Written by USATF MUT Council vice-chair Meghan Canfield. Photo: Men’s USATF 100 Mile Road Champion, Jonas Backstrom.
Henderson, Nevada’s Cornerstone Park was the sight for the 2023 Jackpot USATF 100 Mile Road Championships. Under the new race ownership, Aravaipa, out of Phoenix, Arizona, the race began at 8:00 AM under clear, crisp conditions. The field of 44 athletes included not only high-level open athletes such as Zach Bitter and Megan Eckert but many competitive age groupers as well. USATF National Championships are unique races, in that age group runners have an opportunity to be recognized at a national level, and in return, spectators and fans are undoubtedly inspired by their dedication and grit to the sport they love. The Jackpot field of age group runners included Jonah Backstrom (49), Sam Skeels (44), Sally McRae (43), Larry Stephens (66), Jean Pommier (57), and arguably the most inspirational, five men in the 80-84 age group – Ed Rousseau (83), David Blaylock (80), Ian Maddieson (80), Denis Trafecanty (80), and Todd Leigh (81).
Eighty-five laps of a 1.17-mile loop were on tap for the fresh runners. Spectators and crews had front-row seats, making it easy to keep track of and crew for all the athletes. In the early miles, runners had sorted themselves into a groove, with Zach Bitter taking a comfortable lead by 2 hours, and would extend his lead over the first 47 miles in under 6 hours. Unfortunately, at that point, he pulled out with a headache and fever. That left Jonah Backstrom, Zach Merrin, Sam Skeels, Alex Docta, Pete Kostelnick, and Jeremy Brooks all within reach of each other. Lap after lap, Backstrom was a metronome, while those in his wake ebbed and flowed. Brooks eventually dropped at 66 miles, while Kostelnick steadily moved up from 6th to 3rd, while Skeels and Docta struggled, but hung in. With 20 miles to go for Backstrom, Zach Merrin found new life in his legs. The sun was setting and he came to life, with his lap times eclipsing Backstrom’s, who had a 2 lap lead on Merrin. The race was on, with Merrin getting to within under 2 miles of Backstrom, who then learned of Merrin’s surge. Backstrom dug even deeper, Merrin faded, and Backstrom reigned victorious on his third attempt at Jackpot 100, in 14:11:03. Merrin held on for 2nd in 14:48:59, and finishing out the podium was Pete Kostelnick in 15:47:24. When asked about his day, Backstrom was so pleased and humbled to have finally won, after 3 attempts here. He had a bit of worry at mile 20 with a sharp calf cramp forcing him to stop and stretch – and eventually, it disappeared. He was running steadily when Zach Bitter dropped, which actually made Backstrom emotional – Bitter being such a great athlete and person – it was hard to see. In the lead from that point on, Backstrom ran consistently, but as the inevitable fatigue started to build, his crew alerted him to the fact that Merrin had picked up the pace and was attempting to chase him down. Backstrom dug deeper and kept his 2-lap lead for the last 10 miles for the well-earned victory.
Leading the women by mile 18 was Sierra DeGroff, followed closely by 50-year-old Kristina Pham. They were followed closely by Lisa Cabiles, Megan Eckert, Sally McRae, and Heather Huggins. The dynamic amongst these top runners would continue to fluctuate – although very little for DeGroff. Pham did have the lead for a while when DeGroff took a short break but quickly regained the lead. Pham eventually dropped after running a brisk 55 miles in 8:20, leaving DeGroff with a 3-lap lead over the rest of the women’s field. Cabiles, who had struggled early, dropping out of the top 5, showed grit and determination, working her way all the way back to 2nd, with Huggins close by. These 3 competitors would maintain their positions to the end, with DeGroff winning in 16:00:02, Cabiles taking 2nd in 16:42:54, and Huggins 3rd in 17:09:29. When asked about her day DeGroff was happy with her performance, setting a 100 mile PR by an hour and 17 minutes. She considered it a good step towards her big goal race of Badwater 135 and hopes she will be considered to run at Desert Solstice 2023.
Meanwhile, arguably the most inspirational performances were those of the aforementioned octogenarians. 83-year-old Ed Rousseau led the way, building a lead that seemed unsurmountable, but 80-year-old David Blaylock rallied in the last few miles, overtaking Rousseau for the win in 29:49:29. Rousseau would finish 2nd in the category in 30:09:08, and filling out the age group podium was Ian Maddieson (80) in 37:15:39. Denis Trafecanty (80) was the 4th finisher in 37:59:42. Sadly, Todd Leigh (81) didn’t quite make the full distance, but 93 miles is something to be proud of.
From a USATF liaison’s perspective, Aravaipa stepped up to the plate when taking over Jackpot Ultras and hit a home run. The setup was seamless, the aid station cooking was non-stop, the timing company was flawless, and the awards ceremony was well organized. Race Director Jamil Coury is an earnest and respectful individual whose dedication to the runners’ experiences was apparent.
Full race results can be found here.