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Hours after Allie McLaughlin crossed the finish line of an intense uphill trail running race of the Thai mountain village of Ban Khun Chang Khian on Friday, she was amazed to be greeted by a small throng of adoring young fans.
McLaughlin, aka “Allie Mac,” ran her best race of what has been a sensational season of trail running, winning the 8.5km Classic Uphill Race on November 4 at the combined Trail World Championships and World Mountain Running Championships being held in the mountains of Chiang Mai, Thailand. Her efforts, along with those of American teammates Lauren Gregory and Rachel Tomajczyk, led the U.S. to the women’s team title in the first race of the three-day event.
But after McLaughlin spent about two hours going through the onsite drug-testing protocol, most of the other athletes and race officials had already headed back Chiang Mai for the post-race meal and festivities. As she and U.S. team manager Nancy Hobbs walked around the village while waiting for a ride back down to the city, they were greeted by dozens of locals who enamored by McLaughlin’s athletic skills, red-white-and-blue Team USA race kit, vivacious smile and bright red polish adorning her finger nails.
“It was so sweet,” McLaughlin said via a Whatsapp call after the race. “Here we were in this tiny off-the-grid village on top of the mountain, and there were some of the sweetest people who had been interested in the race. There were many kids running around and so excited to take pictures. it was really a cultural experience, so cool to see their way of life up there. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
Taking Charge Going Uphill
No one who follows the international trail running scene should forget McLaughlin’s stunning victory. The 32-year-old On-sponsored runner from Colorado Springs won the race in commanding fashion over a very talented field of runners by executing a smart race and playing to her strength, namely her tenacious uphill running ability.
The race, which included 4,400 feet of vertical gain over 5.2 miles, started in the city center of Chiang Mai on paved and dirt roads. The pace went out hot as Germany’s Hanna Groeber, Tereza Hrochova and Austria’s Andrea Mayr led the way to the 1-mile mark in 5:40. Not wanting to blow up before the start of the big climbing section, McLaughlin was a few strides back and biding her time just off the front with Switzerland’s Maude Mathys and Kenya’s Joyce Njeru.
But shortly after the course entered the forest and began to climb up steep, technical mountain trails, McLaughlin took charge with Gregory not far behind. Although the weather was hot and humid (in the mid-80s), the terrain was dry and there was plenty of shade, making McLaughlin feel like her favorite routes near Colorado Springs.
“After we got on the trail, there was a little punchy uphill and I just felt like my legs had a lot of pop in them and knew I could run faster,” McLaughlin said. “It kind of reminded me of the trails back home. It was roots and rocks and dirt and very, very steep, and that was good. Once we started climbing, I felt great.”
From there, she surged and gapped the rest of the field. Gregory remained near the front of the chase back, but then Mathys and Austria’s Andrea Mayr began a surge of their own and strung out the rest of the field. McLaughlin never looked back, but she could sense runners weren’t too far back because she could hear spectators clapping for other runners behind her.
The only flaw of her near-perfect execution was misjudging how far along in the course she was after she got to the top of one of the biggest climbs. Because she had just been racing at the Golden Trail World Series Grand Final in Portugal, she arrived later than Gregory and Tomajczyk and wasn’t able to scout the full course.
As it turned out late in the race, she thought she was near the 5-mile mark and ready for the flowy downhill mile to the finish line, but, in fact, she was only near the 4-mile mark and had more climbing to do.
“I don’t know what goes through my head, but uphill running can feel so slow that I just thought I was closer than I was,” she said. “I looked at my watch and it said 3.9 miles and I was, ‘Oh no, I still have to run another uphill mile. My legs were OK, but my breathing and my mind were a bit hyper. I made it, though. Sometimes I like knowing the course really well, and sometimes, like this, I really like going in blind, but it worked out in the end here, so that’s what matters.”
McLaughlin got through the last climb and then cruised into the village, winning the race by 26 seconds. She crossed the finish line banner in 55:15 with a huge smile on her face. Mayr, a six-time world champion in mountain running, was next in 55:41, followed by Mathys, the pre-race favorite, in 56:00.
Gregory (12th, 1:00:06) and Tomajczyk (26th,1:03:43) also ran well for Team USA, helping the U.S. win the women’s team title with 39 points to narrowly edging squads from the UK (2nd, 41 points), Switzerland (3rd, 41 points) and France (4th, 45 points).
The Trail World Championships and World Mountain Running Championships is a collaboration between World Athletics, the sanctioning body for all forms of international running, the World Mountain Running Association (WMRA), International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU) and International Trail Running Association (ITRA) that has brought together the disciplines of mountain running, vertical running and trail running one official championship event for the first time.
“It’s really a big deal, and I’m so happy for Allie,” says Hobbs, who is the chairperson of the USATF Mountain Ultra Trail (MUT) Council as well as the secretary of the World Mountain Running Association. “She’s very tenacious. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she was in the top three, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she won it, either. In these kinds of races you never know what can happen because the courses are so different and that always adds a level of unpredictability. With the amount of talented runners in the race, anything can happen to some extent. So this is big for Allie because she just went out there and executed a great race.”
In the men’s uphill race, Kenyans Patrick Kigngeno (46:51) and Philemon Kiriago (48:24) finished 1st and 2nd, respectively, while Spain’s Alejandro Garcia Carrillo took the bronze (49:03). Joe Gray was the top American finisher in sixth (49:39), while Cam Smith was 20th (52:07) and Dan Curts was 24th (52:42), as the U.S. men placed fourth.
The Ugandan men’s team, one of the squads expected to compete for the men’s team title, didn’t start the race after confusion about the starting location. Apparently, they took an hour-long taxi to the finish line and couldn’t make it back to the start in time.
More than 500 elite athletes from 46 countries are competing in the championships, which also feature 40km and 80km trail races and 10.7km up-and-down mountain races for both senior and U20 athletes.
A Stellar Season of Racing
The victory for McLaughlin was the latest in a long string of strong international results for McLaughlin. She’s coming off a great showing at the 2022 Golden Trail World Series event in Portugal, where she won two of the five stages and placed second in another enroute to a ninth-place overall finish in the season standings.
Earlier in the summer, she won the Broken Arrow SkyRace VK in California in June and the Mount Marathon Race in Alaska in July in record-setting time. She also placed sixth in the OCC 55km race in Chamonix in August, and then in September raced well against deep international fields when she finished fourth in the 13.3-mile Pikes Peak Ascent in Colorado and third in the Flagstaff Sky Peaks 26km race in Arizona.
In the past, McLaughlin typically only raced internationally at the World Mountain Running Championships, but the past two years has raced everything from vertical K races to ultra-distance events. She earned a bronze medal in the uphill race at the 2014 World Mountain Running Championships in Italy and helped the U.S. women’s team take the bronze medal.
“I love that I’ve dabbled in several of the different race series this year because they each have their own glow, and I love them each for what they are,” she says. “As much as I loved racing in the Golden Trail World Series and didn’t think I could top that, something about being here and wearing the Team USA jersey and racing in the world champs against so many other countries is pretty darn epic.”