Not only did the strong U.S. women’s team race to a third place team finish, but every American who started the race made it to the finish – a first in the 4 year history of the Trail World Championships. U.S. men’s team scored two top 10 finishes lead by Mario Mendoza and Zach Miller.
Team USATF was awake early on Saturday to fuel-up and gear-up for the 6 AM start on the track at Universitat Jaume in the seaside city of Castellón, Spain. Team members Dani Filipek, Clare Gallagher, Kaytlyn Gerbin, Amy Leedham, Sabrina Little, Sarah Pizzo, Olin Berger, Mario Mendoza, Zach Miller, Zach Ornelas and Chris Raulli were a little nervous but quietly confident as they piled into vans for the 15 minute drive under a pitch black sky. Upon arriving at the otherwise deserted Universitat, a stream of cars, vans and buses drove towards a brightly lit track & field stadium at the edge of campus. The stadium was buzzing with excitement as over 350 athletes from 50 countries packed into the start area surrounded but many hundreds more spectators and supporters.
“I felt a lot of pressure racing for Team USATF which is a huge honor and it made me race smarter.” said first time team member Sarah Pizzo from Lakewood, Colorado. She and the other 10 team members had their gear checked before entering the wide open infield of the track to warm-up, take last minute photos and receive encouragement from friends & family in attendance.
With rock music blaring, athletes waited anxiously, packed tightly behind the start line as the final minutes and then seconds counted down to zero. With a bang, cowbells and horns, the runners were off, sprinting around the track as if the race was considerably shorter than the 86.4 kilometers of hard trail that lay ahead. Game on.
Over a dozen friends, family and supporters left the track in a convoy of cars & a van connected only by a group SMS and loose plan to watch and the support the runners now making their way out of Castellón to the trails on the edge of town.
While supporters & staff could cheer on the U.S. athletes from anywhere along the course, only two team staff members at a time could crew runners at the three designated aid stations at 31, 40 and 62 kilometers along the route. Due to limited parking at aid stations, Team Manager Richard Bolt & Assistant Team Manager Anita Ortiz drove straight to aid station 1 from the start to get set up in a very small town square in the hilltop village of Useres (31 km).
In first place overall, Zach rolled into the aid station 2 hours & 35 minutes into the race and took only seconds to swap out his hydration vest. 6 minutes later a focused and controlled Mario swung around the plaza fountain in the top 15 overall. According to Mario, “I aggravated an already sore toe in the first few kilometers early on but stayed positive, keep moving and by the time I reached Useres it was feeling much better”.
21 minutes after Zach Miller came through, a relaxed Olin and somewhat shell-shocked Zach Orenlas came into aid station 1 together. “It’s really hot out there!”, exclaimed Zach. Once Olin and Zach left Useres staff member Richard Bolt made an early exit to set-up aid station 2 just 9 kilometers away while Anita Ortiz serviced the U.S. women and Chris Raulli who was having a tough race early on.
Aid station 2 (40.6 km) was located in the slightly larger town of Atzeneta inside a gymnasium with national team (half) tables spread out giving athletes & crew slightly more elbow room. Unlike at most long trail races, officials were enforcing strict IAAF rules for aid stations including the requirement that crew had to service athletes within 1 meter of the (half) table – a difficult task with one runner and an impossible task with multiple runners.
First into Atzeneta was Zach Miller, 3 hours and 37 minutes into the race. Zach made another blazing fast vest swap before exiting the gymnasium bound for the trails on the edge of town. 6 minutes later Mario popped into aid station 2 followed by Olin who was now 27 minutes off the lead. Olin said he felt fine and took a little more time to retie his shoes while getting bottles refilled. “I’ve never before had a race in which the pleasurable experiences overshadowed the pain of an ultra. I’m happy with my race and maybe more so with the fact that I actually enjoyed it.” said Olin.
At this point Anita Ortiz rejoined the crew having packed up aid station 1 and raced down the twisty roads from Useres. Aid station 2 was also the point where athletes started taking on ice – stuffed into the back of their vests, down their chests, in hats and ice bandanas – basically any place ice would fit.
21 minutes after Olin departed Atzeneta, Clare Gallagher jogged into the gymnasium and wolfed down a ginger ale while getting her bottles refilled. 2 minutes later a relaxed Sabrina Little quietly made her way to the table taking on Coke and getting her vest restocked. As Sabrina turned to leave, steam escaped from the top of her back from the ice melting against a body in full ultra mode. 5 minutes later and 4 hours, 25 minutes into the race, Kaytlyn Gerbin fueled up at Atzeneta, followed by Sarah Pizzo 4 minutes after that. Several athletes including Sarah took on poles for the steeper, technical uphill trails that lay ahead.
Just behind Sarah, Chris Raulli came into aid station 2 looking roughed up by the technical trails. “I had high expectations going into the raced based off of success I’ve had on American courses, however I quickly realized after a couple climbs that this race was going to be unlike anything I’ve trained on or raced before.” said Chris.
The aid station shuffle began anew as Richard took off for aid station 3 with two athlete spouses while Anita stayed behind to service the final few U.S. runners.
Aid station 3 was located on the aptly named hilltop village of Vistabella (62 km) inside a very tightly packed gymnasium. Here athletes were met with a checkpoint for mandatory gear – a common requirement in most long distance European trail races.
Five hours, 51 minutes into the race a weary but laser focused Zach Miller entered the gymnasium in first place and went into full “animal” mode, devouring oranges and gulping down ginger ale as crew members poured an entire gallon of water on his head and reloaded him with a new vest. Before Zach left, eventual winner and 2 time Trail World Champion Luis Alberto Hernando from Spain entered the gymnasium and the Spanish fans erupted in cheers. “He was so fast on the downhills,” said Zach. “Luis blew by me not even a kilometer after Vistabella.”
Thirteen minutes later Mario came into Vistabella moving up in the rankings just as Zach was slipping after an impressively heroic start. “I had to embrace the pain and my animal instincts to get the most out of my body,” said Mario. “I was not thinking about pace; just the terrain and how I was going to match its rhythm.”
Fifty three minutes off the lead but very much in control, America’s 3rd runner and last scoring team member Olin Berger came into Vistabella. “Running with the incredible U.S. squad, the unrelenting support from spectators, and the gorgeous course (even the vertical “trails”) made for an unforgettable experience.” said Olin. He would continue on a steady pace to an eventual 37th place finish against the best trail runners in the world.
Seven hours, 17 minutes into the race Clare Gallagher was leading a trio of U.S. women working their way up in the rankings with each passing kilometer. Wearing some dirt on her singlet, Clare had clearly been down on the trail but she was far from letting the tough, technical Penyagolosa trails take her out. According to Clare, “I feel like a broken record after every ultra trail race, ‘that was so hard.’ But the Penyagalosa Trail World Championship race was memorably difficult.”
Sabrina Little kept the blue train going coming in just 5 minutes later and a couple places behind Clare. In another 5 minutes Kaytlyn swung into Vistabella and 5 minutes after that, Sarah Pizzo made it to aid station 3. Coaches and the Internet were doing heavy maths as it looked like the U.S. women could be pulling themselves up to a podium finish. Not to be left out the of blue train, Amy Leedham hit Vistabella 12 minutes later. 62 km and over 7 hours into a hard, hard race Team USATF had 5 women with in 30 minutes of each other.
While not as close to their teammates as they would have hoped, Zach Ornelas and Chris Raulli came into Vistabella looking worn but determined to make it to the finish. Both requested salt tabs – got iced up, fueled up and cooled down before heading into the final stretch of Penyagolosa Trails.
Sporting an “America’s Sweetheart” tattoo Dani wasn’t having the greatest race but the positive energy and spirit she exuded with every step was making her the team’s greatest cheerleader. “Each woman has so many different strengths and lessons to give to someone like me who is just entering the ultra scene, it’s beyond words how amazing each individual is.” Said Dani. “They all have left a mark on the sport and it’s so cool to be apart of something so big, so glad to be apart of team USA!”
Following Dani’s departure from Vistabella over a dozen friends, family and the team staff set-out for Sant Joan – the finish line just 15 km by road and nestled in a high mountain valley in the shadow of Penyagolosa mountain.
First to the finish was 3 time U.S. Trail Team member Mario Mendoza who improved on his 2017 result by 3 places to finish 6th in the men’s race. “It makes you appreciate the opportunity more with two successful races after my disastrous 2016 Trail World Championship. That experience made me keep fighting and keep coming back for more.”
U.S. super-crew member and trail running phenom Hillary Allen was the first to greet an emotional Zach Miller who crossed the finish having dropped back to 8th place. A favorite going into the race, it wasn’t Zach’s style to play it safe and run for a top 5 or even just a podium finish; instead he took a big risk to lead the race and opened up a 4 minute gap at one point. “I knew Luis would be very fast on the downhills so I had to push hard on the uphills to create a gap,” said Zach.
40 minutes after Zach, Olin charged down the final stretch of smooth trail before rounding the corner and running onto the red carpet for 37th place. The combined time for Mario, Zach and Olin was good enough for 4th place in the team competition, just 21 minutes behind bronze medalists France.
At 4:35 PM Clare came into the final few hundred meters asking about how her teammates were doing and knowing that every second could count in the team competition. She would finish in 8th followed shortly after by Kaytlyn in 10th and Sabrina in 12th. Their cumulative time would be good enough for a bronze medal – the first medal of any type for U.S. women at a Trail World Championship. Also contributing to the U.S. women’s victory were Sarah (22nd), Amy (36th) and Dani (68th).
Finishing his first ever European trail race, Zach Ornelas rallied back and looked smooth on the final stretch of trail en-route to 86th place. Chris channeled Mario’s experience at the 2016 Trail World Championship with shedloads of “I will not quit” and will power driving him to collapse a few meters past the finish line in 142nd place.
According to Chris, “It was obviously a disappointing result but I am proud about what I was able to push through. I couldn’t thank my family and teammates enough for the support out there and I’m very excited about how both the men’s and women’s team did on this challenging course. I made a lot of new friends this week, and I hope to be on another team in the future. Go USA!”
You can find over 130 photos of the U.S. athletes at the Trail World Championships on Google Photos.
After a tough and joyous day the U.S. Trail Team left Sant Joan (elevation 4000′) together and piled into the team van for the long, twisty drive back down to the seaside town of Benicàssim. The clock struck 10:00 PM as the weary athletes entered the hotel, 17 hours after leaving it.
The women’s U.S. Trail Team received their bronze medals and all the athletes were honored the following day at the awards ceremony in Benicàssim. You can find photos of the awards ceremony here.
US Trail Team Results:
MEN Individual (162 finishers):
6 – Mario MENDOZA – (Bend, Oregon) UNITED STATES – 09:00:31
8 – Zach MILLER – (Manitou Springs, Colorado) UNITED STATES – 09:12:31
37 – Olin BERGER – (Seattle, Washington) UNITED STATES – 09:53:32
86 – Zach ORNELAS – (Plymouth, Michigan) TEAM UNITED STATES – 11:07:46
142 – Chris RAULLI – (Charlotte, North Carolina) UNITED STATES – 13:27:11
1st place – TEAM SPAIN
1 – Luis Alberto HERNANDO (08:38:35)
2 – Cristofer CLEMENTE (08:46:19)
13 – Pablo Manuel VILLA (09:20:14)
TOTAL team time: 26:45:08
2nd place – TEAM UNITED KINGDOM
3 – Thomas EVANS (08:49:35)
4 – Jonathan ALBON (08:53:41)
16 – Ryan SMITH (09:25:50)
TOTAL team time: 27:09:06 (00:23:58 back)
3rd place – TEAM FRANCE
5 – Ludovic POMMERET (08:58:12)
7 – Romain MAILLARD (09:10:18)
19 – Adrien MICHAUD (09:36:22)
TOTAL team time: 27:44:52 (00:59:44 back)
4th place – TEAM UNITED STATES
6 – Mario MENDOZA (09:00:31)
8 – Zach MILLER (09:12:31)
37 – Olin BERGER (09:53:32)
TOTAL team time: 28:06:34 (01:21:26 back)
WOMEN Individual (105 finishers):
8 – Clare GALLAGHER – (Boulder, Colorado) UNITED STATES – 10:36:37
10 – Kaytlyn GERBIN – (Issaquah, Washington) UNITED STATES – 10:39:40
12 – Sabrina LITTLE – (Waco, Texas) UNITED STATES – 10:45:27
22 – Sarah PIZZO – (Lakewood, Colorado) UNITED STATES – 11:11:25
36 – Amy LEEDHAM – (Larkspur, California) UNITED STATES – 11:59:27
68 – Dani FILIPEK – (Rochester Hills, Michigan) UNITED STATES – 12:58:09
1st place – TEAM SPAIN
2 – Laia CAÑES (10:11:11)
4 – Gemma ARENAS (10:25:58)
5 – Maite MAYORA (10:28:20)
TOTAL team time: 31:05:29
2nd place – TEAM FRANCE
3 – Claire MOUGEL (10:15:23)
7 – Adeline ROCHE (10:32:05)
14 – Amandine FERRATO (10:50:05)
TOTAL team time: 31:37:33 (00:32:04 back)
3rd place – TEAM UNITED STATES
8 – Clare GALLAGHER (10:36:37)
10 – Kaytlyn GERBIN (10:39:40)
12 – Sabrina LITTLE (10:45:27)
TOTAL team time: 32:01:44 (00:56:15 back)
Complete results can be found on Live Trail.
Additional quotes from the U.S. Trail Team:
Mario Mendoza – “This race tests your commitment. Finishing 6th was very emotional as representing my team & country is the biggest joy I get from racing.”
Dani Filipek – “Running has brought me so many opportunities to see the world and meet amazing people, Penyagolosa was one of those amazing opportunities. The women’s team was incredible and are positive role models for so many young distance runners. The determination the top ladies had to earn the bronze in Spain was just phenomenal be apart of.”
Clare Gallagher – “It was so rocky, punchy and relentlessly hot. To come home with a 3rd place team finish was huge. And, this race experience is way more about the people than the place. So many people to connect and celebrate with. Having a proper World Championship is an incredible way to grow and heighten the competition in trail ultrarunning.”
Sarah Pizzo – “I was not just racing for me out there. As a women’s team we discussed going out conservatively and never planned to race together, but it was a huge moral boost and intimidated other runners when 3 USA jerseys passed. I was nervous using trail running poles for some sections of the course but got used to them after a couple kilometers and they really helped on the steep uphills.”
Kaytlyn Gerbin – “Racing Penyagalosa as part of a team was such an amazing experience. I had the pleasure of running with each woman on the team at some point during the race – everyone has their own strengths, and we definitely used that to help pull one another along. I’m proud of what all of us did out on the trails!”
Olin Berger – “I’m proud to be part of a team that had not only some remarkable performances, but also one in which every member crossed the finish line. I think we did a great job representing the strength of U.S. ultra-running. It also turns out jámon is a pretty good hotdog substitute.”
Zach Ornelas – “I’ve never done anything that difficult in my entire life. It was absolutely brutal. I’m proud to be part of a US team where nobody dropped on a really tough day; it shows how mentally tough this squad is.”
Chris Raulli – “My experience at my first World Championship was amazing. After the first few technical, steep climbs I changes my expectations from focusing on place and to just run withing my limits on those hills and it became me vs the course. I had a little second wind around miles 25-40 and every time we hit a short flat segment I’d pass a handful of guys ahead of me, but around 40 miles things started to shut down. At about 48 miles things were getting bad, I knew I had only about a mile of uphill until the next aid staion and just focused on making it there, but everything was spinning, I was out of all fluids and I had to hike for about 1 min and sit in the shade for 5 min a half dozen times to get to the station. I hobbled into the station, knowing that there was absolutely no was i could dnf with my family here and with the USA on my chest. Knowing that my family was probably worried about where I was, i got out my phone to give my wife a call to tell her I’m making my way to the finish, but there was no service. I downed two cans of sodas and just started making my way. A short time after I heard my phone ring and it was my mom calling me, I answered and said “I’m 2 miles away, I’ll die before I DNF this race, I’ll see you guys soon.” With a bit of an emotional boost, the sugar and a decent downhill finish I dragged myself to that line, immediately into the medical tent.”