Throwback Thursday: 1999 World Mountain Running Trophy Race Report

Written by Nancy Hobbs and Dave Dunham and originally published in September 1999 as a Microsoft Word document distributed via email. Beginning in 2009, the World Mountain Running Trophy was upgraded to the World Mountain Running Championship by the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF). 

Kundasang, located in the state of Sabah in the country of Malaysia on the island of Borneo, was the site of the 15th World Mountain Running Trophy Race on Sunday, September 19, 1999. The events were held in Mount Kinabalu National Park whose namesake towers far above the surrounding region at 13,436 feet. A record 33 countries participated in the five events to include senior men, senior women, junior men, junior women, and an open race. The United States fielded runners in both senior events and the open race.

The President of Malaysia greeted members of the host women’s team at the opening ceremonies.

The day started well for the US as David Eckley, a 42-year-old real estate broker from Telluride, Colorado, won the open race with a time of 38:24. Eckley, a top masters runner on the US mountain circuit, took command after the initial 2K loop, not surprising since the start and finish line were located at an oxygen-laden elevation of 5,100 feet and Eckley’s home in Colorado is at a red blood cell-producing 12,000 feet. The course climbed and dropped more than 1,600 feet over the 7.8K multi-loop dirt track, winding its way through tropical rain forest with intermittent running on pavement. Eckley seemed pleased with his win noting, “I’ve never won a race, let alone an international one.” The top three finishers were masters in a field of 47 runners representing 18 countries.

US athletes Paul Low, Richard Bolt and Dan Verrington being interviewed before the race.

The championship events followed the open race. All of the events were held under cloudy skies with temperatures ranging from 65 to 70 degrees. Mount Kinabalu was visible in the distance early in the day, but by mid-afternoon, the summit was hidden behind a thick band of clouds. The senior women ran the same 7.8K course as the open race and the junior men’s course. Thirty-three-year-old Cassy Bradley-Byrne, Pottstown, PA and a two-time team member, led the field during the initial 2K paved section.

After 5K the US had all four runners (three score) in the top 45. Suzy West, a 36-year-old dentist from Putney, VT, in her first international mountain race, utilized her strong downhill running ability to take the top US spot. West finished 30th in 44:31. Multi-sport athlete and three-time team member Danelle Ballengee, 28, Dillon, CO, was close behind in 32nd with at time of 44:35. Five-time Olympic trials qualifier, and first-time mountain team member, Julie Peterson, 39, Beverly, MA, rounded out the scoring in 42nd (46:36). Bradley-Byrne succumbed to a muscle injury, but gamely held on to finish in 45th (47:01).

The race course went up and down steep jungle trails on the lower slope of Mt Kinabalu.

“I ONLY fell twice,” Peterson stated as she inspected a scratched leg and bruised arm. Rota Gelpi Rosita of Italy took the victory in 38:00 leading her team (four in the top 12) to the win with ten points. The US women had their best finish in five trips to the World Mountain Running Trophy taking tenth place with 104 points among the 17 teams entered.

The men’s team looked to improve on last year’s finish. The six runners would test themselves on the 12.5K spectator-friendly course which featured four loops leaving ample opportunity to cheer on runners from 27 countries. The race looked to be a battle between last year’s “up” champion, Jonathan Wyatt (NZL), and Marco De Gasperi (ITA), the “up/down” champion of 1997. The crowds were not disappointed as they staged a battle throughout.

Other parts of the course including paved park roads connecting trail sections.

De Gasperi powered to the win in the final loop with Wyatt fading to 7th (54:56 to 57:04). Scott Gall, Colorado Springs, CO, ran from the front (as high as third) to take fifth in 56:42. The 25-year-old Gall was the top US scoring runner in the 1997 Worlds and his finish was the best for a US runner since 1993. Paul Low, 25, Bend, OR, was originally selected as the first alternate but moved up to the team when Dave Dunham, 35, Bradford, MA, was injured competing in a mountain race earlier this summer. Low showed the depth of the US team by taking the second spot in 62:04 good for 42nd place overall. Richard Bolt, 29, Pepperell, MA, was running in his first mountain championships and took 62nd in 64:15. Jeremy Wright, 25, Laramie, WY, and Dan Verrington, 37, Bradford, MA, finished 73rd and 74th respectively (65:43 to 65:48). Wright rounded out the scoring for team USA.

“I only saw Jeremy on the first and last lap, and just couldn’t close on him,” noted six-time team member Verrington. Tom Anderson, 34, Keene, NH, in his first international race, was the final US finisher in 71:27 placing 88th. “I was trying to hold off the guy with a walker,” quipped Anderson. The team took ninth place with 182 points as Italy was once again the team champion with 23 points.

There were some very large bugs in Malaysia.

The week in Malaysia was quite busy with activities, or meetings scheduled each day. One event during the stay that had all of the athletes raising their brows was dubbed, “Momulanggah.” This turned out to be the blessing ritual (the sacrifice of a chicken) conducted by 20 Bobolian tribespeople during the opening ceremonies. That evening at dinner, the non-descript meat was bypassed by some of the athletes.

Meals were served three times a day consisting mainly of rice, eggs, vegetables and fruit. Fortunately the gift shop sold candy bars and ice cream snacks — always a busy spot post-dinner. During free time, team members enjoyed short walks along a gravel road through neighboring villages to the local market.

Dave Dunham and Suzy West ready for a long bus ride.

The 2 ½ hour bus rides to and from Kota Kinabalu (arrival city), enabled the teams to view the hilly landscape and surrounding villages where most of the homes were built on stilts so that only the most athletic of rats and snakes could enter the living quarters. The bus drivers were most adept at navigating the winding motorway that often had signs of “AWAS” which meant caution. It was most interesting that the reason for the caution was never explained and could mean either road damage ranging from marked erosion to complete washouts, or that a village was around the bend and speed was not an option for fear of careening into a herd of water buffalo or goats.

Another part of the program was the annual meeting of the World Mountain Running Association (WMRA). Team managers Nancy Hobbs and Dave Dunham attended as the US representatives. Discussions centered around the budget, the WMRA relationship with the IAAF, and the future growth of mountain running.The high point of the meeting was the bidding for the next up/down race to be held in 2001. The bids from Arte Terme, Italy and Sedbergh, England were both very well delivered and the decision came down to a single vote. Italy won by a count of 11 to 10. Innsbruck, Austria expressed interest in hosting the 2002 race which will be an uphill year.

Bergen Germany will host the World Mountain Running Trophy events on September 10, 2000. More information can be found at: [website no longer active]

Editor’s Notes: Where are they now? Nancy Hobbs is the founder & Executive Director ATRA, Chairperson of USA Track & Field’s Mountain, Ultra, Trail Council and Treasurer of the WMRA. In addition to being an accomplished masters athlete, Dave Dunham went on to organize several successful, mountain, trail and snowshoe races, coached the junior US Mountain Running Team and ran to the high-point of all 351 towns in Massachusetts. Danelle Ballengee organizes several successful trail races in Moab, Utah including the national championship designated Moab Trail Marathon. Jonathan Wyatt lives in Italy and is the President of the WMRA. Scott Gall and his wife Sarah live in Cedar Falls, IA where they are owners of the Runner’s Flat speciality running store. Richard Bolt spent 15 years in distribution & software operations before becoming Director of Marketing for ATRA. Suzy West is an accomplished mountain runner who has competed at the World Masters Mountain Running Championships and is still a dentist in Vermont. Jeremy Wright competed in four World Mountain Running Trophy races before joining the US Army after the September 11 terrorist attacks. He died on January 3, 2005 in a roadside bomb attack while serving during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. The Jeremy Wright Memorial 5K his held each year in his honor.

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