Saturday, September 8, 2012

World Mountain Running Championships - A cross country skiing & running blast from the Past

I recently returned from my 12th trip to the World Mountain Running Championships (WMRC) - a trip that brought back several connections to my early career as a cross country ski racer.  My first trip to the  WMRC was to Sabah, Maylasia in 1999 as an athlete on the US Mountain Running Team (USMRT).  I had just retired from ski racing and was looking for a new racing challenge that didn't require as much gear, travel or snow.  Road racing was fun and highly available in my then home of New England but running up mountains really caught my attention.  Most runners hate hills but these races were ALL HILLS complete with a rewarding view at the finish.  I was sold.

Me at Pack Monadnock - one of my first mountain races

Why are cross country skiers good at mountain running?  Skiers don't have the leg speed to compete with the pure runners on the roads but they do have substantial aerobic power and leg strength - assets in any uphill or hilly, technical mountain race.  Also, when cross country skiers do run, it tends to be on trails and in the mountains so they come to mountain races with experience on rough and technical surfaces.  Before I knew what mountain running races were I raced up Stratton Mountain in Vermont - a benchmark run that local skiers used to test their summer fitness.  

For me my transition to mountain running was also a refreshing low-key change from a decade of structured ski training, chasing snow around the world and the high pressure I put on myself trying to make Olympic teams in 1992, 1994 and 1998.  My trips to the world mountain running champs in 1999 and again in 2002 (Innsbruck, Austria) were fun adventures.  We all wanted to race well, but we also wanted to explore the host cities and experience different cultures.

The 2002 USMRT - Innsbruck, Austria (I'm 2nd row, 4th from left)

This year my cross country ski connections came roaring back with the selection of two athletes to the US Mountain Running Team who were far better skiers (and runners) than I ever was.  Morgan Arritola (Ketchum, ID) had been on the U.S. Ski Team in 2010 and represented the USA at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.  I'd met Morgan in 2010 and again in 2011 at the USA 1/2 Marathon Trail Running National Championships where she finished 2nd and 1st respectively.  Earlier this year she came to our USMRT women's selection race at Loon Mountain in New Hampshire and won her first ever mountain race.

Morgan finishing 2nd at the 2010 Half Marathon Trail Championships

On this trip I learned that Morgan and I shared the same employeer, coach and celebrity customers in her hometown.  Morgan's local coach was Rick Kapala from the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation.  After my sophomore year in college WAY BACK in 1990 I spent a summer in Ketchum with several college friends and trained with Rick.  As a newbie to the 6000' elevation I vividly recall suffering on the first several days of training with Rick.  Morgan also worked at local bike/ski shop the Elephants Perch - my employeer during my summer in Ketchum.  When I recollected a story about being told off by movie star Jamie Lee Curtis for using plastic bags Morgan just laughed saying, "yeah, she still comes into the store".  Let's hope she brings her own bag now.

Glenn Randall (Mesa, CO) was also an elite cross country skier turned runner.  Glenn had been on several U.S. Ski Team trips to the World Junior Championships and was known in Colorado running circles as an athlete with a massive aerobi motor.  In his first time at the Mt. Washington Road Race - the USMRT men's selection race - Glenn went up against the best field ever assembled to finish 4th.

Glenn hammering home to 9th at the 2012 WMRC

Going into this years world championships I knew Morgan and Glenn would finish well, but as first timers against very strong and large fields of elite mountain runners, I didn't know they'd do as well as they did. Morgan was quietly nervous in the days leading up to the race - understandable since she's new to the sport and didn't know any of the other runners.  Glenn didn't seem at all intimidated by the hundreds of other athletes staying & eating in our hotel.  He was relaxed, jovial and getting along well with his new team members.  That said, Sage Canaday and Joe Gray were much faster than him at Mt. Washington and Joe has lots of world championship experience.

On race day our cross country skiers came across the finish line as top Americans in 3rd (Morgan) and 9th (Glenn).  Both fantastic results against very strong fields in both races.  Morgan was only 51 seconds behind 4-time world champion Andrea Meyr (Austria) and led the US team to a gold medal.  Glenn was only 38 seconds behind 6-time world champion Marco De Gasperi (Italy) and led the US team to a close 4th place finish.

While I was proud of the results my fellow skiers posted they also brought with them connections to people I knew from my days on snow 15+ years ago.  Morgan's U.S. Ski Team coach was Chris Grover - someone whom I raced against in the 1990's.  Chris' brother Todd was a Dartmouth grad who I spent a summer with in 1992 at the Stratton Mountain School when I was training with former U.S. Ski Team coach and Olympic skier Jim Galanes.

Coach Mike Reif with Glenn and Morgan

Glenn's father is a former U.S. Ski Team skier who is close friends with one of my skiing mentors - Bernie Gardner, the long-time ski coach at the very successful Honeoye Falls-Lima high school in upstate New York.  Bernie wasn't my coach but I raced against his team in high school and he was very supportive and encouraging.  Bernie has known Glenn since he was born and was up early in the morning to catch coverage of the world championship race on the Internet.

Tim Chichester (Mt. Morris, NY) talks with Nancy Hobbs

The final blast from the past connection came via team member Tim Chichester from Mount Morris, NY.  Mount Morris, like Honeoye Falls, is in the greater Rochester (Section 5) area where I grew up running and skiing.  Tim's coach Mike Reif came on the trip with us to Italy and recalled several times that he watched me race when I was in high school 25 years ago!  This was several years before 23-year-old Tim was born.  Ugh, do I feel old?  Yes, but it was great to rekindle these old memories and see the next generation of mountain runners kick some butt at the world championships.

Me (sitting) at a high school running race in 1986