Thursday, September 10, 2009

25th Mountain running world champs

For the fourth year in a row I was selected as the team manager for the juniors (age 16-19) for the World Mountain running championships. The trips have been a lot of fun and certainly different from the old days of going to Europe with whoever had enough cash and the inclination to run for team USA. Thanks to the hard work of Nancy Hobbs, the US team has been funded for a number of years by Teva. I still can’t figure out if it is pronounced Tea-vah or Teh-vah, so I just alternate using each and assume that everyone puts it down to my New England accent.

On Wednesday I headed out to Boston on my own ready for a long overnight trip. I loaded my Ipod with three movies (The Matrix, Gattaca, and The Zero Effect) along with 5,000 songs and also brought a couple of books (A Road less traveled, and I am Legend). If I couldn’t sleep I’d keep myself entertained. The flight went by quickly despite the screaming baby one row in front of me, which seems to always happen. I just screamed back every time the baby screamed and that seemed to cancel things out.

I arrived in Madrid and spent the two hour layover people watching. There were a lot of people dressed specifically to BE watched. The two hours went by quickly. I slept soundly on the two hour flight to Milan and felt that the time change wasn’t so bad. I was one of the last to arrive and figured there wouldn’t be any others from the US contingent around. I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted by Richard Bolt, my former CMS teammate and last years USATF Scott Hamilton award winner.

The bus had yet to depart so I met up with a few of the US team members that I hadn’t met before and a couple of supporters. The 150 KM (90 miles) drive from Milan to Madesimo took nearly three hours. The last hour was on tortuous mountain roads. It was very scenic, including a long stretch along Lake Como.

Some of the driving was simply amazing, with the bus going through 180 degree turns with ease and with only inches to spare. I kept my eyes closed and tried to not get car sick from the constant change of direction. We arrived in Madesimo a ski resort town that is within spitting distance of Switzerland (please don’t spit on Switzerland).

So after nearly 24 hours had passed since leaving home it was time to shake out my legs for a run. Maybe it was the altitude (just over 5,000’) or the weather (dense fog and drizzle) or the fact that I’d only been running for just over a week, but I felt lousy. Rich and I ran up the road to Mota where the start/finish was located. I kept hearing the Offspring song in my head and thought it funny that the town name is slang for Marijuana.

The dense fog gave it a surreal drug induced feel which was appropriate. My plantar fascia screamed at me the entire run, seems it does not like running up (or down) steep hills. It would not be happy with me for a few more days. It was good to stretch out the legs after such a prolonged time just sitting around. The dinner at our hotel was excellent with two choices for the each of the courses. The owner of Hotel Emet was extraordinarily helpful throughout our stay. I don’t think the guy sleeps at all; he even served us fruit and fresh orange juice at 4:00 AM while we waited for our bus home.

Friday would be the least taxing day of the trip. Only teams from outside of Europe arrive on Thursday, so we’d have a little more time to acclimatize. That meant that there was nothing we had to do on Friday except to relax. We started the day with a 10 AM tour of the course. Richard and Ellen (Miller, the women’s team manager and two time Mt Everest summitter) joined me and the junior women for an easy lap of the course. Easy is certainly a relative term. I thought the climb was tough but probably not as tough as some past courses. The descent was another story, it was definitely challenging. In order to perform well on this course an athlete would have to be able to switch gears quickly and often. There was even a tough “little” climb half-way through the descent. I decided that would be a good place to be when viewing the competition. The ladies seemed to take it all in pretty well, the fog was still pretty thick so it was hard to see how the overall course looked. No one seemed spooked by the difficulty of the course which was a good sign. I did mention that it would be important to watch your footing. We spent about 45 minutes viewing the course which included a bunch of stops for pictures. The parents of all three young ladies also joined us on the circuit. The junior men’s team had already checked out the course. This was the most independent group of juniors that I’d worked with. My management/coaching style is hands off; I’m highly supportive but want the athletes to be independent. I think this gives the athletes the opportunity for growth, at the same time I made sure that they could find me any time they had any questions or concerns.

afternoon Rich and I did a nice comfortable run up the valley (climbing and descending about 400’), it was still foggy and drizzling but the sun was trying to poke through as well. Word on the street had it clearing out overnight and being sunny and dry for the remainder of our stay. My foot felt a lot better now that we were running on a paved pedestrian path rather than the uneven and steep running on the course. Our biggest obstacles were the numerous cow patties that required each footfall being carefully placed.

Saturday was a huge contrast to Friday; we wouldn’t have much free time at all. Rich and I hit the road at 7 AM for a run up to a cross on the hillside above Madesimo. We ran to the town of San Rocco on a mix of road, paved path, dirt road, and rocky trail. It was cold and windy on the run; a front blew through the night before (waking a lot of people up when a gale blew in down the slopes from Switzerland). We had some great views of the surrounding mountains and we could see fresh snow on some of the upper slopes. We ran about 5 miles with over 1,000’ of climb and descent. At the top we could also see almost the entire race course across the valley from us including the huge statue of the Madonna d’Europa.

After a quick breakfast we were off to the WMRA congress meeting. That was three hours of my life I’ll never get back. It was a weird meeting without Danny Hughes in charge (he passed away in February). I calculated that the meeting could have been completed in 45 minutes. A lot of time was spent with people just saying “my report has been submitted” – which would be translated and everyone would then applaud. The elections of officers went the same way and it was funny how you really weren’t given the opportunity to object or even to abstain. Of course, with only one person for each position it really was another case of “couldn’t we just approve the entire slate”. Hey, I’m a government employee so I get how these things workJ. There was nothing of note from the meeting other than Slovenia possibly hosting the championship in 2010. No other bidders came forward and this was something of a surprise. Needless to say the pressure is now on for Slovenia to come through on this very expensive proposition.

After the meeting it was time for another short run. Rich and I headed up to Mota again, this time via the trail which was very rocky and technical. We were surprised to see some Canadian runners come blasting down the trail; we chose the road for our descent. The course looking totally different under clear skies, nearly the entire course was visible from the start/finish. My foot was again not happy with my choice of running surface and reminded me that I needed to ice. There wouldn’t be time until much later in the day. The technical meeting took up a little time, but this was efficiently run and there were very few questions. The Italian LOC did a great job of getting everything done. The joke about “Italian time” wasn’t really true on this trip, most things were done with near-Swiss precision.

Next up was the opening parade in Chiavenna. The ride down was another stomach churning adventure. Is it possible to get sea-sick on land? As is typical in these events there is a lot of standing around waiting, it takes a long time to organize 200 athletes. The athletes hit whatever shade they could find and eventually the parade of nations was organized. We got a team picture with “Chino” the official mascot of the event. I think he was a giant chipmunk or squirrel, but it was never all that clear. He was very animated, jumping around, high-five-ing, and even running the first 100m of some of the races. The parade was one of the more boisterous that I’ve attended. The spectators on occasion became part of the procession and athletes would sometimes disappear into local shops only to return with a gelato in hand. I heard that one of the juniors handed out an American flag (we must have given out dozens of flags) and the woman on the receiving end of the transaction pounced on another junior favoring him with a bone crushing hug and an emotionally charged kiss. The parade was a blast and the crowd went bonkers whenever the Italian team came into sight. The end of the parade was a bit anti-climactic, as seems to be the case at these things, there was not enough room for everyone to sit in the spectator area so most just found a place to sit out of the town square. The entire process took a couple of hours and we were not returned back to our hotel until early evening.

We held a brief team meeting to hand out numbers and go over final questions. There were not many questions, this was a veteran group. Joe Grey mentioned something about “One more day to release the beast”. I think he was talking about the race but he may have been talking about some post-race ritual (personally I like to release the beast as often as I can). I kept the juniors after for our own brief meeting; it is rare to have a junior on the team for more than one year so there really aren’t that many experienced juniors. Tim Smith was the exception this year, coming off of his 5th place finish in last year’s championship. He was great to have along, in a quiet way leading the boy’s team. The only worry I had was that there would be too much “Facebook”ing and “Twitter”ing, instead of sleeping.

The final full day in Italy would be another busy one. Rich and I were up at 6:30 AM for another run up/down the valley. It was again cool and clear (and windy), temperatures were in the upper 40’s and it looked to be a great day for racing. The junior women were first to race, so we headed for the bus at 8:00 AM. I hung out with the parents while the ladies went out for their warm-up. We headed for the line 15 minutes before the start and they continued to stay loose in the enclosed warm-up area. Right on schedule they were off at 9:30 AM. I only had time to get about 200m out on the course (I wanted the girls to keep warm right up to the start so I didn’t get their long-sleeve shirts until the very last moment). It looked like they all got out well, in the top ½ of the field.

The helicopter filming the race zoomed overhead and the announcer was calling the race in Italian and English. It was unlike anything you’d see at a U.S. mountain race (at least that I’ve ever seen). Crowds lined the course and many had camped out in the fields overnight. Near the top of the climb the announcer called that Megan Morgan had momentarily pulled into the lead. Her lead was short lived as the Yasmine Can (Turkey), recklessly descended the course. Megan held steady taking the silver medal, 17 seconds out of first and 21 seconds up on her closest pursuer. This topped the bronze medal earned last year by Alex Dunne as the best individual finish for a junior woman. Meanwhile out on the course Robyn Arnold was maintaining her position mid-pack. Unfortunately Alex Dent took a massive spill on one of the steep downhill’s (at a transition from trail to road). She was taken off the course via ambulance but fortunately had suffered no permanent damage. She did have a serious road-rash and some bumps and bruises. The team finished 7th with 25 points, but they were only five points out of a podium finish. It is amazing how close the junior women’s scoring can be (only two runners score). Three teams had 21 points and the bronze went to Poland with 20. To put it another way, the U.S. team was only 40 seconds out of third place (but I guess that is pretty far). This was the second best performance for the junior women, trailing only the silver medal performance from 2007.

After the first few juniors crossed the line I had to shift focus to the junior boys. The time between races was only 30 minutes, so as the last ladies were crossing the line the guys were ready to head out. I gathered up all of the last minute gear that the guys had and was surprised to see one of the guys (can’t remember which) wearing the heavy Teva trainers instead of racing flats. It was definitely not the time to say anything. The guys would be doing two loops so I headed up the hill a bit so that I could give them an idea of what place they were in. I thought Tim had a shot at top 10, but you are never sure of how deep the field will be. The juniors turn-over quickly and it is hard to tell which teams will be the strongest. I figured that all of our guys had a shot at finishing in the top 30. My advice was to go out in around the top 30 and move up in the second lap. Brandon Lord had a great day, coming through the first lap in the top 10. Dan Nafziger, Brian Rooney and Tim Smith were all closely bunched around 30th to 40th as they headed back out for the second lap.

Brandon was able to move up to fourth place, 19 seconds out of a podium finish but the best finish ever by a U.S. junior man. Dan and Brian both maintained position ultimately finishing 39th and 41st. Tim had a rough day finishing 55th, he hadn’t mentioned it but he had been fighting a cold all week. They combined to finish in 8th place with 84 points which ties the second best finish all-time for the junior men.

Again there was not much time to relax, the women were up next. I unloaded some of the 50 pounds of gear I was carrying and headed back out onto the course. I finally heard that Alex had been brought back to the finish and was okay; I was very worried but knew I couldn’t due anything until she was brought off the mountain. It was a relief to hear she was walking around. I met up with Rich and we ran back and forth between a little village and the top of the course to get pictures of the women coming through. The Italian women were downright dominating. The lead woman took it to the field in the first lap. The U.S. women came through the first loop with Brandy Erholtz leading the charge in right around 10th place. Amazingly the final U.S. woman came through about 10 places later. That is some sick grouping. They are all great competitors and I knew first hand how tough Brandy is. She refused to let me pass her on Cranmore earlier this year, throwing some vicious surges at me before relenting on the upper slopes of the mountain.

The women pretty much maintained position and even moved up a spot or two over the second loop with Brandy taking 10th and Christine Lundy next in 13th (18 seconds back) followed closely by Megan Kimmel and Megan Lund (August Trail runner magazine cover picture)in 15th and 17th respectively. The entire team crossed the line within 48 seconds. The fourth woman in 17th place bettered the gold medal team’s final place (20th) in 2006. The 38 points scored trailed only the two Gold Medal teams who scored 23 & 35 points in 2007 & 2006 respectively.

The final race of the day was the men’s three loop quad buster. Rich and I again positioned ourselves to catch the guys on the climb then cut across ½ mile of grassy hillside to catch them again. The only downside was that we wouldn’t be able to see lap splits or see anyone finish, the upside was that we’d see the guys a bunch of times and be able to take a lot of pictures. My foot was killing me from all of the sidehill and poor footing that we had to run but I did get a few breaks to sit down and massage my aching arch. Again the helicopter’s whirl gave us a great indication of where the leaders were at any given time. The African runners were dominating the first climb. I was surprised to see Marco De Gasperi so “far” off the lead in the early going but chalked it up to a three lap course. Who could have better strategy than Marco on his home course? Dang, the guys from Uganda, Eritrea, and Rwanda looked strong. Joe Gray was the first U.S. runner to the top and he looked strong and relaxed. He had mentioned that he wanted the first spot on the line (each team gets a box that is barely 1 person wide) and he planned on going out hard. I thought it was cool that Joe had decided to take a shot at the up/down racing. He told me at last year’s World trophy that there was “no way” he was going to do the up/down. Earlier this summer he was the National champion at Cranmore. Andrew Benford was the next U.S. runner to pass; he also looked strong in about 20th place.

The next three team members came by in a tight group. I think Rickey Gates was leading the pack with Matt Byrne (who proposed to his GF earlier on the trip) and Zac Freudenberg not far behind all were in the upper 30’s to low 40’s for place. Tim Parr was the last one through in the low 50’s for place.

The second lap saw little change. The top 12 was either African or Italian (with one runner from Turkey thrown in). Everyone looked a little more fatigued, but Joe was still holding onto the top 15 and Andrew had moved up a spot or two. Rickey, Matt, and Zac were still bunched together but had fallen back about 10 places. The noise of the crowds was deafening in spots. We zipped back over to the uphill and saw that Andrew had closed on Joe and was looking ahead (I got a good shot of him looking up to see where Joe was). The rest of the guys were still clumped together and Tim had closed some of the gap. He had mentioned that his plan was to move up each lap and joked that he’d be better off if he could run 6 loops and divide the time in half (he has been running very well at longer distances including a win at the Leadville 100m).

We moved around again and then settled on a spot on the final downhill to catch some shots of the guys on the final crazy drop to the finish. Kusuro from Uganda really smoked the field in the final loop, taking a 54 second victory. Eritrea put five runners in the top 12 and Italy put three in the top nine, while Uganda went 1, 3, and 13. Andrew came flying by in 14th place having overtaken Joe on the final circuit. He then ran down Martin Toroitich (who has a 27:51 pr for 10km) from Uganda to take 13th place. Joe came in three places and 34 seconds later. These were the top 12 and top 15th places ever recorded by a men’s senior runner. Only 7 U.S. runners have ever placed higher than Andrew who also becomes the first U.S. runner to compete on both the junior and senior squad.

The remaining members of the squad all crossed the line with 12 seconds of each other. Matt (42), Zac (46), Rickey (47) and Tim (48) helped the team to a 6th place finish. Eritrea led the way with 24 points upsetting the home team (Italy – 39) and the strong team from Turkey (75). The point total and place were the fourth best all-time finish for the men’s team, given the depth of the field the performance was quite good. The finishing places were very close to the team in 2004 (17, 19, 28, 38, 41, 47) and not that far off of last years medal team (12, 16, 23, 25, 34, 36).

All in all it was a successful day and a fun trip. I finished the days running with an easy 2m run down the road with Rich. Then we headed down to Campodolcino for the award ceremony. My ears are still ringing from the volume at the ceremony, it was off the charts. At one point I got so dizzy and nauseous that I had to go outside and hurl (felt a lot better after that). We (the team staff) decided that there was no way we wanted to stick around after the awards ceremony. After conferring with the team we were off. There would be no bus transport for more than two hours. Nancy and Ellen almost immediately got a lift from a carload of runners and they were on their way. Rich and I began to think that we might have to walk the 8km back to town, which wasn’t such a bad option. It only took about 10 minutes and the fifth car stopped for us. The guy was an official from the race and was heading back to town. He didn’t speak any English and we spoke no Italian but it was still a fun ride. We went up on the road that is not open to buses due to tight turns and one lane tunnels. It was a wild ride and lots of fun. We finished the day with a “staff meeting” over pizza and a little wine. I typed up the press release (I’ll post that tomorrow) during dinner and we were back to our room just after the juniors arrived back to check in.

All went smoothly for the trip home, although I only just barely made my connection in Madrid. I got home just a little ahead of schedule and decided to test out my foot on some more level ground. I went sub 7’s for 5 miles at Winni, which is the fastest I’ve gone in my first couple of weeks since starting back up. Definitely a good way to start the post-trip running.

I’ll post the all-time lists for the mountain team later this week….buono notte.


Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


GZ said...

Wow - great report. Thanks for writing it up. Felt like I was there for a bit!

double-d said...

The trip was so quick it almost feels like I wasn't there! :-)