Ready or Not - Page 3
At the nondescript summit (3581 feet) of Wintergreen, and the race's first aid station, supporters and race volunteers gathered in a flat parking lot with residences nearby, whooping as the compact, muscular Scott Gall, 37, of Cedar Falls, Iowa, first-place finisher at Colorado's 2011 Barr Trail Mountain Race, a 2000 Olympic Trials marathon qualifier (2:20) and fifth-place finisher in the 1999 World Mountain Running Championships, appeared from the trees to break the King of the Mountain tape. A few seconds later Wardian followed, as did the rest of the elite men gliding through at a fast clip. It was Gall's first ultra attempt, so bystanders wondered: could the confident mountain runner sustain his pace for another 55-plus miles? Yet everyone seemed to be pushing the pace a little too hard.
"The leaders started fast, but probably a sustainable pace for a few of the guys on a good day," an elite runner from Bend, Oregon, Ian Sharman, would say later. "I wanted to see how I felt so was happy to let them all go and hoped to catch up when I got into a good rhythm."
First through for the women was the one-time collegiate basketball star and recent ultrarunning sensation Devon Crosby-Helms, 29, of San Francisco, a 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials marathon qualifier and winner of Wisconsin's 2011 Mad City 100K and the 2009 JFK 50-miler (course record) in Maryland, amid many others. Wearing a striking red-and-white compression outfit, the gangly 6' 1" Helms would be easy to spot throughout the day. She was followed by the veteran Anne Riddle-Lundblad, 45, of Asheville, North Carolina (a nine-time USATF National Champion in multiple distances); Andi Felton, 35, of Scottsdale, Arizona (winner of the 2011 Zane Grey 50-miler in Arizona); and Ragan Petrie, 45, of Arlington, Virginia (winner of 2011 The North Face 50-Mile Endurance Challenge in Washington, D.C.).
In contrast to the deep men's field, the women's was relatively thin, with a few strong racers, including perennial top threat Anita Ortiz of Colorado (see "Blood Sport," August 2011, Issue 74), bowing out of the event at the last moment.
After the pack disappeared into a short, densely wooded singletrack section, crews and followers packed up to intercept the runners, who would descend a steep mixture of singletrack and road before a one-mile road climb at a brutal 15-percent grade to the second aid station, Reeds Gap (mile 9.6). It was located on the famed Blue Ridge Parkway, a 469-mile two-lane road connecting North Carolina's Great Smoky Mountains and Virginia's Shenandoah National Park. The UROC runners would log 21 tough, undulating miles on the Parkway.
Emerging first on that steep road section was Mackey, wearing his trademark visor. With wins at Oregon's Waldo 100K (course record), California's Miwok 100K, American River 50 Mile and Bandera 100K USATF Trail Championships (course record), Mackey was the favorite, at least on paper.
Yet he wasn't necessarily himself on this day. "I've been nursing bronchitis for the past two weeks," he had said the evening before the race. "I'm not even sure I'll be starting tomorrow." However, he was now running strong in his relaxed style up the unrelenting hill.
Commented a bystander, "It doesn't even look like he's going fast."
Mackey was pursued by Gall, Wardian, Roes and Jonathan Basham, 34, of Greenwater, Washington, who, in 2010, became the ninth-ever finisher of Tennessee's insane Barkley Marathons, which features an unmarked course and nearly 60,000 feet of climbing. While Basham has strong ultra finishes to his credit, he had mostly been training for a speed-record attempt on California's John Muir Trail, not necessarily ideal for the fast turnover the UROC roads demanded.