It was an awesome experience to be part of the US mountain running team for World Championships! Selected based on US Mountain Running Championships in June, the team convened on July 27th in Premana, Italy. Our single race would be held on July 30th, starting off with junior 1-lap races in the morning, followed by the senior women and senior men with 2 laps of a 6.5k loop, for a total of 13k. Our US team consisted of 4 men and 4 women, the top-4s from US Championships, plus 4 junior men and 4 junior women selected by application, plus several support staff/team leaders to help with logistics.
I started my trip to Italy on the 19th of July, to give myself extra time to explore and acclimate prior to the race. You can see some stories and photos from the first week here. On the morning of July 27th, I caught a bus from Milan back out to Malpensa airport. At Malpensa, I found the booth set up by the mountain running World organizers from Premana, and they directed me to the bus I’d be taking with other runners to Premana.
I enjoyed talking to several New Zealand athletes on the bus, including Elizabeth Hunphries, who I’d met at the Whiteface VK earlier in July. I was also introduced to the US junior men and talked to several of them a bit during our 2 hour ride from Malpensa to Premana.
It was a quick and fairly intense trip to Premana. I suppose I’ve grown accustomed to ski trips, where we tend to arrive about a week early for races, and where I know everyone at least a little bit already. In Premana I barely knew anyone, and we had 2.5 days together before race day. It was great – the whole mountain running community was very friendly, and people from every country were talking to each other in and around the hotel. If you know me in person, you can probably tell that talking to strangers is not my forte. But in this case I truly enjoyed meeting new people and I think I did pretty well!
There wasn’t much time before the race day, and certainly not enough time to do any serious “training” with new teammates. The senior women previewed the course together 2 days out, or at least we were together until I decided I needed to go slower and let myself drop off the back. (I knew to expect that skier pace is different than runner pace. Both are fine, we’re just used to different ideas of speed for an easy run.) We all knew what we needed to do to prepare to race, and everyone followed their own plan. Since I had already been in Europe for a week and didn’t have the same jet lag and time change to contend with, I felt lucky to be able to go on a longer run/hike by myself up the mountain behind our hotel on the first evening.
The race course was hilly and challenging, but a different kind of mountain running than I’d done before. Prior to this year I didn’t really think of mountain running as a particular genre of running. To me it was pretty much all running, but I’d gravitate towards running to the top of mountains in Alaska, Vermont, or Montana whenever possible. It seems that in Europe, with networks of trails interspersed with towns that have existed for centuries, there is much more mixed terrain than I see in the US. The human/built environment of stone houses, town streets, and laid-out rock steps coexists alongside and sometimes as part of hiking and running trails. Our 13 kilometer long running race in Premana contained about 3k of pavement or brick roadways through the town, quite a few rock steps, darting in between houses and fields, in addition to grassy slopes and rocky narrow trails. It was technical in it’s own way, and racing the course required plenty of careful footwork, but it’s a different kind of technicality than the muddy-rock Vermont hiking trails, the flowing singletrack around Craftsbury, and the scree mountain trails of Alaska.
The night before the race, everyone started to get a bit nervous as a thunderstorm rolled in and it poured rain. However the next morning dawned clear and sunny, and it was immediately apparent even from our hotel across the valley that most of the water that had fallen on the trail would have dried by race time. I had been looking ahead at the weather, and was hopeful that highs in the mid 70s F would feel ok, because I know I have a personal weakness with heat. Vermont has had a particularly cool and rainy summer this year, which has not aided my heat acclimatization. As soon as I started running around and warming up I knew that I was going to be hotter than comfortable today, and I hydrated as well as possible and kept to the shade. Going into the race I was determined to race as fast and hard as possible, but relaxed and not putting undue pressure on myself. I didn’t know what to expect from this unfamiliar race type and these competitors, and while I know that I’m a fit person, I’m not exactly a focused runner, as I set my sights towards the Winter Olympics in skiing for 2018.
The start of the race was fast but not crazy, I could see the leaders for a few minutes. I settled in mid-pack, playing the mass-start game of conserve energy, be efficient, but don’t lose positions for no reason. The first lap was pretty solid for me, and while there were plenty of women ahead of me, I could tell that I was also faster than many people. The downhill went smoothly, and I passed at least one racer – I’m neither at the point of dreading nor enjoying these huge downhill segments of running, so I just take them as they come and try to run as fast as I can convince myself is sustainable. While I’d like to say that the downhill passed in a breeze, it didn’t – it took about 13 minutes of full-on sending it each lap. I’d hoped to build into the second lap and pick people off, but by the time I reached the start of the climb for lap 2, my mind was set on one track – try to cool off and survive until the next water stop. I don’t remember much about that climb, except flickering images of the water stations ahead, and a view of an Italian runner who collapsed in the middle of the trail and was being attended to by medics. I remember thinking at that point “at least its not only me struggling with this heat” and “yikes, I hope she’s ok, but that is not going to happen to me, I’m going to make it across the finish line.”
After I did make the finish line, and gently lowered myself to the shady pavement – no dramatic skier hockey-stop-and-slide here if you want your skin intact – I learned that I’d finished 23rd, and that the other US runners were 5th, 8th and 13th! And with those strong finishes, in a field of 64, we won the team gold medal! It was surreal, and pretty cool. In many ways it felt like I didn’t contribute much – only the top 3 athletes from each team count towards the team score – and yet I was part of the team, I’d played a supporting “I’ll be back here just in case you need me” role, and so all four of us stood up on the team podium. It certainly whet my appetite for more mountain running in years to come, because I do believe that I could get considerably better at the uphills and downhills both. We’ll see how the future plays out!
For now, I’m resuming my intent focus on training for cross-country skiing. After the mountain Worlds race, I was quite sore for several days, particularly all the stabilizing muscles of my feet and lower legs. I didn’t let myself run again until the Friday 5 days after the race, it just seemed smarter to let the muscles heal and recover. Luckily since we have many training modes for skiing, between rollerskiing, biking, erging, strength, and running, I was still able to put in a nice 20 hour week of training in the 7 days post-race – back to work!
Thank you so much to the US mountain running community, for taking me in as part of the “mountain running family!” And thanks to the great teammates and support staff – Ellen Miller, Nancy Hobbs, Richard Bolt, Paul Kirsch – for your open friendliness, encouragement, and interest in learning about me as an athlete and person, and about skiing (which I can’t help but talk about a lot of the time). This Italy trip has been an amazing experience, one that I’d love to follow up on sometime in the future with more European running races. A taste of the Mountain Running Championships and Skyrunning circuit has me intrigued, and I believe with a little more focus in particular directions of training I can definitely get faster at running, so I’ll certainly be back.
Thank you also to the ski community and my supporters – coach Pepa and the Green Racing Project team indulged my summer passion for running races, let me make some training modifications, and encouraged me along the way. My family listened to the trials and tribulations behind the scenes and was appropriately encouraging or critical.
Swix sent me awesome collapsible trekking poles to race with for the Dolomites VK and train with in Europe. Julbo makes such excellent eyewear that I’m hooked on protecting my eyes, even in running races when it seems that most people skip sunglasses. The online skiing magazine Fasterskier (and SkiTrax) noticed my mountain racing pursuits and wrote nice articles, thank you for showing me the value of the skiing community too!