t exaggerating, either.
Smead, now 61, was the 1972 and 1973 winner of the Pikes Peak Marathon and the 1974 and 1976 winner of the Pikes Peak Ascent. His 1976 ascent win included a course-record time of 2:05:22—which stood until 1993 when Matt Carpenter ran 2:01:06. He placed second in the marathon at the 1975 Pan American Games in Mexico City, located at 7900 feet altitude, by running a 2:25:32 and 29 seconds back from the winner. And, in 1976, he won the inaugural Amateur Athletic Union of the United States, Inc. 50K National Championship; his obscenely fast 2:50:46 was an asterisked American record for years due to different measurement standards.
In 1977, Smead became the first fast American trail runner to take his talents across the pond. That year, he won Switzerland’s Sierre-Zinal, perhaps the most respected mountain-running race on Earth. Smead raced Sierre-Zinal four more times in the late ’70s and early ’80s, bringing with him other fast dudes from the United States like Pablo Vigil and Dave Casilla. This troupe together started a trend of Americans racing in Europe that has grown to what’s now a veritable exodus each summer.
“Chuck was the Jack Kerouac of united states mountain running. he was Just a vagabond in Europe, but such a fast one,” recalls Vigil, the Colorado mountain runner who won Sierre-Zinal four consecutive times between 1979 and 1982. “He blazed the way for me to go for the first time in 1979. Now, I’ve traveled to and raced in Switzerland so many times that it’s my home away from home.”
“Seven or eight summers total I raced in Europe,” remembers Smead. “Each time, I stayed a couple weeks—maybe a month—and ran as many mountain races as I could.” Why exactly did Smead cross the Euro mountain-running threshold when no one else was?
“Easy answer, money. I was a poor teacher with a mortgage payment, a wife and young kids. making money on running in America made for a scrappy existence.” he continues, “I could go to Europe for a month, all expenses paid [by race organizers], and make $4000. Back then, that was a ton of money.”
Smead has never stopped racing, though he’s now converted to chasing age-group course records at prestigious races. “Let me tell you the truth. I wake up and think, ‘My competition is running today, so I have to run, too.’ I enter races now because they keep me from being lazy. I’m old, but I want to live a lot longer. This crap keeps me healthy.”
Smead and his wife, Carol, live on 10 flatland acres outside of Mosca, Colorado, which is effectively the middle of nowhere. They have three grown boys and the couple is, according to Smead, semi-retired. “I'm a stamp dealer and Carol’s a tutor. We don’t really need our jobs, but be want them. Old people need things to do, you know.” Smead runs most days, “I do lots of speed workouts, not much mileage but almost all of it fast on the dirt roads out here. I live in the death zone, at 7600 feet. Living at this altitude is hard on the body. No two-a-days up here.” On easy days, Smead swims and pool runs at a nearby hot-springs pool.
Turns out, Smead’s still better than almost all of his competition, too. Last fall, he championed the 60-64 age group at the USA masters 5K cross country championships with a 19:42, 32 seconds faster than everyone else. In 2011, he won and set a course record in the men’s 60-64 age group at the Pikes Peak ascent with a 2:58:47.
“I'm not through with the Mount Washington road race. I tried for my age-group win there in 2012, and failed. I’m going back.” Smead is also thinking about another shot at Sierre-Zinal this summer, “Europeans aren’t as into age-group records as Americans are, but I can’t help wanting to go after a record there, too.” Clearly, Smead’s got some more pioneering to do.
— 1972 > Chuck Smead wins the Pikes Peak Marathon for the first of two times.
— 1973 > Smead wins the NCAA Division II Six-Mile Championship for the first of two times while in college at Humboldt State University.
— 1974 > Smead wins the Pikes Peak Ascent for the first of two times (In 1976, he would win and set an ascent course record of 2:05:22, which stood until the reign of Matt Carpenter began in the 1990s).
— 1975 > At the Pan American Games in Mexico City, Smead runs to a silver medal in the marathon. Smead nearing the finish line at 14,050 feet during the 2011 Pikes Peak Ascent.
— 1977 > Smead wins arguably the most prestigious mountain-running race in the world, Switzerland’s Sierre- Zinal. He would race it four more times in the coming years, never placing out of the top five.
— 2008 > Smead sets a men’s 55-59 age-group record at the Mount Washington Road Race with a 1:17:15.7.
— 2011 > Smead sets the men’s 60-64 age-group record at the Pike’s Peak Ascent with a 2:58:47.
— 2012 > Smead wins the men’s 60-64 age group at the USA Masters 5K Cross Country Championships with a 19:42. .