Last weekend, August 6-7, 2017, at the World Mountain Running Championships in Premana, Italy, the U.S. Mountain Running Team took home five medals, the largest haul in the history of U.S. mountain running. The U.S. has medaled before, both as a team and individually, but this was the first year that both men’s, women’s and junior’s teams all medaled in the same year.
The race, which pulls some of the best mountain runners in the world, took place on the cobbled, grassy hills of Premana, a small town in northern Italy.
“People are crazy for mountain running in that part of the world,” says senior women’s team member Allie McLaughlin. “The steepest hill was lined with cheers and cowbells as loud as at the finish.”
International mountain running has traditionally been dominated by European countries, though, with this latest slew of medals, Team U.S.A. is proving that Americans can run with the best.
“It felt very satisfying and encouraging to know that we can compete with the best mountain runners in the world,” says team member Addie Bracy.
An experienced team
Coming off a gold-medal performance at last year’s championships—the men’s team earned gold, and team member Joseph Gray earned the individual gold medal and title of World Mountain Running Champion—U.S. team members knew they had a shot at competing for another title.
The women’s team included Addie Bracy, who was a member of last year’s team, Allie McLaughlin who competed in 2014 and Kasie Enman, who won individual gold in 2011. Caitlin Paterson—who is a professional Nordic ski racer and hopped into the U.S. Mountain Running championships at Cranmore, Vermont, at the last minute—was the lone rookie of the bunch.
For McLaughlin, who suffered a torn labrum (hip cartilage) after the 2014 race, returning to a world-championship race was particularly special. After a surgery in 2016, she healed but “didn’t have any motivation left to come back to running.” Instead she moved to Nashville, Tennessee, and turned to dirt biking, filmmaking and, ultimately, skydiving.
“I think that the new hype in Nashville and the highs from skydiving gave me the energy to run,” she says. “Or maybe it was the fact that I was new in [all of these activities], and running was the one part of my day that was familiar.” Whatever the reason, she found herself once again drawn to the trails.
“Being back in an international race still doesn’t feel real,” she says.
All four members of the men’s team were veterans: Andy Wacker, Brett Hales and Gray, who competed together in 2016 and Patrick Smyth, who competed in 2014. Despite last year’s gold medal hanging above their heads, Smyth explains that the team kept expectations low.
“It was an extremely competitive field this year,” he says. “So I knew that the goal of any team medal was lofty.” Competition aside, frontrunner Gray had just sustained a knee injury a few weeks earlier—dodging a surprised hiker—and wasn’t even sure he would compete.
“I almost dropped out, knowing my knee would slow me down,” says Gray. “But as I saw the look in the guys’ eyes as we walked to the start, I just knew I couldn’t drop.”
Medals all around
Fans from all over Italy descended on Premana to cheer on the racers, which made for an atmosphere that Smyth describes as “electric.”
“It was a small town packed with 5,000 rabid fans screaming their faces off,” he says. “It was phenomenal.”
First up were the junior races, which saw both Talon Hull and Lauren Gregory earn bronze medals. “I just wanted to put myself through as much pain as possible and see how I reacted,” says Gregory, who chased down third place in the final meters of the race.
Eleventh- and 16th-place finishes by Quinn McConnell and Soleil Gaylord earned the junior girls’ team enough points for a silver medal. “It is amazing to think that all four of us … were able to compete against so many other really talented runners,” says McConnell.
Next, the senior women took to the start line for two loops on the same 6.5K course. “I knew that we had a podium team,” says Bracy. The four agreed to start out conservatively, with McLaughlin making an early break for the front and the other three team members hanging with the middle of the pack.
The heat quickly began to take its toll. “I took all the water and sponges I could find in an attempt to cool down,” says Patterson. “Considering the circumstances, I was happy with my effort, and happy that I made it to the finish without completely shutting down.”
Both McLaughlin and Bracy found themselves likewise drained by the warm temperatures, dreading the final climb. “I was already feeling pretty spent,” says McLaughlin. “It was warm and the transitions from downhill to uphill were tough.”
But the deafening roar of a thousand screaming, cowbell-wielding fans propelled them upward. McLaughlin ultimately finished in fifth place, with Bracy close behind in eighth, Enman in 13th and Patterson in 23rd. “Having Addie come in eighth, and Kasie close after, it seemed we had medaled,” says McLaughlin. “But we had to wait to find out how high. When we found out for sure it was gold, [we all let out] joyful, excited screams. Inside [I felt a sense of] settling satisfaction.”
The men’s race took off almost as soon as the last women had crossed the line. “We all went out screaming fast,” says Smyth. “I’ve been to World Cross Country Championships, and this was pretty comparable in terms of all-out start.”
With his sore knee, Gray knew he wouldn’t be able to attack the downhills as aggressively as he’d like. “I planned to be top 15,” he says. “And if I could get up higher, that would be great, since I wanted our team to have a chance at medaling.” He tried to keep the lead runners in his sight, racing them hard on the climbs to compensate for the descents.
Meanwhile, farther back, Smyth and Wacker were both struggling to maintain the fast pace they’d been forced to take from the beginning. “I think of myself as a climbing specialist, but I just didn’t have a great uphill day,” says Wacker, who ultimately finished in 30th place. “On the positive side, I kept focused and ran to help displace other runners. I outkicked two runners in the last 200 meters.”
Their efforts were ultimatley good enough for a team bronze medal, behind Uganda and Italy.
“Having the U.S.A. women win gold, and for the first time to have all teams earn medals, made me so proud to be a part of a strong and growing American mountain-running team,” says men’s team member Andy Wacker. “It’s wonderful to see the sport getting more popular worldwide and to see the U.S. rise to the challenge.”
Update: this past weekend, at the World Long-Distance Mountain Running Championships, Enman went on to win a silver medal. Bracy came in sixth. The men’s team also earned a team silver medal, with 20-year-old team member Tayte Pollmann finishing in fourth place.