Ready or Not
When 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.
Photo by David Clifford
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.