Gray and Johnson Win 2021 USATF Half Marathon Trail Championships

Written by USATF Half Marathon Trail Championship Liaison Lin Gentling. Photos by USATF LDR Chairperson Michael Scott.

Another perfect day in paradise. Northern Wisconsin never disappoints with the fall foliage and perfect running temperatures. Today was no different as the Birkie Trail Run Festival, outside of Cable, Wisconsin, hosted the 2021 USATF Half Marathon Trail Championships for the fourth time (2017, 2018, 2020, 2021). A stellar field was entered for what proved to be a very close men’s race. The women were more spread out, but no less impressive.

Start of the USATF Half Marathon Trail Championship. Photo: Michael Scott.

Entered were two-time World Mountain Running Champion Joseph Gray (37, Colorado Springs, CO), who had won this same championship 2 times previously in 2017 and 2018, Andy Wacker (33, Boulder, CO), the defending half marathon trail champion from 2020 and birthday celebrant, Eddie Owens (28, Larkspur, CA), coming off a 4th place finish at the 2021 USATF Mountain Running Championship race in Oregon last month, and Kelly Mortenson (50, St. Paul MN,) defending masters champion from the 2020 USATF Half Marathon Trail Championship.

On the women’s side, Rachel Johnson (28, Lynchburg, VA) with a 2nd place finish 2021 USATF Mountain Running Championships race in Oregon; Stephanie Garcia (33, Phoenix, AZ) with a very impressive steeplechase history, including representing the USA at the 2011 and 2015 world championships, and Kathryn Fluehr (29, Boulder, CO), with an outstanding history at Princeton in cross country and track. We are quite certain that it was Kathryn at the championships as she has an identical and equally accomplished identical twin sister.

The day prior to the championship had brought about an inch of rain to the area, making for a gooey course in places with wet conditions on the rest of the trail. The predominant sandy soil provides good percolation, but water puddles in the dirt/clay areas. The low 40 degree temperatures at the start made for mixed predictions on what the winning times might be. This was the 2nd year the race started & finished in this particular location but the course was different from 2020; slightly longer and more hilly with over 1000′ of vertical elevation gain. Last year’s winning times were 1:13:56 for Wacker and Dani Moreno in 1:21:29.

Eddie Owens and Joseph Gray. Photo: Michael Scott.

As expected Joseph Gray led the pack off the start line followed closely by Eddie Owens and Andy Wacker. Joseph went through the 4-mile mark in 26:04. The top 2 runners sea sawed back and forth for much of the race until Joseph took the lead for good around the 8 mile mark. Gray was asked how his strategy evolved knowing he and Owens were so close together. He responded, “I have to run my own race regardless of who might be nearby.”

Was he aware of Owens? Hard to tell as both athletes were so focused on their own races and running according to their own strategy. Gray may have had the experiential advantage in that he has so many trail national and world championships under his belt and Owens is just beginning his ascent into trail running. Wacker held his position in 3rd place throughout the race. His placing never appeared to be in jeopardy as there was quite a gap between the 3rd and 4th place championship runner.

And that is how the race panned out with Gray taking the half marathon trail national championship for the 3rd time in 1:14:50, Owens following closely behind within 20 seconds in 1:15:11, and Wacker, third place in 1:18:17. Interestingly all three ran against one another at the 2021 USATF Mountain Running Championships this past August placing 1st, 4th, and 5th respectively. As well, all three are planning to compete next weekend at the Broken Arrow Skyrace near Lake Tahoe, California.

3-time USATF Half Marathon Trail Champion Joseph Gray. Photo: Michael Scott.

On the ladies’ side, Johnson, Garcia, Fluehr, and Sarah Biehl (27, Columbus, OH) ran right out of the gate together. At the 8-mile point, Johnson had a commanding lead followed by Garcia, about1:20 behind, and running 3rd was Fluehr about 1:40 behind Garcia. The running order remained the same to the end with Rachel Johnson (pictured top of page) taking the 2021 USATF Half Marathon Trail Championship in 1:28:13, Garcia followed in 2nd position finishing strong in 1:30:22, and Fluehr taking the 3rd podium spot in 1:32:51.

In the masters division, Kelly Mortenson defended his 2020 title finishing 1st master and 8th overall in 1:32:29. Mortenson entered into a new age group this year at age 50. Diane Hankee (44, Lake Elmo, MN), took the masters division for the women, placing 7th overall in 1:52:50.

2nd place woman’s finisher Stephanie Garcia. Photo: Michael Scott.

Without exception runners commented on how much fun the course was and the deceiving difficulty it presented. Rachel Johnson was beaming at the finish saying, “the course was so much fun, it was like a cross country course and I love cross country.” It is a true trail race with some technical sections, some clear track, single track, open space, and lots of hills. This is a true tribute to race director, Kristy Maki, and the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation (ABSF) staff. This race caters to all trail runners, regardless of ability and treats all participants as the winners they are. There are 9 separate running/walking events for everyone from the 1K kids dash to the 100K ultramarathon.

Overall race results can be found at this website.

A full album of race photos by Michael Scott can be found on Google Photos.

USATF National Championship Results

On behalf of USA Track & Field, thank you Kristy and the ABSF staff for another second to none outstanding 2021 USATF Trail Half Marathon Championship. It was a privilege to be a part of this outstanding and incredibly well organized event as the USATF liaison. – Lin Gentling