Story by Nancy Hobbs, Photos by Richard Bolt – Silver and bronze for Team USA at World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships
Zermatt, Switzerland ——Team USA had good reason to celebrate their national holiday today in Zermatt, Switzerland, with double silver on the men’s side and bronze on the women’s at the 12th World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships.
Leading the men to a silver medal team finish was Andy Wacker, 26, Boulder, Colorado, who posted a time of 3:03:51 to earn individual silver and 2000 Swiss Francs. Wacker’s teammate and fellow Coloradoan Peter Maksimow, 35, Colorado Springs, finished just inside the money earning 100 Swiss Francs with a solid15th place effort in a time of 3:19:45. Rounding out the team scoring was Mario Mendoza, 29, Bend, Oregon, timed in 3:21:46. David Roche, 26, Mountain View, California finished 35th in 3:32:09.
Italy placed three athletes in the top five to take gold with champion Tommaso Vaccina in 3:01, third-place Francesco Puppi in 3:04, and Massimo Mei in fifth in 3:07:55. Team Kenyan, looking solid early in the race, faded as the climbs began, but still managed to score the bronze medal.
“I thought Kenyan would be unbeatable,” said Wacker who led through ten miles. “We (three Kenyans and me) were running in a pack and for some reason they kicked at the 20k mark. Once they settled down (after the surge), and once the climb started, it was me and just one of the Kenyans (last year’s winner Paul Michieka). We made a big gap after mile 15, and at 20 miles, he got a bit ahead. I thought I could catch him, and I did and we were neck-and-neck for about 3 miles during a rolling part of the course.
“I could tell he was kind of hurting after we hit the technical section – rocks and steep terrain, but I just waited and waited and waited. And then the last mile and a half, I passed him. Then I got probably too excited. The whole end (of the course) is really hard. The Italian guy passed me and he got a little bit on me. We were both kind of power hiking and he just basically blew me away.”
Asked if he felt he had second place locked at that time Wacker said, “Well sort of. I looked back…obviously if you’re power hiking it’s never in the bag until you cross the finish.”
Wacker admitted that he wanted to win, but he said, “I was better than last year when I took bronze at Pikes Peak.”
Asked about the experience in Zermatt, Wacker said, “The race exceeded my expectations in terms of scenery and the course – never a dull moment. The switchbacks, the stairs through town…it was kind of cool. A true mountain course.”
Mendoza, who was second American through the half marathon, said, “That first half was pretty smooth – still some good climbs, but nothing crazy. Once I hit miles 16-17-18 – the real steep parts, I kind of struggled there. I started going backwards (in terms of place) and then from miles 18-21 which were a little flatter the altitude didn’t affect me so much.
“Peter caught me around mile 18 and we ran really well as a team through 22 miles. We really tried to work together. Then I fell pretty hard, but I think the adrenaline got me going again. We saw one of the Kenyan guys coming back to us, and I thought we had a chance at silver and that kind of pumped Peter and I up. The last three miles I struggled. I can do climbing like this in Bend, but the altitude – it’s hard. I knew I had to keep pushing and stay strong. The last 1000 meters was really tough. We had to go around, up, and back down to the finish. Peter really looked good on that last part and it was great to have a teammate there. If I was just running for an individual result, I might have fallen back more. The team made it a lot more motivating.”
Mendoza’s favorite parts of the course were the views toward the end. “Once you start getting higher, the Matterhorn…it’s like right over your head…it’s surreal,” reflected Mendoza. “And to have all these guys from other countries, that’s really great. Through town was really fun too. The excitement of the crowd…stuff like this is what you run for. It’s a dream.”
That spirit of European racing was echoed by Maksimow who said, “I think Europeans are so educated in the sport. It makes you feel like a professional athlete. Everyone in town…it gets you so motivated. They’re out there cheering you on, saying your name because it’s on your bib. I ran Jungfrau (marathon) last year and it seemed like the same race in terms of support. We need this kind of support and education in the U.S. Maybe then the sport would be as glamorous.”
On the women’s side, the host country dominated with four athletes in the top ten including champion Martina Strahl who blazed the course in 3:21:38, more than nine minutes ahead of second place finisher Aline Camboulives of France who clocked 3:29:45. Rounding out the top three was Catherine Bertone who led Italy to a silver medal team finish posting a time of 3:33:56.
The U.S. women, led by fourth-place finisher Stevie Kremer, 31, Crested Butte, Colorado, in 3:32:09, took the bronze. Fellow Coloradoans Brandy Erholtz, 37, Evergreen, and Megan Kimmel, 35, Silverton, rounded out the scoring in 3:48:44 (15th place) and 3:48:59 (16th place) respectively. Maria Dalzot, 27, Bellingham, WA, ran within one minute of her goal time to finish in 3:54 in 18th position, followed by Megan Roche, Mountain View, CA, 25, in 21st place timed in 3:55:45.
The women’s prize money went ten deep – unlike the men’s purse, which was 15 deep – thus Kremer was the only U.S. woman in the money earning 700 Swiss Francs. (The race field was roughly 28% women and the prize purse for women represented roughly 38% of the total purse of 22600 Swiss Francs.)
Kremer won the Jungfrau Marathon in 2012 when it hosted the World Long Distance Championships with a time of 3:22:42, a time she thought she could equal in Zermatt. “It rolls a little more than Jungfrau, but Jungfrau is steeper,” said Kremer. “It would have been nice to preview the whole course – that would have been helpful.”
Kremer and Kimmel ran through the halfway point together in seventh position, followed by Erholtz four minutes later in fifteenth. “The first half of the race is mostly flat, and that’s not my forte,” said Kremer. “And you’re surrounded by girls and it is their forte so you wonder if you should keep them in sight, or let them go and concentrate on your strengths. I knew not to keep them in sight because I’ve raced them before and I focused on my strength – the climb. I ended up running a lot of the climb by myself. I passed four girls including a Russian, Swiss, and Italian.”
“In Zermatt, Stevie pulled away. She just took over on the uphill,” said Kimmel. “It was really hard come 25k. I started getting cramps and that kind of slowed things down to survival.
“Coming out of Zermatt before Gant, there was a longer climb than I expected and I could have used some hydration at that point,” said Kimmel. “The course was really good after that, but my cramps made it tough.”
Kimmel reflected on her effort saying, “I was happy with my start. I felt like I paced pretty well, I just wish I was better trained for it. In the past four weeks, I was lacking a long run…14 miles just doesn’t cut it. Going into Zermatt I felt good – I kept my eye on the group in front, but everything changed after Zermatt.
“I didn’t see Brandy until about 37k and then ran with her for a bit. She was pretty good on the climbing – I think she had a really consistent race.”
Brandy concurred with Kimmel’s assessment, “I was pretty solid the whole race. I was still thinking maybe a top ten, but through the race…none of the women were coming back. I really don’t think I could have done anything better. I drank enough and took enough fuel. It’s a tough race.”
At the 8:30 a.m. race time, temperatures hovered in the upper 60s under a cloudless sky in St. Niklaus located at an elevation of1085 meters. The course wound up the valley through the town of Zermatt, elevation 1600 meters, which marked the halfway point in the race. When the first runners came through Zermatt, the temperatures were already reaching the 70s. After a total ascent of 1944 meters, and 444 meters of descent, competitors arrived at the finish line at Riffelberg, elevation 2585 meters. The temperatures, like the altitude, increased through the day making hydration and fueling even more important for the nearly 2000 runners who took part in the Championships (a total of 52 women and 62 men representing 22 countries with 15 complete men’s teams and 11 complete women’s teams), and the associated events which included an open marathon, half marathon, ultra and marathon relay. Complete results are posted at www.datasport.com.
Next on the race calendar for many of the U.S. Long Distance Mountain Running Team members will be the USATF Mountain Running Championships in Bend, Oregon, on July 25. The event serves at the selection race for the 2015 U.S. Mountain Running Team that will compete at the World Mountain Running Championships in Wales on September 19. The course in Bend, like the World Championships course in Wales, will be 12k for the men and 8k for the women.