On Saturday the world’s best trail runners congregated in Tuscany, Italy, for the Trail World Championships. The U.S. men’s team earned bronze while the women’s team ended up in 6th place.
The results on both sides were an improvement over last year, when neither the men’s team nor the women’s team finished in the top 10.
“When I found out we got a bronze medal I was just jumping with joy,” said Mendoza, who finished in 9th pace, the U.S.A.’s top finisher. “Teams like Spain, France and Italy […] work [together] and that’s what I wanted to bring to our team. A sense of camaraderie and [a sense] that we are not running for ourselves now but for our country.”
An Experienced Team
The Trail World Championships is organized by the International Association of Ultrarunning under the umbrella of the International Association of Athletics Foundation (IAAF). The event became an official world championship—and US Track and Field provided funding for athletes to attend—just three years ago.
Yet both the men’s and the women’s teams were well stocked with experience from other world-championship events. Female competitors Ladia Albertson-Junkans, Anita Ortiz, Megan Roche and Caitlin Smith have all represented the U.S. at World Mountain Running Championships in the past. Corrine Malcom was on last year’s Trail World Championships team—she was the only U.S. woman to finish that year. Keely Henninger, 25, of Portland, Oregon was a first-time member of Team U.S.A.
On the men’s side, Mario Mendoza, Andy Wacker and Tyler Sigl have been on past Trail World Championships teams (Wacker is the only U.S. trail runner to have medaled in three separate world-championship events), while both David Roche and Hayden Hawks have represented U.S. at World Mountain Running Championships. Cody Reed had never been in a world championship.
The race took the athletes 48.7 kilometers through the National Park of Foreste Casentinesi passing ancient abandoned buildings, old forests and a monastery that Wacker said was “reminiscent of a scene from Robin Hood.”
Mendoza explains that after a disappointing 14th-place finish last year, the men’s team decided to hone in on a more detailed group strategy. Mendoza started out conservatively to make sure the team had a runner moving in from behind, while Hawks, Reed and Wacker surged ahead in the lead pack.
“The way European races are, you have to be ready to hurt the whole time,” says Mendoza, who had been averaging 100-mile weeks leading into the race, with a focus on vertical gain and some shorter races. “I was ready to suffer this year.”
The plan to hang back while his younger teammates made an early surge “worked out really well,” says Mendoza. “Each time I passed one of our guys I encouraged him and told him he needed to stay strong because we would need him to get on the podium.”
Roughly halfway through the race, however, Hawks and Wacker began to falter. Around 25K, Wacker suffered severe leg cramps, which persisted for the rest of the race. “With team aspirations in mind, I kept walking, pushing and running when possible to get to the finish,” he says. “I accomplished my main goal, which was to help team U.S.A medal.” He ultimately finished 20th overall.
Meanwhile, around mile 20, Hawks began to feel the effects of limited recovery from Spain’s Transvulcania Ultramarathon, which he raced in late April.
“I was able to learn how to battle against the mental demons that try to tear you down,” says Hawks, who ultimately finished 81st. “Most of the issues came from a combination of fatigue and not enough recovery from previous races. I am grateful I learned the lessons I did and will make adjustments in my training and racing.”
At around the 27K mark, while Wacker and Hawks were beginning to struggle, Mendoza pulled into the top 15 and pushed onward, catching up with and ultimately passing Reed.
Mendoza encouraged Reed as he went by, and asked him if he needed anything. “I [decided I] would keep moving up, because the higher I could place it would help the entire team,” says Mendoza. (Team results are based on the accumulative times of each team’s top-three competitors). Mendoza ended up finishing 9th place, with Reed just behind, in 15th.
At the back of the pack, things were going poorly for Roche, who ultimately finished in 6:38 after suffering from debilitating leg cramps. Tyler Sigl did not finish due to extreme asthma triggered by a plant on the course. Even so, Mendoza, Wacker and Reed’s times were strong enough to secure a bronze medal.
Meanwhile, the women all suffered through tough races. Albertson-Junkans endured projectile vomiting to finish in 13th place, in 5:27—the first U.S. woman to cross the finish.
A half hour later, Ortiz crossed the line in 43rd place, followed closely by Malcolm, in 44th. Smith, Roche and Henninger were all beset by various shades of cramping and bonking, and ultimately finished in 48th, 72nd and 75th, respectively. Albertson-Junkans, Ortiz and Malcolm’s times were enough to earn a 6th-place overall finish.
Though all men’s team members were proud of their bronze-medal achievement, they remarked on the unexpectedly technical trails and long, steep ascents. The general consensus is that the course was more difficult than advertised.
“It was definitely more technical and steeper than what they had told us,” says Mendoza. “The course was supposed to only have 7,500 feet of climbing and it was 10,500. It was also supposed to be ‘fast,’ but the second half of the course was pretty technical. I heard after the race they had to alter the course [at the last minute], which definitely affects the U.S.A. squad, which isn’t used to that much climbing and technicality.”
“I thought I should be near the front, and also planned on a slightly easier and significantly faster race,” says Wacker.
As technical and steep as it was, though, Mendoza noted that the course was “beautiful. The atmosphere was just amazing, with people encouraging you to keep pushing.”
Reed concurs. “One of the things I love about ultras is: because you are running so far and covering so much ground, you can see a lot of different things,” he says. “As I was running, I was wishing that I was on a normal run so that I could stop at some of the ancient and abandoned buildings […] or talk to the monk I saw watching the runners pass by […] or swim in the turquoise water of the reservoir we ran around.”
In July, another group of the country’s top trail runners will be heading back to Italy for the World Mountain Running Championship. This event will be hosted by the World Mountain Running Association (WMRA)—different from the International Association of Ultrarunning, which hosted last weekend’s event.
The men’s U.S. Mountain Running Team will be headed by nine-time veteran Joe Gray, who is the reigning World Mountain Running Champion—the first-ever U.S. runner to win individual gold. Wacker will be joining Team U.S.A. for his second world-championship event of the year, alongisde Brett Hales, 30, of Layton, Utah, and Patrick Smyth, 30, of Salt Lake City, Utah.
On the women’s side, the U.S. will be represented by return competitors Addie Bracy, Allie McLaughin and Kaci Enman, with first-time competitor Caitlin Patterson.