I’ll start by attempting to give you an idea of how competitive the fourth IAU Trail World Championships was. There are many ultrarunners who don’t know much about this race, and even some running journalists who think that the WMRA is involved in ultra trail races. The JFK 50 Mile has 1200 feet of climbing, includes only about 10 miles of trail, is often run in ideal weather, and has a course record of 5:35 that is universally acknowledged as an outstanding performance by Max King. The IAU course in Wales had 8,000 feet of climbing, 25 miles of singletrack, and was run on a hot day. The men’s winner, Ricky Lightfoot, ran 5:36, and the top four were all under six hours. While the course was advertised as 48 miles, it was actually right around 50. Patrick Bringer, who was fifth behind Sage Canaday and Tim Olson at Transvulcania this year and was third at the halfway point in Wales, didn’t even end up in the top three on his French team. Julien Rancon, who was third in Wales, ran a 1:05 half marathon earlier this year and has won WMRA grand prix races in the past. The gentleman in front of him, Florian Neuschwander, is a 2:15 marathoner. At the end of the day, the differences between some of the medals came down to three or four minutes per runner.
Our US team was lined up near the front at the start, and we were soon headed to the trails. No one really took off in the men’s race, but the stronger climbers led the field up the one major climb on the loop. Once the course hit the open fire roads, many of the faster runners surged forward, especially on the runnable downhills. Given the diverse backgrounds of the US team, it was not a surprise to see that both the men’s and women’s squads split up early in the race as everyone tried to run their own race.
Three of us were the first US man at different points in the day. Justin Ricks was one of the runners that took advantage of the downhill fire roads as he passed Brian Rusiecki and I. We seemed to pick up the pace, and I saw 5:30 pace on my Garmin. I decided to back off a bit, and Brian did the same. While it was warm, it was still early and it didn’t feel too bad at that point unless you were in the direct sun.
Michele Yates also went out with some of the front runners, while the rest of the US women hung back a bit. The first aid station was a bit chaotic with team staff in front of many of the tables, but I found my bottles quickly and headed back for the last 7k of the loop. I was 23rd place at the end of the first loop, which was mostly the result of several runners flying down that last 7k.
It started to get hot on the second loop, but I still felt strong on the climbs. I pulled away from Brian on this lap, while he fell back to about 37th place. David Riddle started to make his move through the field on this lap, and I enjoyed running with him for about a kilometer before he moved on. David moved from 31st to 17th, while I slipped to 26th place, trying to avoid forcing the pace until later in the day. Despite my effort to be conservative, the heat and course started to wear me down on the third loop. With 31k to go, Justin was around 10th place, ten minutes ahead of me, David was in 12th, I was in 25th, and Brian was in 27th.
The fourth loop was not a good one for most of us. I was hoping to pick some runners off, but the heat was now sucking the life out of me on the exposed fire roads, and I soon heard Brian talking to some other guy. I was so tired at this point that I thought they were two locals out for a run, so I was extremely surprised to see that it was Brian and Justin. Apparently Justin had some stomach issues, and I must have passed him while he was off the trail. Brian was feeling better and starting to roll as Justin and I tried to stay in contact. We were both struggling, but we knew at least one of us needed to turn things around if we wanted to have a shot at a good team showing. We were all hoping that David was having a fast race, but one top placing is not enough to medal in these races.
Considering Justin’s situation, I was surprised he was still racing. At some point during the race, all his supplies had been taken from our US table at the aid station. He ended up running low on both calories and water, and this was not the type of race where you can get away with that. Justin is the first runner I’ve even personally seen get sick during a run, and I think he passed me a minute after. We traded off our positions numerous times over the next nine miles as he would cruise on the fire roads, and I would catch him and pass him on the climbs. We were four minutes behind Brian at the start of the last 15k loop, and eight minutes behind by the time we hit the last aid station with 8k to go. Jason Bryant, who was struggling with a knee injury, had to drop out at this point, which ended up being a critical factor in our team performance.
From what Jason could tell, Italy seemed to be in third, and their second and third runners were both about five to six minutes ahead of Brian and I. He wasn’t sure what was going on up front. The reality was that we had been seven minutes behind Italy at 61k, but thanks to David and Brian, we were about a minute ahead at 69k. Jason, being the coach that he is, yelled at Brian and me that we were about five minutes behind third place Italy, and there were Italians five minutes ahead of us. Brian was moving well at this point, but I was not. I looked at him as if he were crazy, thinking I was going to pull five minutes out of the Italian in front of me in the last 8k given the state I was in, and then I ran through the aid station without stopping, put my head down, and went after the guy.
While everyone touts the power of positive thinking, my brain could not let me believe I was going to be able to do what we needed me to do. I had tried to do a similar thing two years ago in Connemara, and I think I lost a minute or two. The lack of positive affirmation seemed to have little effect on my motivation and effort, mostly due to the fact I was sure that both David and Brian were hammering down the course ahead of me. I didn’t think my pace was sustainable, but the only option was to go for it and pray that my legs held up. I passed a Belgian runner who had flown by me early in the race, but I couldn’t see the Italian at all.
One of things about the course I had commented on in our race preview was that the final kilometer on roads, which involved a 500-meter downhill at about seven- or eight-percent grade followed by a flat 500 meters to the finish, was going to be nightmare if anyone was still racing someone at this point. As I approached the aid station that marked the start of that last kilometer, people were yelling that the Italian was 30 seconds ahead. He*l no. I threw my bottle holder down and started kicking like I was running a 10k. The downhill was quite violent, but thankfully the Italian, Daniel Fornoni, did not even flinch as I went by.
Given that I still had no idea what was going on ahead of me, this did not mean I could back off the pace. My legs were shot by the time I hit the finish. I had done what I could, and we just had to see how the results played out. Both David and Brian had also had fast last 8k’s, with David sprinting to hold off a charging Australian for seventh place. We had managed to hold off the Italians as a team, but both teams were beaten by the Germans who benefited from the strong second-place time of Florian. We were 11 minutes out of the bronze. Justin held on to finish in 6:43, and Dave James ran a 7:12 while struggling with back pain.
Amy Rusiecki came flying into the finish in 15th place not long after I finished, one spot ahead of Maud Gobert, the winner of the IAU Championship in 2011. Tracy Hoeg finished in 41st place after dealing with a fall and leg fatigue, and Michele fought through IT-band pain to finish 45th, giving team USA its first team finish of 10th at the IAU World Trail Championship. Stefanie Bernosky was forced to drop after the second lap but, like Jason, supported the rest of us with her husband at the first aid station. It was great to see some friendly US faces on the course, even though all the countries were supportive of all the athletes. Michele was especially grateful for all the support and concern from the other runners on the course. They are all looking forward to improving their performance at the next IAU trail championships in 2015.
I’d also like to note some impressive performances of the other nations. In addition to Ricky’s phenomenal run, the GB team won the men’s title, in part due to the performance of Andrew James. Brian and I saw Andrew during the first few miles of the race, with all sorts of tape on his hamstring which appeared to be over a large bruise. It did not look good, and he seemed to be struggling early on. He went on to finish in 6:15, which was essential to his team’s gold medal.
Although I don’t think Julien was completely satisfied with his bronze, his run was also impressive given the pictures I’ve seen after his fall that was hard enough to rip his number off and leave his entire front covered in mud. The French once again ran very well, with five of their runners in the top 16. The women’s podium were almost all under seven hours, with an incredible 6:38 from Nathalie Mauclair of France who won by 17 minutes.
While the race was not perfect, it brought together a high caliber field from 18 nations that stimulated intense individual and team competition. I had another great Team USA experience, meeting many new friends, and I look forward to trying to make the next IAU team to improve on our performance in Wales. Jason Bryant once again did a great job as team manager. Thanks to the local organizing committee and the IAU for the immense amount of work that went into hosting the IAU Trail World Championships, and the Welsh people for their warm hospitality.