Running for Red, White and Blue - Page 2
The top four women and six men across the line on race day would represent the United States at the 2011 World Mountain Running Championship on September 11, in Tirana, Albania.
In Europe, mountain running's roots date back as far as 1068, when a Scottish king is recorded to have chosen his messengers by hosting a race to the top of the nearest mountain and back, and then later as "fell races" in the ancient Scottish Highland Games.
While pockets of mountain races exist in the United States, like those in the USATF New England Mountain Running Circuit and the La Sportiva Mountain Cup, for the most part, the sport is widely unknown and simply referred to as trail running.
Trail running is loosely defined as off-road running. It can be flat, hilly, mountainous—it just has to be on dirt. A mountain race, on the other hand, may take place on a trail or road and must have a significant elevation gain to be considered a "true" mountain course. According to the WMRA, a mountain course can cover a variety of distances, from 15-minute sprints to multi-hour mountain treks.
Plus, mountain running is included in the definition of "athletics" by the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF), the same governing body that oversees track and field, road running and cross-country running around the world. As with any sanctioned championship event, Cranmore must adhere to specific parameters outlined in the IAAF rulebook.
Cranmore had previously served as the United States Mountain Running Championship in 2005, 2007 and 2009. "Paul sets the course to mirror the World Championship course," says Nancy Hobbs, the first woman to serve on the World Mountain Running Association (WMRA) Council (the governing body of the World Championship), now the WMRA treasurer. "Therefore, athletes will know what to expect at Worlds."
Indeed, among a slew of emails Kirsch sent participants before race day was a side-by-side elevation profile of Cranmore and the World Mountain Championship—they were nearly identical. The World Mountain Running Championship alternates each year between up-only and up-down races. This year, an up-down year, the Cranmore women's race would consist of two 3.87-kilometer laps, each with steep, stair-step-like ascents and one long, off-camber downhill. In an up-down year, mountain-running races, according the WMRA guidelines, must consist of at least 500 meters (about 1640 feet) of climbing over eight kilometers for the women's course.
I studied the chart when it popped in my inbox a few days before flying east. I thought about my training and calculated the inclines, which were steeper than I had imagined. As I looked at the chart, my stomach knotted in nervousness. "Mountain running is the perfect combination of mental and physical challenge," Kirsch says. "Heart and grit can get you far in a mountain race, sometimes right past talent on that last brutally steep hill."
In previous years, the U.S. teams were not always selected at a single event like Cranmore. In fact, in the mid 1990s there were no qualifying races at all. According to Hobbs, in those days if you could afford to travel to the World Mountain Championship (then called the World Mountain Trophy) and were a decent runner, you were on the team. In 2000, the team was chosen by results from multiple races. 2010 was the first year a single race was used to determine the team. Says Hobbs, "We polled the athletes and most of them wanted one championship on one day, which means you have really got to be on that day."
My sister, Lauren, and her husband, Lou, meet me at the airport in Portland, Maine. Lauren has been sidelined most of the season with injuries and though she had planned to race for the USMRT, she is now only running because she already purchased plane tickets. We all pile into their rental car and head to Joanne and Richard Fidion's house just outside of Conway, New Hampshire, my homestay for the weekend.
Kirsch works tirelessly with the local community and running club—the White Mountain Milers—to find housing for elite athletes over the weekend. Among dozens of other hosts, the Fidions have been housing and feeding trail runners for years. Both are in their 70s, and they treat us like family. Joanne insists on cooking all our meals and doing our laundry. Richard, who started running in his 50s, has an entire room dedicated to an impressive array of awards he's won over his 20-plus-year running career. Talking to Richard, means talking running.
It is people like Kirsch and the Fidions that make competitors coming to one of Kirsch's qualifying races leave feeling like they are part of a mountain-running family. Of course, that's a big reason Kirsch does this. "The thing I cherish more than anything about being a race director for a National Championship is that I get to meet so many new people," Kirsch says, waving his hands wildly as he speed talks. "They are here giving it their all to wear the USA team jersey."
Race day is a hot and muggy New England morning—the black flies are swarming after yesterday's downpour. Clouds hang low over the resort, obstructing views of the surrounding White Mountains and making Cranmore feel isolated from the rest of the world.