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What it takes to make the women’s United States Mountain Running Team

Photo by Joe Viger

Earlier this year I decided to compete for a spot on the women’s United States Mountain Running Team (USMRT). Mountain running is not only a melting pot of road speedsters and trail running uphill-downhill specialists, it is one of the few ways a trail runner can represent her country on a world stage. For me, the chance to wear USA on my racing jersey was reason enough.

I began training in early April, incorporating track work and tempos for the first time since college. I lifted weights and focused on speed. I was told the qualifying race was going to be a fast course—cross-country like, so I worked hard to get faster. I entered races in the La Sportiva Mountain Cup (a proclaimed “European style mountain series” across the country consisting of half marathons to 30Ks) to get myself accustomed to shorter, faster races. Suddenly it was June and $750 in airfare later, I found myself flying from Colorado across the country to run 4.8 miles.

I was headed to North Conway, New Hampshire, to run the sole qualifying race for the USMRT—the Cranmore Hill Climb—on June 25, 2011. Directed by Paul Kirsch, this year’s United States Mountain Running Championship would be a short race at the Cranmore Mountain Resort—one of the oldest ski resorts in the country. This would be my one shot to make the team; you could call it the “Olympic Trials” of mountain running.

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.

After a 20-minute warm up, Lauren and I do a few strides at the base of the mountain. Gearing up around us is a stacked field of the country’s best mountain runners, and I glance around, sizing up my competitors.

Brandy Erholtz, 33, of Evergreen, Colorado, three-time USMRT member and two-time winner of New Hampshire’s brutal Mount Washington Road Race, jogs up on my left. She is small-framed with muscular legs, her short dirty-blonde hair pulled halfway back in two mini pigtails. There is no way she won’t make the team, I think. Chris Lundy, 40, of Sausalito, California, thin and wiry like a road runner, shakes out her legs next to the start line. She’s a four-time member of the USMRT and the winner of the 2009 Cranmore Hill Climb.

Gina Lucrezi, 28, of Natick, Massachusetts is also here. We’ve talked on the phone several times, but I met her for the first time yesterday. She won this race in 2010, part of her perfect sweep of the USATF Northeast Mountain Running circuit last year. Then, there is Kasie Enman, 31, of Huntingdon, Vermont, who finished 11th at the 2008 Olympic Trials in Boston. Yep, she’s making the team, I think.

I wave and say hello to Megan Lund-Lizotte, 27, of Basalt, Colorado, my neighbor up-valley from my home in Carbondale. She has been a member of the USMRT for the past two years. I don’t know much about her downhill running, but have watched her aggressively tackle uphills in local races where she is generally leading the field. I am sure she will make the team. There’s Amber Moran, 32, of Ashleville, North Carolina, who I raced during summer road races while in high school in my hometown, Lexington, Kentucky. She missed qualifying for the team by just two places last year, so she’ll be on a mission when the gun goes off.

Michele Suszeck, 29, of Lyons, Colorado, who holds a 2:38 marathon PR, is bent over stretching uphill from the start line. A former fitness model, she looks more solid than anyone out here. Every muscle in her body ripples. Myriah Blair, 34, of Eagle, Colorado, is doing strides and high-knee drills—she has been running strong this year and looks collected, focused. And I cannot discount my sister; it would be so cool to be on a U.S. team together. Lauren has the rare ability to plow through intense pain and run well, even when she’s out of shape.

I notice a small crowd lining the caution tape along the course at the base of the mountain and other runners are chatting excitedly. Over the loudspeaker, Kirsch provides us with time queues … 10 minutes to go, three minutes to go. Before I have time to gather my thoughts, visualize, the gun goes off for the men’s race. Do I have time for one more bathroom break? I decide yes, and scurry behind a building. Five minutes later, the race is underway.

We take a few steps before the course pitches up along a rutted, wet, dirt road. I feel relaxed and take the lead. I am afraid, though, I might be going out too hard. Then the course suddenly flattens, twists sharply to the right and drops down a short hill and over a drainage before bottlenecking into a 100-meter section of pine-needle-covered, wooded singletrack. I stay in the lead. Erholtz is on my left shoulder. I can hear her breathing. My eyes are focused on the ground. Nothing matters but my footsteps.

We break out of the trees and the course widens again, turns left and up a steep, grassy hill, maybe 200 meters long. Erholtz surges ahead. I fight back, regaining a slight lead. I’m still not sure this is the best plan, but my adrenaline gets the best of me and I push harder.

As we top out on the climb, the trail sweeps around to the right and dips into a short section of flat and I stride out. The high-cut grass is filled with deep divets and protruding roots so my eyes stay glued to the ground. Fog seems to almost seep up from the ground, mixing with the humid air.

Again, we turn left and ascend another long hill, close to 200 meters long. I try to put in another surge, and so does everyone else. The top 10 are all together, barreling ahead. Everyone is breathing heavily, rhythmically, feeding off the collective energy.

Then, we head up the steepest climb. It’s only 40 meters, but it feels like it lasts forever. I let off my pace, just slightly, and Erholtz easily passes. The 2009 USATF Trail Runner of the Year is known for her ability to talk as fast as she runs and for her power-house climbing legs, which scored her a spot on her first USMRT team in 2008, an uphill year. As she passes, I observe her stride and I can see why — she makes the hill look flat.

Finally it is flat, for less than 100 meters. I’m trying to flush lactic acid out of my legs by doing a few butt-kicks and to open up my stride when Enman pulls ahead. “Good job,” she says, and sweeps by. I round a corner, and start to reel Erholtz back in, but Enman is gone. In addition to her blossoming running career, Enman manages a maple-sugaring operation with her husband on the same parcel of land where she does most of her mountain training.

As we crest the final climb, clouds still hover over the pine trees lining the course. I see Erholtz for a moment and then she disapears around a blind corner and downhill. It’s damp, suffocating. I’m at the top of the first lap, the highest point on the course, struggling to switch gears for the steep descent. This is a new feeling— almost like driving a stick shift.

I think about the first time I drove a stick, how many times I stalled my then boyfriend’s old red Honda. I feel like that car now, puttering as I try to find another gear. Energy drains from my shoulders and my quads; everything feels heavy from the taxing climb.

The stragglers in the men’s race are yelling ahead to others, telling them to move out of the way as the women charge down the quad-pounding descent. I try to relax and think of falling down the hill, but I keep leaning back. I feel like I’m in one of those dreams where you are running as fast as you can, but barely moving. Everyone is hurting, I can tell by their contorted facial expressions. I start to think about the hurting and slip back to fourth.

Suszeck passes. Wow, I think, she’s tan. Suszeck, the 2008 Miss Figure of Colorado and former go-go dancer by night and marathon runner by day, has won five marathons over her career. “Trail running is something I really love,” she says. “But marathon running engrossed me. I was trying to sustain myself off of prize money, but it was hard.”

Meanwhile, Enman is over a minute ahead and the rest of the field struggles to keep up.

With one lap to go, I see Hobbs on the sidelines, snapping photos. If it weren’t for her and Kirsch, none of us would be here. Says the women’s team manager, Ellen Miller, “We get a lot of requests from women interested in qualifying for the team. I credit Nancy for that. She has devoted her life to developing mountain and trail running in the U.S.”

The first World Mountain Running Championship was held in 1985; 10 countries competed and one U.S. runner attended. It wasn’t until 1990 that the United States put together its first men’s team and 1995 its first women’s team. Had it not been for Hobb’s persistance, this date might have been much later. In the early 1990s, says Hobbs, U.S. mountain-running pioneer Lyndon Ellefson also a founding team member, was fielding the men’s team. “He said there were no women that wanted to go to Worlds,” says Hobbs. “I told him: `That can’t be right. We need to have women there.'” Three weeks later, she had a women’s team.

Hobbs was a member of that first team in 1995 and competed at the World Mountain Championship, held in Edinburgh, Scotland. She finished 67th and the team placed 18th overall. “We were last,” she says. “But the cultural immersion was really cool.”

After that rough first year, the U.S. women made tremendous strides over the next decade. In 2001, the team finished ninth overall. In 2002, Anita Ortiz (see “Blood Sport,” Issue 74, August 2011) led the team with an 11th-place finish. She bettered that mark in 2003, crossing the line in eighth, leading the team to a ninth-place finish.

But 2004 was the real turning point, when the women became the first USMRT to stand on the podium, with a third-place finish at the World Mountain Championship, four years before the men would see a top-three finish. (The men took Bronze in 2008.)

After falling off the podium in 2005, the women came back with a vengeance, taking home Gold in 2006 and 2007. In 2009, they were third and in 2010, won the Silver alongside the men’s team.

There are high hopes for 2011.

I crest the first climb on the second lap, when I feel my quads burning. Of course they are burning; you’re running a hill. But I can’t shake the doubt, thinking about my lack of hill repeats in training. The heaviness in my legs intensifies.

I give in and let off my pace even more—dropping to fifth. As Lund-Lizotte passes me on the short section of singletrack she says, “Good job, Ashley.” I know she is sincere, but all I can think is, I’m not doing a good job. She pulls ahead. I soon drop to sixth place, seventh.

I am eighth when I finally crest the hill. Realizing the race is nearly over—4.8 miles is short—I mentally pull myself together and maintain my position. But the race’s final outcome had already been decided.

While I struggle down the final descent, Enman glides through the finish. Later, she says, “I have been trying to make the team for four of five years now and am psyched to finally pull it off.” She is minutes ahead of second place, finishing in 32:59.

Suszeck sweeps through the line next, in 34:45. “I can’t say that wasn’t painful,” she says. “But I loved every minute of it.” And while Suszeck also has her sights on making the 2012 U.S. Olympic Marathon team, she says, “There is a part of me that wants to be a competitive mountain runner more than going to the Olympics.”

With the top two spots on this year’s team secured, third and fourth are a different story. A finish chute—made of caution tape—is strung up to the left of the course. With the two-lap setup it is difficult to tell where the actual finish line is since you have to veer slighlty left at the end of the final straight away. Nearing the end of the downhill, Erholtz loses momentum and Lund-Lizotte catches her. Exhausted, Lund-Lizotte misjudges the orange cones lining the course for the finish and stops. Bent over, with her hands on her knees, Lund-Lizotte is convinced she has finished and taken third place.

“Nancy was waving her arms at me, yelling. I looked up and saw Brandy whip by. Apparently lots of people were yelling at me but I didn’t hear any of it,” she later says. She looks back in time to see Moran closing in, and stands up and dives across the finish. “I almost didn’t make it. It would have been a very bad day.”

Erholtz crosses the line in 35:12 and Lund-Lizotte in 35:13. Moran misses making the USMRT by one second, finishing in 35:14.

Minutes later, I finish. With hardly time to catch my breath, I see Lauren sprinting down the final stretch, just 37 seconds behind me. We hug. She waves off the idea of a cool down, and I leave alone for a slow jog with mixed feelings of relief and disappointment.

“I know you didn’t have the race you wanted,” says Kirsch while driving me back to the Portland, Maine, airport the day after the race. “But the cool thing about mountain running is that every once in a while it all comes together in the perfect storm and you have the day of your life.”

Indeed, I had no clue what to expect when I arrived in New Hampshire, but I left with intense respect for mountain running and this year’s USMRT. While mountain running is still a relatively unknown sport in the United States, “To race with “USA” on your chest, is special,” says Hobbs. “When you are representing the United States, standing on the podium and hear the National Anthem playing, that trumps most other feelings.”

Ashley Arnold is the Associate Editor of Trail Runner.