Written by USATF Championship liaison and American Trail Running Association treasurer Lin Gentling. Lin Gentling. Photos by Lin Gentling and Mike Polansky.
What a perfect day for the 2021 USATF 50 km Road Championships…if you were a spectator. A beautiful cool morning with not a cloud in the sky and only a very slight breeze blowing off the sound greeted the 76 starters in the 2021 50 km Road Championships. A typical summer morning, but the runners knew this weather would be the best of the day as they faced 10 loops of the perfectly flat and fast 5K course at Heckscher State Park near East Islip, New York.
This race, started in 2005, was entering its 16th edition. The Greater Long Island Running Club (GLIRC) puts on an excellent, well-orchestrated show and their record of near perfection continues. In March 2020, the 50 km national championships was one of the last races to happen before the pandemic took over our lives. Runners waited with anxiety and apprehension as the months stretched by.
The 2021 rendition of the 50 km Road Championships was due to happen on March 7th, but with New York locked down to any events of sizeable proportions, the 50 km was postponed to June 13th, 2021. There was great hope that COVID would produce a light at the end of a very long and emotionally painful period.
Thus it was with great joy and excitement that runners lined up at 8:00 AM to what would produce an amazing day of perseverance, break through, surprises, and celebration. On the line were automatic berths to the winners on the 2021 U.S. 50 km National Team competing in the IAU 50K World Championships on October 31, in Taiwan.
Kyle Masterson, 28, of Alamosa, CO, and Charlie Lawrence, 26, Boulder, CO, took the lead out the first 5K in 17:04 followed closely within 3 seconds by Preston Johnson, 26, Kaysville, UT, Fernando Cabada, 39, Thornton, CO, and last year’s champion, Kallin Khan, 24, Lisle, IL.
This pace continued the next 5K with all the men bunched together within 6 seconds of one another. Johnson began to pull away at 15K, where he started to build his lead by 55 seconds. At the half way point, 25K, the early pace, climbing temperatures and winds were beginning to take its toll on the leaders as Khan dropped behind the front pack.
Meanwhile Masterson, Lawrence, and Cabada were working together to stay in sight of Johnson who now was gaining 30 seconds each lap. By 35K, Johnson had built a lead to well over 2 minutes dropping all potential threats. Masterson and Cabada continued to run steady with one another waiting for Johnson to wilt in the heat.
Who was this guy? No one knew much about Johnson or what he had done previously, but today he was putting on an amazing race with better known elites looking at his back. At 40K the wheels began to fall of Cabada, and now if anyone could catch Johnson, it would have to be Masterson who was still over 2 minutes behind.
The last lap still had Johnson ahead by just under 2 minutes but was suffering badly and Masterson looked great (later to find out that looks are very deceiving). Masterson put everything on the line when he learned that Johnson was walking part of that final lap. Johnson’s last lap was 20:21 with Masterson’s closing lap at 18:46.
In the end, he ran out of real estate as Johnson crossed the finish in 2:53:20, a mere 38 seconds in front of Masterson’ 2:53:58. Rounding out the top 5 in third place was Cabada 2:55:08, followed by Brendan Martin, 32, New York, NY 4th in 2:59:40, and Andrew Rylaarsdam, 26, Chicago, IL, 5th in 3:04:34.
Preston Johnson earned an automatic selection to the 2021 U.S. 50 km National Team with his win, while Cabada and Martin ran times to qualify them for selection consideration. Masterson has already been named to the team based on his top 10 performance at the 2019 50K would championships in Romania.
After about an hour, Johnson emerged from the medical tent looking no worse for wear. Just a few years ago, he had hip surgery with a 50/50 chance that he would ever run again. A prior trail runner, he took to the roads because he liked the speed and used patience as his guide and a strong belief in himself. Today, Preston Johnson felt that emotion of relief in overcoming the past 8 years of surgery, recovery, injury, depression, and self-doubt. He watched others living his dream and he desperately wanted a piece of it. With a lifetime goal of wearing the USA singlet, today he earned that privilege and will be a member of the U.S. 50 km National Team.
Meanwhile Kyle Masterson, already a 2021 U.S. 50 km National Team member, and crusted in salt said, “This is the most I have sweated in any race. The heat and wind are my enemies, and both were present today.” For Masterson, the best part of the day, was to simply be racing again, and now knows to take nothing for granted. He remembered at the half way point of the race, “I was just smiling, I love this journey, the process of racing again.”
Men’s master’s runners proved that getting older is getting better, and included two new national age group records. The three top masters runners were separated by a mere 63 seconds. First place master was Jonah Backstrom, 47, San Francisco, CA in 3:30:41, 2nd place Alex Hetherington, 54, Vienna, VA, followed Backstrom closely in 3:30:59, and 3rd place Rick Lee, 60, Bayville, NJ, with a new age group record of 3:31:44.
On the ladies’ side, pre-race favorites, Regina Lopez, 30, Azusa, CA, and Sabrina Little, 34, Morehead, KY, figured to be in the hunt for that coveted position on the women’s 50 km National Team. Little is coming off a year with a newborn and Lopez is getting married in two weeks, yet both were focused on this event.
Like the men’s race, the women stuck together in the beginning, with Randi Burnett 37, Dallas, TX and Lauren Ross, 30, Portland, OR, joining the party. The pace stayed even though 20K, when Little dropped back into 4th position. By the half way point, Burnett and Lopez took command of the race, but Lauren Ross, and Lauren Dorsky, 25, New York City, began their moves into the top 4, while Little began to feel the heat of the day.
By 30K, it was becoming a 2 person race between Burnett and Lopez. This was to continue, between the two, however Burnett was increasing the distance between she and Lopez and started to make her move at 35K. Her pace was like a metronome in consistency. That strength and persistence led her to the 2021 USATF 50 km Road Championship win in 3:32:02 and qualifying with a sub 3:33 for the auto select position onto the U.S. 50 km National Team.
Ironically this was Burnett’s first attempt at an ultramarathon. She felt ready to make the ultra-attempt after completing Des Linden’s Destober Challenge during the pandemic, where you run the date in miles every day of the month. Burnett stated, “This was my first attempt to run an ultramarathon. I didn’t expect to win, rather I just came to the race to get my feet wet.”
Following Burnett was 2nd place Lopez in 3:36:11, 3rd position Lauren Dorsky (who first ran the Caumsett 50K as a 16-year-old), 4th was Lauren Ross, and bringing in the top 5 was Sabrina Little in 3:52:54.
Masters runners were right in the mix with the women’s overall results. First masters and 9th overall was Kathy Dormer, 51, Williston Park, NY 4:49:03, 2nd masters and 10th overall was Yvonne Leippert, 53, Coram, NY, 4:56:10, and rounding out the top three masters was Jodi Kartes-Heino, East Quogue, NY in 4:.57:34.
Of special note were the two new age group national records by 60 year old, Rick Lee, Bayville, NJ, running 3:31:44, besting the previous record of 3:35:51 (60-64) by over 4 minutes. Gene Dykes, 73 of Bala Cynwyc, PA, ran 3:56:44 obliterating the previous record of 4:16:03 by almost 20 minutes!
The one singular omnipresent emotion present in all the runners, volunteers, and spectators was the sense of unity in returning to a sense of normalcy. Racing again was all that it took to resume that yearned for normalcy in a sport that has brought great satisfaction to the lives of so many welcome back runners. You all shined today as the doors to opportunities are beginning to open and are to be congratulated on a job done well. That sense of joy and accomplishment, of learning despite mistakes, sportsmanship, and camaraderie is back. Let us never forget what this sport teaches us.
Complete results for the 2021 USATF 50 km Road Championships can be found at this link [PDF].