Team USA traveled to Tepatitlan, Jalisco, Mexico, to compete in the 13th NACAC Mountain Running Championships on Sunday, July 10. The women were looking to defend their gold-medal finish from 2015 when the event was held in Canada, the men were looking to improve upon their runner-up finish to Team Canada.
Most of the nine-member US squad arrived in Guadalajara on Friday, July 8, for the 70-kilometer bus ride to Tepatitlan to preview the course the following day in nearby Cerro Gordo. Remaining team members arrived on Saturday afternoon in advance of the evening’s opening ceremony.
In addition to Team USA, and Team Mexico, Team Canada would participate having missed the last NACAC championships hosted by Mexico in 2014.
The challenging nine-kilometer course ascended over rocky and craggy terrain to the summit of Cerro Gordo in Jalisco, Mexico. The starting elevation was approximately 2100 meters while the finish line reached just over 2600 meters. The top three men from each country were scored for the team result, whereas for the women it was the top two women from each country.
Team USA delivered a one-two punch with last year’s NACAC second-place finisher Megan Roche besting the field to take gold in a time of 51:48, just nine seconds ahead of her teammate Ladia Albertson-Junkans. Rounding out the top three was Canada’s Meggan Franks in 52:24.
“I actually haven’t run a short race in a while, so I wanted to experience the hurt,” said Roche. “I was fairly conservative because of the altitude and I was kind of metering out the pain from there. I finished with nothing left.”
Roche’s goal going into the event was to represent Team USA well. “It’s an honor to be on Team USA with such fantastic women.” Roche certainly achieved her goal.
Albertson-Junkans, in her first international mountain competition said, “I really didn’t know what to expect. The course was really tough. Definitely tougher than I anticipated.
“Coming from sea level, that was a bit daunting. I took it out conservatively so I didn’t tank,” reflected Albertson-Junkans. “I didn’t know how long that first climb would be, so I didn’t want to be too aggressive. I took the first third out conservatively and then started picking it up as I felt good.
“The course was a different kind of technical,” added Junkans. “You had to be focused the whole time. It was a really different experience to what I run in Seattle. I ran a smart race. The last K was a lot like trying to run up a mountain holding your breath. I’m glad it wasn’t one step further. I’m very happy that Team USA could bring home the gold and that Megan and I went 1-2.”
Mandy Ortiz, the youngest member of Team USA, in her second NACAC competition said, “It was a difficult race, but it was really nice to see my teammates running really well. All the teams were really strong this year. My main goals was to run as hard as I could and to represent the team well and to just focus on pushing myself as hard as I could.
“I knew that we had a really strong team, so I knew I might not necessarily be a scorer, but I wanted to leave everything out on the course,” said the 21-year-old Ortiz. She finished the course in 59 minutes.
Team USA finished with three points to take the gold medal, Canada, with a score of 10, edged out Mexico by one point to take the silver medal.
The host country fared better on the men’s side with a victorious Juan Carlos Carera Casas finishing in 41:15, to lead his team to the gold medal. For Team USA it was Josh Eberly in 41:43 for silver, followed by Mexico’s Victor Daniel Mercado Miranda in 41:58 for bronze. USA’s Andy Wacker finished in fifth timed in 42:23.
With the strong performance by Casa and Miranda, and their final scorer in sixth position, Mexico raced to team gold with a total of 10 points to USA’s 14. Ryan Bak was the final scorer for Team USA in seventh place. JP Donovan, the final USA team member finished in the top ten. Benoit Gignac (CAN) was his country’s top finisher leading the team to the bronze medal.
“I started out pretty good at a solid pace,” said Eberly. “At about the half mile, Andy and the top Mexican (Carera Casas) took off. I caught Andy at about mile two and I was chasing Carera the rest of the way.
“I felt strong. I think the altitude (Eberly lives in Gunnison, CO), was an advantage for me. The last climb was the perfect grade for me,” added Eberly. “It wasn’t super steep. It was just right for me to open up…plus, I could hear the music so I knew I was close to the finish. I was hoping our guys were right there, but the Mexican team was there – hats off to them.”
Wacker also gave kudos to Team Mexico. “Never underestimate the home team. They ran well, they ran with their hearts,” said Wacker. “I gave it my all, we still came up short, but I think we made USA proud.”
Wacker will again represent Team USA at the World Mountain Running Championships on September 11, in Sapareva Banya, Bulgaria, having earned a spot at last week’s USATF Mountain Running Championships. This will be his second appearance at the World Championships. “The big takeaway for me from last year was that we can win a team gold,” said Wacker. “I feel that we have the best team in terms of talent, track PRs…it’s attainable. My goal is to finish in the top ten individually, and that we win a team gold.”
Bak, admitted he didn’t feel very strong on the day, “The course was great, but my fitness isn’t great coming back after an injury, and the altitude definitely affected me.
“It was an odd race for me,” continued Bak. “I ran eight of the 9K alone. It was tough. I couldn’t judge where I was (in relation to the rest of the field). I gave it everything I had. I pushed.”
Donovan had a strategy, “My race plan was to surge every time I saw a course marking. But, there were so many markings that strategy went out the window. I felt like my Mexican counterparts out climbed me today in the first two K, and I never saw them again.”
Team leader Richard Bolt was proud of the performances from Team USA, “I feel great about the result. I think it is always a challenge when we go to a new course, a new venue. The team showed flexibility and adaptability to race well on a new course.
“Thanks goes to our hosts who organized a challenging and scenic race and made all of the athletes, all of the teams feel welcomed,” said Bolt.
Of the NACAC competition, Roche concluded, “I love the NACAC competition. It’s a really fun way to get to know the other team members. Mexico has poured their heart and soul into this competition and it’s been wonderful to be welcomed into their culture.”
That culture was highlighted by the City of Tepatitlan, which hosted the athletes and provided a friendly and inviting atmosphere for the teams who enjoyed authentic cuisine and enthusiastic support from the locals.
Complete results will be posted at www.wmra.ch. Follow Team USA at www.usatf.org and learn more about the US Mountain Running Program at www.usmrt.com. More Team USA photos of the event can be found on Google Photos.