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Gray, Arritola Victorious at USA Mountain Running Championships

Written by Nancy Hobbs.

Top six earned an automatic spot on the U.S. Mountain Running Team which will compete in Poland this September at the 29th World Mountain Running Championships. - NORTH CONWAY, NH - In a race boasting one of the most talented fields in the history of U.S. mountain running, Joe Gray edged out the competition to win this year’s USA Mountain Running Championships on Sunday, July 21, at the 26th Cranmore Hill Climb presented by Northeast Delta Dental in North Conway, NH.

The 27-year-old from Renton, Wash., was in the hunt from the start. “I went in wanting to make sure I was keeping the race honest. I knew who the heavy contenders were going to be, but I was mostly concerned about Max (King). I know he always keeps it honest and with the addition of Glenn Randall, well, he’s a guy who likes to press too,” said Gray.

“It was a pretty hard effort right from the start. It was competitive,” added Gray, “I thought it was just he (Max) and I (on the downhill), then there were a couple guys that passed us on the downhill and they were flying. I was a bit surprised, even though I knew there were some fast guys. On paper, you looked at the guys and knew it was going to be a painful race and it was definitely painful. I don’t think I started feeling good until the last climb. I think I let off the gas too much, because I thought Max was behind me. It was Zach (Zachary Ornelas), he passed me right before it got a bit rocky, and near the crest of that portion, I passed him and had about five, or six seconds on him. Near the finish, I let off the gas a bit, because I knew I had it.”

Gray finished the 12-kilometer course, which consisted of three 4-kilometer loops on the mountain, in a time of 56:23. In addition to winning the USA Mountain Running title, Gray extended his North American Central American Caribbean (NACAC) Mountain Running Championships winning streak to five consecutive victories and led the U.S. team, comprised of King, Randall, and Ryan Woods, to a gold medal scoring six points. Canada and Mexico each scored 22 points, but Canada’s third scoring member bested the runner from Mexico to take team silver, and Mexico was awarded a bronze medal.

Second to finish, just five minutes after Gray, was newcomer to mountain racing, Ornelas, 22,  followed by 2011 World Mountain Running Champion and 2011 Cranmore champion King, 33, in 56:45.

“My plan was to win, but that didn’t happen,” said King, “The format and the course made a huge difference in how you placed. You can just see how different things favor people. I’d go from first to fourth in every lap and then back to first by the uphill. My downhill is definitely stronger than my uphill, but it was a course that didn’t really favor a downhill runner…a downhill runner wasn’t going to win it. The downhill was straight and pretty good footing so it didn’t slow anybody down, like a technical downhill would. The uphill was pretty brutal.”

“At the bottom of the final climb,” said King, “There were three of us together, I almost moved up to second, Zach was right with me, but I thought he was good climber. My goal was to hold Glenn off and see if I could catch Zach if he was going to fade. My climbing has definitely gotten better and I felt the strongest on the last climb.”

About making his third U.S. Mountain Running Team (2010, 2011, 2013), King said, “It’s a little bittersweet because I did want to win this year since I’m particularly suited to the up/down format. It’s good to make the team and get another chance at an up/down – a format I favor.

“I think we’ve got a really good team. We’ve got a really good group of downhill runners. I think a medal is much more doable and possible this year which will be nice. Individually, after this race it is going to depend on the course. It depends on how technical the downhill is. Every race you want to go in and win, but at the same time I am realistic and I know it will be difficult to repeat what I did in 2011.”

The top six U.S. men earned an automatic spot on the U.S. Mountain Running Team which will compete in Poland this September at the 29th World Mountain Running Championships.

Joining Gray, Ornelas, and King on the mountain team this year, Randall, 26, who finished in fourth place. This will be his second team having been on the 2012 squad. Like Ornelas, fifth- and sixth-place finishers Ryan Hafer, 27, and Alex Nichols, 28, both of Colorado Springs, are first-time team members.

Asked about the U.S. chances in Poland, veteran team member Gray (2008-2013), said, “No doubt we should medal. What medal we get will depend on the day and where the guys are mentally. We have a lot of talent on the team and I’m excited to see what we can do on the world stage. Indivdiually…I always want to improve on what I’ve done before. I’ve gotten tenth, and I’d like to go better than that.”

When asked which of the titles, USA Mountain Champ, NACAC Mountain Champ, or U.S. team member, gave him the most satisfaction, Gray said, “Ultimately representing your country well is the biggest thing, the feat that brings the most happiness to me. Winning the titles – USA and NACAC—I’m very happy for that. It’s good to extend my NACAC to five consecutive, but nothing beats representing your country.”

Hafer, who had previously competed at the 2009 and 2010 selection races, was happy to make this year’s team. “I didn’t have too many expectations going into the race. Expectations can make you worry and you analyze whose going to be there, and how you are going to fit into the mix. At the end of the day they are all just running friends anyway. You want to be happy for them to do well, or them to be happy for you to do well. I put any expectations behind me and have confidence in what I could do and control my race.

“I went out fast,” said Hafer, “I got a little bit behind where I was maybe four or five roads back. At the first downhill it took a bit of work to weave around people to get position. After the first downhill and the turn, you could see it got a bit strung out with Max, Joe, and Glenn in front in a better position than I had. I was in the second group – a close string of guys that hadn’t really broken apart yet. The pace was out-of-control fast. When we got to some of the smoother sections it felt a bit more relaxed. You can’t recover on an uphill, so I wanted to use each of the downhills and feel smooth, but still try to push it. I was in about sixth place with Andy and Brandon (Birdsong). I started to lose Brandon on the climb. Partly uphill one of the Canadians and Zach passed me. I wanted to feel as good as I could and save as much as I could after the first lap and then see how much I could start pushing from there. I definitely didn’t want to try and compete and worry about the first lap too much, just tried to get through it.

“After the first lap, I was in about seventh or eighth place. At the downhill I passed a few guys and put some distance on Zach until the uphill where he passed me. He was looking pretty strong. By the top of the climb, he was well ahead on his way to catching the top four guys (Glenn, Joe, Max, Andy Waker). Zach passed Andy by the top and I was about 20-30 meters behind Andy going down on the third loop. I was looking forward to reeling him in on the downhill, but he was running strong. I didn’t quite catch him on the downhill, but thought I would catch him on the uphill because he looked a bit tired on the last hill. I passed Andy near the end of the climb and I looked back and Alex was closing in, about 50 meters back. I figured he was doing well because I didn’t know he was back there. Andy was walking some section of the last climb and I was running just enough to go a little faster than him. On the very last 100 meters, I needed to pass Andy because Alex was coming on strong and I knew he wanted to be in the top six too. I knew I had to push it out to the finish. So I ended up going by Andy and kept that pace until it started to level out a bit and tried to pick it up and sprint in to hold off Alex if he was coming in too.”

Hafer plans to learn as much as he can about the travel and race experience for the upcoming trip to Worlds in Poland. Prior to that, Hafer, like Nichols, will run the Pikes Peak Marathon, this year’s USA Trail Marathon Championships. Hafer is a past winner of the Pikes Peak Ascent and Nichols was second in the Pikes Peak Marathon last year.

In the women’s race at Cranmore, which started at 8:15 a.m., one hour ahead of the men’s race, 2012 World Mountain Running Championships individual bronze medalist Morgan Arritola, ran stride for stride for much of the race with her 2012 mountain team member Stevie Kremer.

Arritola, 27,  bested Kremer, 29, by 19 seconds over the 8-kilometer course comprised of two four kilometer loops to win in 42:31. Rounding out the top three was 2008 Olympic marathon runner Magdalena Lewy-Boulet, 39, who posted a time of 44:52. “I’ve done a lot of marathons,” Lewy-Boulet said to race director Paul Kirsch, “But this is the hardest race I’ve ever done.”

Lewy-Boulet, with her third-place finish earned a spot on her first U.S. Mountain Running Team and will join two-time team members Arritola, Kremer and fourth-place finisher Megan Kimmel (2008 and 2009 team member),  in Poland for the World Mountain Running Championships where they hope to defend their 2012 gold-medal.

In the NACAC competition, the U.S. women swept the top four places and won gold with three points (the men scored the top three, while the women scored the top two). The U.S. women on the NACAC team included Arritola in first followed by Megan Lizotte in second, Amber Reece-Young in third, and Michele Yates in fourth. Team Canada finished with 11 points in silver-medal position, followed by Mexico with 19 points for the bronze medal.

Complete results from Cranmore are posted at this link. Follow the U.S. Mountain Running Team, including the announcement of the junior team, and their travels to Poland. Learn more about the USATF championships program at

{photo: Mike Scott)