Ready or NotWhen a new race billed itself as the championship of ultrarunning, and with cash and cachet attracted the top talent, no one knew what might—or might not—happen
Michael Wardian dropping down to the Trail Runner UROC course low point at Sherando Lake (1820 feet), mile 18. Photo by David Clifford.
This article appeared in our December 2011 issue.
Were we covering a trail race or channeling the Tour de France? Our rental vehicle roared up a paved (yes) road, following the frontrunners Dave Mackey, Scott Gall, Geoff Roes and Michael Wardian, our photographer hanging out the window, rapid-firing photos one-handed. Not only was the surface atypical, but the race’s website mission of assembling “The Best of the Best. One Course. One Day” for an ultrarunning championship was off the hook.
After two days laced with near-continuous rain and fog, the morning of September 24 at Wintergreen Resort dawned mostly clear with cool temps in the low 60s, thick humidity, and a few low clouds floating on Virginia’s endless, rolling Blue Ridge Mountains. With brown locks curling out from a red beanie, the tall, jovial Race Co-Director J. Russell Gill (more commonly known as “Gill”), who had been up for two days straight making race preparations, summoned the elite field of about 20 men and women to the starting line for the inaugural Trail Runner Ultra Race of Champions (UROC). A handful of photographers jockeyed for the best shooting angle while other racers and coffee-toting spectators leaned against the fence lining the chute.
In a nod to the race’s declared mission of catering to the top runners, the elite runners would start at 7 a.m., 15 minutes ahead of the recreational field … and make a so-called “parade lap” around the parking lot at Wintergreen’s cozy Lookout restaurant and recreation area and back to the start corral. A “racers ready, set, go!” sent the field out at a sprint, and informed spectators joked about who might emerge first.
Some bet on lanky, ponytailed Michael Wardian, 37, a marathon-eating machine (2:17 PR) from Arlington, Virginia, who just two weeks before had set a 100K PR (6:42) in his second-place finish at the IAU 100K World Championships, while a burly, shirtless Dave James, 33, of Phoenix, Arizona, who had won July’s USATF 100-Mile Trail Championships at the Burning River 100-Mile Endurance Run in Cleveland, Ohio, appeared to be the favorite, as he is renown for going out fast and hard. Sure enough, James led the throng, as Wardian whimsically zigzagged just behind, like a NASCAR driver burning off his tires.
The field disappeared over a rise, heading up to Wintergreen’s 3515-foot summit, 5.5 miles and 430 feet above, linking a hodgepodge of trails and pavement. There, the first male and female to reach the aid station would be named the Ortovox King and Queen of the Mountain and collect $250 (plus a nice pack), provided they also crossed the finish line. That would be the hard part.
A BOLD GOAL
The Trail Runner UROC is the brain child of the accomplished trail runners Gill, 44, and his wife, Francesca Conte, 39, who own the Charlottesville Running Company shop and Bad to the Bone Endurance Sports, a production company that puts on a slew of races in the Charlottesville area. Gill and Conte know running. Conte, ruddy-faced with dark curly hair often held back by a headband and a ready warm smile, originally hails from Italy and retains a slight accent. She has amassed a long list of top ultra finishes, including a course-record win at this year’s Headlands Hundred 100-miler in California. Likewise, Gill’s resume is stacked, with strong finishes in races from 5K to 100 miles, including Colorado’s Leadville Trail 100-miler.
Gill and Conte’s audacious goal is to establish a true ultrarunning championship race, attracting the best runners in the world.
“All sports have their day, whether it’s the Super Bowl or the Stanley Cup, where the best of the best battle it out to determine who’s the best at that sport that particular year,” says Gill. “That is UROC’s goal for ultrarunning, and we designed the course to be on mixed surfaces to test a wide array of abilities.”
For a first-year event, UROC attained a relatively large field of high-caliber athletes. Gill and Conte offered three tiers of athlete support, the top level proffering local transportation, meals and lodging expenses and an appearance fee. The event offered a cash purse of $10,000, which would be evenly split between the men and women’s fields (1st: $2500, 2nd: $1000, 3rd: $750, 4th: $500, 5th: $250). Although puny by road standards, the potential payoff apparently convinced some runners to attend.
“My wife gave me a hall pass because of the prize money,” said Dave Mackey, 41, of Marin, California, another pre-race favorite.
And why 100 kilometers? “First, the 100-kilometer distance is internationally recognized as the ultrarunning distance,” says Conte. “In fact, it is currently being considered for an Olympic distance. Second, with our primary goal to create the Super Bowl of Ultrarunning, we wanted to encourage elite runners of varied strengths to participate. With speed versus endurance as a constant dichotomy, the 100K distance, combined with the mixed course, favors neither.” (Offering options to a wide variety of tastes, UROC featured two other events the same day—the Uber Rock 50K and the Cruxy Half Marathon, which shared many of the same sections of the 100K race. In total, there were 366 starters for the three events.)
Says Geoff Roes, 35, of Nederland, Colorado, 2009 and 2010 Ultrarunner of the Year, and winner of California’s 2010 Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, whom Gill and Conte had recruited as Elite Athlete Coordinator. “Overall I think we were able to get more top runners to run UROC than most first-year races, simply by reaching out and letting runners know about the race and that we would like to have them run it.”
Michael Wardian and Dave James blast off with Race Co-Director Gill (in green jacket) presiding over the start. Photo by David Clifford.
At the nondescript summit of Wintergreen, and the race’s first aid station, supporters and race volunteers gathered in a flat parking lot with residences nearby, whooping as the compact, muscular Scott Gall, 37, of Cedar Falls, Iowa, first-place finisher at Colorado’s 2011 Barr Trail Mountain Race, a 2000 Olympic Trials marathon qualifier (2:20) and fifth-place finisher in the 1999 World Mountain Running Championships, appeared from the trees to break the King of the Mountain tape. A few seconds later Wardian followed, as did the rest of the elite men gliding through at a fast clip. It was Gall’s first ultra attempt, so bystanders wondered: could the confident mountain runner sustain his pace for another 55-plus miles? Yet everyone seemed to be pushing the pace a little too hard.
“The leaders started fast, but probably a sustainable pace for a few of the guys on a good day,” an elite runner from Bend, Oregon, Ian Sharman, would later say. “I wanted to see how I felt so was happy to let them all go and hoped to catch up when I got into a good rhythm.”
First through for the women was the former collegiate basketball star and recent ultrarunning sensation Devon Crosby-Helms, 29, of San Francisco, a 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier, winner of the USATF 100K National Championships in Wisconsin’s Mad City (course record) and the 2009 JFK 50-miler (course record) in Maryland, amid many others. Wearing a striking red-and-white compression outfit, the gangly 6' 1" Helms would be easy to spot throughout the day. She was followed by the veteran Anne Riddle-Lundblad, 45, of Asheville, North Carolina (a nine-time USATF National Champion in multiple distances); Andi Felton, 35, of Scottsdale, Arizona (winner of the 2011 Zane Grey 50-miler in Arizona); and Ragan Petrie, 45, of Arlington, Virginia (winner of 2011 The North Face 50-Mile Endurance Challenge in Washington, D.C.).
In contrast to the deep men’s field, the women’s was relatively thin, with a few strong racers, including perennial top threat Anita Ortiz of Colorado (see “Blood Sport,” August 2011, Issue 74), bowing out of the event at the last moment.
After the pack disappeared into a short, densely wooded singletrack section, crews and followers packed up to intercept the runners, who would descend a steep mixture of singletrack and road before a one-mile road climb at a brutal 15-percent grade to the second aid station, Reeds Gap (mile 9.6). It was located on the famed Blue Ridge Parkway, a 469-mile two-lane road connecting North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains and Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. The UROC runners would log 21 tough, undulating miles on the Parkway.
Emerging first on that steep road section was Mackey, wearing his trademark visor. With wins at Oregon’s Waldo 100K (course record), California’s Miwok 100K, American River 50 Mile and Bandera 100K USATF Trail Championships (course record), Mackey was the favorite, at least on paper.
Yet he wasn’t necessarily himself on this day. “I’ve been nursing bronchitis for the past two weeks,” he had said the evening before the race. “I’m not even sure I’ll be starting tomorrow.” However, he was now running strong in his relaxed style up the unrelenting hill.
Commented a bystander, “It doesn’t even look like he’s going fast.”
Mackey was pursued by Gall, Wardian, Roes and Jonathan Basham, 34, of Greenwater, Washington, who, in 2010, became the ninth-ever finisher of Tennessee’s insane Barkley Marathons, which features an unmarked course and nearly 60,000 feet of climbing. While Basham has strong ultra finishes to his credit, he had mostly been training for a speed-record attempt on California’s John Muir Trail, not necessarily ideal for the fast turnover the UROC roads demanded.
PLOTTING A COURSE
A hardcore trail snob might cringe upon reviewing the UROC-course pie chart breaking down the terrain: 46.4-percent pavement, 11.2-percent gravel/mountain roads and 42.4-percent singletrack. Conceived to test a varied skill set, the course was a far cry from the mostly singletrack mountain races that many trail fiends crave. With 12,500 feet of climbing, though, the race was far from a speedy road cruise. While some runners predicted an eight-hour-ish winning time, Roes said, “I knew nobody would run that time.”
“This course has something to lay everybody low,” said the consummate veteran Eric Grossman, 43, of Emory, Virginia (who has accumulated many ultra victories over a nearly 30-year career).
At a panel discussion the evening before the race, the moderator, an accomplished ultrarunner named Andy Jones-Wilkins, 44, who recently moved to Charlottesville (and had pulled out of the race due to a case of plantar fasciitis), said, “This race is going to be a true test. … We have a fair amount of roads, hills, gnarly East-Coast rocks, ups, downs, and sticky, nasty stuff. How have you prepared for that?”
And, as predicted, the course delivered a tough test on race day. From Reeds Gap, the runners broke south for five miles on the Blue Ridge Parkway to the White Rock Gap aid station, then ran three miles of singletrack to Sherando Lake, at 1820 feet. There, as the sun peeked out of the clouds and the humidity skyrocketed, runners popped out from dense woods onto a broad grassy dam before dropping down on stairs cut into the hillside for a one-mile singletrack loop around the lake.
Heading back up the same stairs, the front pack looked like this: Mackey and Gall ran together, with the following group spread out in singles and pairs over 15 or so minutes—Matt Flaherty, 26, of Chicago, Illinois (who holds a marathon PR of 2:22 and was coming off a win at Madison, Wisconsin’s The North Face 50-Mile Endurance Challenge the week before); Roes, Grossman, Wardian, Basham; Jonathan Allen, 32, of Greenville, South Carolina (back-to-back recent wins at South Carolina’s Laurel Valley 35-miler and Georgia’s SweetH20 50K); Michael Owen, 23, of Pomeroy, Ohio (a recent college grad, with a third place at Burning River 100-miler and a victory at West Virginia’s Sasquatch Trail 50K); and yet another favorite, Sharman, 31, originally of the UK (who ticked a course-record 12:44 at Texas’ 2011 Rocky Raccoon 100-miler for the fastest trail 100 ever, and second place at South Africa’s prestigious Comrades Marathon). For the women, it was Crosby-Helms, Petrie and Riddle-Lundblad, spaced out over 15 minutes.
This was the course low point. It was also the beginning of trials for Roes. “I just thought, ‘Here we go again,’” he said later, referring to a rough string of recent races. “It was unlike any race I’ve had in terms of my mood swings. One minute I was running six-minute pace and, the next, a 10-minute pace felt like a struggle.”