Northern and Pannu Win USATF 100K Road Championships

Written by USATF national championship liaison Lin Gentling. Photos: Craig Thornley, Matt Keyes and Lin Gentling.

Elizabeth Northern and Rajpaul Pannu take home titles at the 2021 USATF 100K Road Championships hosted by California’s No’to’mom 100K.

No’to’mom, a Nisenan Tribe word for the body of water that the European settlers called the American River near Sacramento, California, was the site for the 2021 USATF 100K Road Championships. The day dawned cool with brilliant blue skies and calm conditions, but this was not to prevail. Temperatures into the afternoon would soar into the low 90’s with the hot sun basking the course. Ten loops of the 10K course would provide plenty of opportunity to observe the race unfold.

Race Director Meghan Canfield. Photo: Craig Thornley.

Just recently, the 2022 IAU 100K World Championships were announced to take place on August 27, 2022, in Berlin, Germany. No’to’mom served as a selection race for runners earning a qualifying time for consideration for the 2022 U.S. team. Any male running a sub 7:40 and any woman running a sub 8:40 would be eligible for consideration. There were two runners achieving that standard at the 2021 No’to’mom.

Race director, Meghan Canfield had amassed a stellar group of local volunteers to respond to every need the runners presented. Runners knew what the day would bring as it progressed and considered that as they strategized their run.

Eleven hearty souls toed the start line for the 100K. Some were seasoned at the distance; others had never run this far. Some had trained in the hot and dry summer while others were more used to the heat and humid conditions of their respective homes. Some were better prepared than others, some came in injured and hoped for the best, but all simply hoped and dreamed that their journeys would be successful.

Geoff Burns. Photo: Craig Thornley.

Men’s Race

After the first 10K of the race Anthony Kunkel, 29 (Durango, CO) led in 38:53 followed only a few meters behind by both Rajpaul Pannu, 30 (Denver, CO) and Geoff Burns, 31 (Ann Arbor, MI). In the women’s race, Stefanie Flippin, 32 (Evergreen, CO) and Elizabeth Northern, 34 (Fort Worth, TX) came through together in 44.02 for their first 10K.

Concluding the 2nd loop at 20K, Kunkel called it a day suffering from a prior injury. Meanwhile Burns and Pannu 1:17:54 continued together, feeding off one another as did Northern and Flippin 1:28:34 The rest of the field was strung out behind these leaders. Third man was Alex Suchey, 53 (Gold River, CA) 1:28:57, while 3rd woman was Kalie Demerjian, 25 (Trabuco Canyon, CA), in 1:33:50.

Pannu and Burns continued together through 50K. At 60K Pannu started to pull ahead, coming in 2 minutes ahead of Burns. Clearly, things were not going well for Burns as he came into 60K struggling and sat in “the chair”. Pannu continued, but the race was taking its toll on all the runners as now the heat of the day was baking bodies and the back half of the course along the levy is totally without mercy from the beating sun.

Pannu, a HOKA sponsored runner and teacher, was now the leader and creating a statement to the rest of the field. He has a 6:28 personal best at the 2021 Hoka Project Carbon X 2 Race. His strategy was to run the early miles at or near the old American record (6:27) pace. He anticipated the heat as the day progressed and took that into account with his strategy. For 9 loops, things went very well and his strategy was working, however that infamous 10th and final loop proved to be brutal and he wondered if it would ever end. GI issues and nausea entered into the picture, but he was triumphant over anything nature and his body threw at him and crossed the finish line victorious in 6:57:33.

Meanwhile, Burns is someone who does not quit. He had to finish. For 2 years he had been recovering from injuries, dealing with COVID-19 restrictions, and obtaining his PhD. His training leading up to the 100K had gone well. Three years ago, he had dealt with severe hypothermia at the 100K national championships in Madison, WI. Now he was worrying about hyperthermia and the impact that has on a finely tuned athlete’s body. It would have been easy physically to stay in “the chair”. But if the 100K roads were easy, everyone would be doing it. Burns found that next gear and committed to giving it another loop. That one more loop turned into a finish and second place in the 2021 100K National Championship with a time of 7:44:12. Taking 3rd and running that same position all day was Suchey, finishing in 10:45:04.

Elizabeth Northern. Photo: Craig Thornley.

Women’s Race

The ladies race played out in a different fashion. Elizabeth Northern, who had never run beyond 48 miles previously, and Flippin were running together until just before 30K when Northern started to increase the lead by over 2 minutes. By the 40K that lead had increased by 7 minutes and by the half way point, Northern had pulled away by almost 20 minutes. Flippin, the 2021 USATF 100 Mile Road Champion and HOKA athlete, was clearly struggling and made the wise decision to call it a day. Northern, the 2019 USATF 50K Road Champion and member of the U.S. 50K national team competing in the 2019 IAU 50K World Championships in Romania, was running like a well-oiled machine.

Northern’s (whose sister calls her the “Lizenator”), strategy was to go out fast and try to get the miles in prior to the beating heat. She wanted to run at a conversational pace and not breath heavy or feel unnecessarily stressed. After Flippin exited, Demerjian, 2nd at both 2020 Pioneer Spirit 50 Mile (USATF 50 Mile Trail Championship) and Javelina Jundred 100 mile, took over 2nd place. Smiling and appearing well within her potential, Demerjian cruised through 90K with 59 minutes to run the last 10K loop to achieve a time that would be considered for the 2022 100K U.S. National Team selection. Northern had a cushion of 37 minutes as she headed to the finish line as the winner of the 2021 USATF 100K Road Championship.

The wait started for our 2nd place woman, presumably Demerjian, to cross the finish and claim the 2nd place prize. However, in an unfortunate stream of events, it was not to happen. Around the 98K mark, Demerjian took a tumble off the levy rolling down the hill and was found by passersby in a state of confusion. She was quickly attended to by emergency personnel and we are relieved to report that she will be fine and back to running hopefully soon.

So, we continued to wait for the 2nd place woman. Sunduk Kim, 42 (Orinda, CA) would be that runner, moving up after Flippin had exited and Demerjian was a DNF due to collapse. Kim crossed the finish line in 9:20:10 to claim 2nd place in the USATF 100K Road Championships and Rachel Kelly, 41 (Chapel Hill, NC) took the 3rd spot on the podium with a time of 10:15:10.

Complete race results are available here:

The 2021 USATF 100K Road Championships wrapped up at 9:15 PM with the last runner crossing the finish line. It had been a long day with a lot of weather related adversity, but so many more triumphs. No one runs a 100K race alone regardless of conditions. Special thanks go to all 8 officials from the USATF Pacific Association who volunteered their day to officiate this event and make sure it was contested with all the USATF rules intact, to the representatives from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) performing the drug testing on our athletes, and finally thank you so much to all those who supported their athletes and all the athletes in general from those working the aid stations, to the medical staff, to social media, timers, photographers, sponsors, and course entertainment. Race director, Meghan Canfield, assembled an army of committed and dedicated volunteers who functioned as a team in every respect. Thanks go out to all those who made this a day that will be long remembered.

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