SAPAREVA BANYA, BULGARIA – At the 32nd World Mountain Running Championships held today in Sapareva Banya, Bulgaria, Joe Gray, in his ninth consecutive appearance on the US Mountain Running Team, ran to an impressive victory nearly two minutes ahead of his nearest competitor.
Gray covered the demanding 12.7-kilometer course, which boasted 1,468 meters of climbing and 107 meters of descent, in a time of 1:02:12, followed by Mexico’s Israel Morales in 1:03:51, and Ahmet Arslan of Turkey in 1:04:48.
With Gray’s leadership on and off the mountain, Team USA worked as a solid unit to beat rival Italy by just one point in the team competition by placing its four scoring members in the top 20.
“It was a dream that became a reality,” said Gray. “The icing on the cake was the team gold.”
Teammate Andy Wacker, the only other veteran on the team having competed last year in wales, was the final scoring member of Team USA with a gutsy 20th place performance in 1:07:46, said, “Our goal going into the race was to put four guys in the top 16. I did my best today and gave it everything I had. I know I fell a little short, but I’m so proud of the guys who were cranking it out ahead of me to secure this great team result.
“We all knew that this year was about the team so it’s awesome to follow through on that dream and win team gold,” added Wacker. “It’s great to score for the team, but it’s been a tough summer and this wasn’t the performance I’d hoped for.”
Hayden Hawks, like the remaining team members, was a first timer on Team USA, and was the second American to the finish line with an impressive fourth place result in 1:05:02. Hawks trailed teammate Brett Hales at the first two check points, but with solid climbing passed Hales on the steepest section of the course. The undaunted Hales kept focused and continued to a seventh-place finish just eight seconds after Hawks.
“I’m very proud of the team and of Joe for what we accomplished,” said Hawks. “We roomed together and I owe a lot to Joe for my finish today. We had some great talks leading up to the race. I feel very fortunate with my fourth-place finish and am excited for my future. I love climbing.”
Hales, who had the additional stress arriving in Bulgaria without his luggage (which finally arrived from Paris just 24 hours before the race) said, “The race kicks you in the mouth. I knew there would be a lot of risk, but I was confident in my abilities. I knew everyone was suffering, but having a team goal was important to me. I wanted to be top ten, so that was the goal.”
Rounded out Team USA men were David Fuentes and Matt Daniels who finished in 30th and 44th position respectively. Fuentes, timed in 1:09:09, said, “It was the greatest experience ever, hardest race of my life. After the first mile I hit a wall and came back alive after 5K and had a strong finish. I am so happy for my team.”
Like Fuentes, Daniels struggled early on, “At the beginning, we (Team USA) were 1-6 in the lead. I guess I got a little bit anxious on that first climb and my recovery wasn’t where I thought it would be. David fell apart about the same time and we tried to regroup together and I ran with him for a while.
“David pulled ahead, but hearing about Joe’s place from people along the course gave me extra motivation,” said Daniels. “I honestly before the race thought Joe would be top three and I knew Hayden and Brett would be really strong. I was just hoping Andy could hang on and he did. It was really sweet for us to win gold.”
The day for Daniels was special in more ways than one. “Although I had a bad race, it has been a touching day for me being a veteran and winning gold. It was an awesome experience.”
Team leader Richard Bolt was beaming throughout the closing ceremony and said, “I’m really proud of our senior men’s team for winning the gold medal. They’ve had fast teams in recent years and fallen just short of the podium, but this year every team member had an excellent race and brought them to the top step of the podium.”
With the team gold medal, Gray now has a full set having been on both the 2008 bronze-medal team and the 2010 silver-medal team. The 32-year-old Gray summed up the day with one word, “Blessing.”
Equally blessed were the women of Team USA who, led by ninth-place finisher Kim Nedeau, stood atop the podium in bronze position winning with a one point advantage over Great Britain.
Nedeau navigated the 7.3-kilometer course – complete with 773 meters of climbing and 89 meters of descent – in a time of 42:51. Her teammates Addie Bracy, Ladia Albertson Junkans and Bethany Sachtleben finished in 12th, 15th and 18th respectively to give Team USA a score of 36 over GBR’s 37.
“For the first time this year, the team goal was above my personal goal. I wanted to do my part in contributing to the team accomplishment,” said Nedeau. “It was an experience of a lifetime. I am very grateful to be here on September 11, to represent the USA.”
“Seeing the women come up toward the finish so close together was amazing,” said women’s team manager Ellen Miller. “They each gave it their all today and I’m so very proud of their achievement. What a wonderful and talented group of women.”
In the junior competition, the men’s team narrowly missed the podium ending in a tied score with France. Because France placed their final scoring member ahead of USA, they received the bronze medal.
Uganda swept the top three positions for gold, Italy was second in the team competition followed by France.
First for the US juniors was Joseph Benson who finished in 11th place with a time of 38:13, running the same course as that of the senior women. Phillip Rocha was second for USA in 16th position timed in 38:50. Eduardo Herrera finished 22nd in 39:50 to round out the team scoring and Ben Butler, the only returning team member, finished 27th in 40:25.
Said Rocha, “This race demands the true strength and determination of the athlete. It takes pure motivation to get up the mountain. Cross country running favors the faster runners but mountain running favors the strongest runners with guts.”
Equally gutsy were the Team USA junior women who, with young talent, showed their promise for the future of the sport. Claire Graves led the women to 10th place among the teams with a 15th place finish timed in 25:31 over the 3.5-kilometer course with a jaw dropping 500 meters of climbing over very rugged terrain.
Soleil Gaylord, the youngest team member at 16, was 30th with a time of 27:07, followed by Sarah Harmon in 34th position in 27:49. Julia Jaschke did not start due to a lingering injury.
All but Harmon are within the age requirement for 2017 to represent Team USA. And in fact Gaylord has three years remaining eligibility.
“The mature group of athletes we had this year is a testament to the quality of high school and collegiate programs nationwide,” said Paul Kirsch, manager of the junior team. “Our junior program has really taken off and I’m already looking forward to next year.”
Next year’s championships will be held in Premana, Italy on July 30. Details will be available soon about the qualification and team selection process.
Contributed by Nancy Hobbs