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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
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.”
From Sherando Lake, racers climbed back up to the Blue Ridge Parkway on four-plus miles of rocky but runable tree-lined singletrack to the Bald Mountain Overlook aid station. A swirling, surreal fog enveloped the pack, soaking the runners in a fast-moving cloud.
“The fog was weird because one minute you could see the guys around you and what they were doing, then the next you’d be in your own world, wondering whether they were making a move,” said Sharman.
The next 10 miles were constantly varied: singletrack to gravel roads to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
“I’d like to trade places with you guys,” Roes told us on the Parkway (at about race mile 26) as he appeared briefly out of the fog . “It looks like you’re having a lot more fun than I am.”
Near mile 31, coming off the two-mile Spy Run Gap gravel-road section, Mackey had a two-minute-or-so lead over Wardian, with Gall now running third. Mackey looked comfortable, but he wasn’t. “I’m trying to go to my ‘happy place,’” he said, sarcastically, as he ran by and disappeared.
At mile 33, runners reached the Whetstone Ridge aid station, from which they would run out and back on a 4.1-mile singletrack section lined with hardwoods, some showing the first tinges of fall color. By Whetstone, Wardian had closed the gap to about 30 seconds on Mackey, while the wheels had started coming off some runners.
Dave James had dropped at mile 26, due to apparent plantar fasciitis. “I’ve had an injury ever since the 100-Mile Trail Championships, and have been trying to hide it,” he said. “I couldn’t hide it anymore.” Other DNFs at this point included the young Owen and, battling a back injury, Jason Bryant, 39, of Elkin, North Carolina, who had 2010 wins in Tennessee’s StumpJump 50-miler and North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell Challenge 40-miler.
Front runners in the rec field filed into the aid station, while crews and spectators awaited the elites’ return.
“This isn’t a Starbucks,” coached aid-station volunteer Neal Gorman, a recent Charlottesville transplant and top-end ultrarunner, as one runner from the rec class stuffed his cheeks with M&Ms like a chipmunk. “Get moving!”
Then, as photographer David Clifford and I worked a hundred yards up the rising singletrack trail, we saw Mackey returning—walking downhill!
“I was feeling great, then I hit a wall and had nothing in my reserves,” he said, saying he had only run about a mile beyond this point and sat down on a rock. “I knew I had to stop. … You guys have any beer?”
Then, a flash through the trees. “Gels, water! Gels, water! Gels, water!” shouted Wardian, his voice echoing through the forest as he hauled down the trail, hailing his crew, which included his wife, two young sons and parents, at the aid station. Wardian was in and out in 10 seconds, tossing empty bottles aside, grabbing fresh ones from his crew, glancing at his Garmin GPS and bounding ahead. The longer he ran, it seemed, the faster he got.
Next was Roes, who appeared completely rejuvenated. “I feel like I know how to run again,” he said. After moving from fifth to second place, he had one objective: to chase down Wardian for the win.
He was followed by a staggered-out pack of Flaherty, Basham, Sharman, Allen and Grossman. Gall had now bonked on the out-and-back, and dropped at Whetstone.
In the women’s race, Crosby-Helms and Petrie were close at Whetstone, with Riddle-Lunblad several minutes back. (Experiencing an asthma attack, Felton had dropped around Sherando Lake.) Shortly after leaving Whetstone together, Petrie pulled away from Crosby-Helms, and built a lead from there.
While DNFs are common in ultarunning, did UROC’s cash incentive and championship potential entice runners who would not have started otherwise? Perhaps. Many runners were coming off long, brutal seasons. Sharman, for example, had already raced over 900 miles this year. Crosby-Helms was coming off a DNF at the 100K World Championships just two weeks before. Mackey had been sick. Roes had taken a break after a DNF at Europe’s Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (see page 12 for a report) and only trained for a couple of weeks before UROC.
Wrote Bryon Powell (a long-time ultrarunner and a contributing editor for Trail Runner) on his website, irunfar.com: “The money could lead folks to: 1) toe the line when they’re less certain they’re fully prepared for a race; and 2) go out closer to the edge of their capabilities early in a race and just see whether or not they have it that day.”
“I felt tired but UROC seemed like an interesting event that I wanted to see first-hand,” says Sharman. “The prize money wasn’t enough to entice me, but the chance to race the quality field in this format did.”
Indeed, curiosity and the chance to take home a little cash may have combined to lure a decent first-year field. Next year should be a different story, as by the time UROC was announced this year, many runners had already committed to their season schedules, while others took a wait-and-see attitude.
Ian Sharman and Dave James on a singletrack section early in the race. Photo by David Clifford.
A WRONG TURN
Leaving Whetstone, Wardian looked focused, intense, and at Bald Mountain Overlook (mile 49), held a 15-minute lead over Roes. Most of the remaining miles were road, Wardian’s specialty, and the consensus of many was that he had it in the bag. At about mile 52, a handful of spectators and photographers gathered at Slacks Overlook, a small parking lot shrouded by magnificent tall trees and fog, right off the Blue Ridge Parkway, where runners would climb up singletrack, cross the road and drop down to more singletrack on the other side.
“This a great photo op—of the DNFers!” quipped Jones-Wilkins, referring to Mackey, James and Bryant, who had hitched rides with other followers to watch the race’s final miles unfold.
“It’s better to DNF than DNS,” jabbed Roes’ long-time friend Andy Swistak of Charlotte, North Carolina, who was helping crew Roes, to Jones-Wilkins.
“Yeah, your name is listed higher on the results,” added the photographer Joel Wolpert of Belington, West Virginia.
But minutes ticked by, and the levity evaporated. Had Wardian taken a wrong turn?
“He should definitely be here by now,” said James. “I wonder if he went left down there.”
Powell hiked down to the junction just below, and waited. Minutes later, Roes appeared and Powell was there to direct him the right way. “It was marked correctly,” said Powell. “But I could see where you could go the wrong way.”
Everyone hopped in cars and blasted down to the White Rock Gap aid station (mile 54).
At White Rock Gap, a course volunteer who had been pulling flagging on the early part of the course said she had seen Wardian, heading the wrong way, toward Sherando Lake. “He was not happy, but I sent him back up the trail,” she said. It would turn out that Wardian had actually beaten us to the parking lot on the Parkway, making the correct turn at the trail junction, but exiting the wrong way from the parking lot (i.e. not crossing the road). The trail took him downhill, and he had to climb back up, adding an estimated tough three to four miles to his race.
On cue, Roes appeared on the singletrack at White Rock Gap aid station (mile 53.6), swapped water bottles with his parents Sharon and Don, learned of his now-first-place position and melted into the fog on the Parkway, for the final nine miles, all road. Next arrived Flaherty, followed by Wardian, Sharman and then Allen.
As spectators encouraged him to “Stick with it,” an agitated Wardian said, “Oh, I’ll finish!” He grabbed fresh bottles and some gels from his team, and was off.
“Geoff will probably slow down now that he knows he’s in the lead [and, in a show of sportsmanship, let Wardian catch up] or wait for him before the finish,” said Mackey, nursing a Stella Artois, as crews packed up to catch the frontrunners at the finish. “I wouldn’t do it, but Geoff’s a nice guy.” He was only half joking.
THE FINISH LINE
After several more rolling miles on the Parkway, then a one-mile 15-percent-grade descent, the final three miles climbed a sustained 10-percent road grade. Roes ran all alone, with nearly a half hour on the pack, and would not have to be looking over his shoulder. He did not, of course, wait for anyone, and crossed the foggy finish line in 8:58.
“I had to deal with a dozen lows,” he said after catching his breath. “I kept telling myself that I was taking a break [from racing] after this. This race felt longer than some 100s. I felt like I was out there for 20 hours. It was not close to my strongest race physically, but in many ways it was the most satisfying race I’ve done.”
Behind him, with around six miles to go, Wardian, Flaherty, Sharman and Allen were lined out within minutes of one another. “Before the race, I said that I wouldn’t want to have to race that last section,” Sharman would say after the race. “But that’s exactly what happened.”
Fog prevented them from seeing one another, which made chasing down a competitor difficult. On the Parkway section, Wardian was on fire. “I was clicking off 6:20s,” he said. “If I blew up, I didn’t care.” Sure enough, he reeled in Flaherty, and took second in 9:20, followed by Flaherty (9:22), Sharman (9:23) and Allen (9:26).
As Roes recounted his struggles at the finish, an animated Wardian, his arms flying for emphasis, said, “See, that’s what I’m so pissed about! I didn’t have that. I was expecting it and it didn’t happen. I was like: This is my day!”
“What are you going to do with that trophy?” Mackey asked Roes, referring to the large metal figure sitting on a nearby pulpit.
“It won’t fit in my bag, so I may give it to you,” replied Roes, “for being the ‘rabbit’ and wearing those guys out.”
A little over an hour later, a smiling Petrie crossed the line as first woman, in 10:11 and gave her friends Conte and Gill big hugs (the three had met several years ago, when they competed in the Trailwalker UK 100K on the same team). While not a household name in women’s ultrarunning, Petrie, an economics professor at George Mason University, has been racing ultras for a decade. Her many victories include overall wins at Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine 100K in 2003 and 2004, and she had a strong 2011, with the win at D.C.’s The North Face 50-Mile Endurance Challenge, a second at West Virginia’s Highlands Sky 40-miler and third at Virginia’s Promise Land 50K.
“The course really doesn’t favor any particular runner. On the roads, it’s a nice relief not to have to look down,” she said at the finish. “And just when you tire of the roads, you hit a trail, and they were a nice mix of rocky and smooth. You could get a rhythm.”
This was, by far, her best performance to date.
“I’ve lost 20 pounds since February, which has made it not only easier to exercise but also to recover,” she said. “And I’ve been running faster than I ever have.”
Back at Whetstone (mile 41), Petrie had said to Crosby-Helms, “Let’s go home.” But Crosby-Helms’ hamstrings and quads weren’t responding. Petrie says she never looked back, and during the ensuing miles had no idea what her lead was. “With 16 or so miles to go, I started ‘smelling the barn,’ and thought it was OK to spend whatever I had left,” she recalled. “I was running scared up the final hill, and finally looked back.”
Crosby-Helms was the second woman, in 10:25. At the finish, she exulted, “I didn’t quit! I didn’t quit!” She had started four 100Ks, this year, finishing two of them, and, like Roes, fought off demons for much of the race. “I went to the well, and the well was dry,” she said. “So I got a shovel and dug deeper.”
Riddle-Lundblad was third, in 11:01.
While a few runners bemoaned the brutally steep, road finish, all gave high praise to the course overall, saying it truly did test a wide variety of ultrarunning skills. All that we spoke with said they would return next year.
Says Conte, “What took me off guard was the fact that this gathering of incredible talent felt more like a family reunion than a who’s who of the sport. As Gill said, many of these runners are [even] better people than runners.”
In all, out of 173 starters, 79 runners would finish the Trail Runner UROC 100K, with the last runner, Matt Nelson, 46, of West Palm Beach, Florida, braving inside-of-a-casket dark and fog until nearly 1 a.m., to finish in 17:48.
Gill interviews a victorious Roes. Photo by David Clifford.
While it would be hard to say whether the Trail Runner UROC winners are the best ultrarunners of 2011, the consensus among the elite runners was that the concept is onto something.
Crosby-Helms wholeheartedly supports the race’s championship notion. “[Trail ultrarunning] is not founded in a competitive aspect,” she said, “but competition is what brings out the edge in athletes. It’s also really cool for [recreational] runners in the race to be around the people they look up to.”
Sharman, too, backed the idea: “But it always takes a few years for an event to really establish itself so I was surprised how far this came in year one. There isn’t really a race out there seriously trying to do the same thing, especially in terms of making it more accessible to follow live with videos, etc.”
“In its first year, UROC turned out to be one of the top American ultras in terms of top-level runners gathered in one race, coming in perhaps only behind Western States, at least on the men’s side,” says Roes. “UROC might have really lofty goals, but I think this just means [the organizers] will keep working hard to get closer to those goals.”
Indeed, the wheels are in motion for UROC 2012. “Because of the tremendous support from the athletes and our sponsors, we will double the cash purse for 2012,” says Gill. “And one of our focuses will be to bring over more international runners, both male and female.”
And with a full year for planning, recruiting athletes and fine tuning the course, UROC 2012 (September 29) will be a race to watch.
Michael Benge is the Editor of Trail Runner.