Race Preview: Northeast Delta Dental Mount Washington Road Race

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mount washington road race2014 winner Joe Gray of Colorado Springs shoots for a rare repeat

Hall of Famer Eric Blake, defending champ Shannon Payne sidelined

Former champs Gutierrez, Gates back to try again

Dobson, Erholtz, Haefeli aim to continue Colorado streak of success

Joe Gray of Colorado Springs, Colo., looks to do something no overall winner of the Northeast Delta Dental Mount Washington Road Race has done in more than a decade in this Saturday’s  55th running of the grueling 7.6-mile foot race up the Mt. Washington Auto Road.

Gray, 31, grabbed his first Northeast Delta Dental Mount Washington Road Race title last year after several near misses and will attempt to become the first repeat winner of the race since Simon Gutierrez doubled up in 2002 and 2003.

On the women’s side, a trio of runners and former winners from Colorado – Kim Dobson, Brandy Erholtz and Laura Haefeli – aim to continue that state’s dominance at the front of the pack. Shannon Payne of Colorado Springs won last year’s race, but is out with an injury. A runner from Colorado has led the women to the top of the highest peak in the Northeast each of the last four years and six of the last seven.

Storylines are plentiful for the race that features some 1,300 runners of all abilities – including many of the best mountain runners in the country as well as an international flavor – ready to tackle the changing and challenging terrain and weather conditions of Mount Washington. The race kicks off at 9 a.m. at the base of the Mt. Washington Auto Road.

Can Gray, 31, who pulled away from defending champion and three-time winner Eric Blake in the second half of last year’s race, capture another win?

With Blake on the sidelines – he had to withdraw late because of an injury and will be inducted into the Mount Washington Road Race Hall of Fame after the race – who will step up to challenge Gray?

Perhaps Rickey Gates, 34, another Coloradoan and a late entry? Gates will race in his first Mount Washington since 2012. He won the race in 2009 and 2011.

Eight different runners have finished the race in under one hour, including Gates and Gray.

Gray won last year in a time of 59:09, 52 seconds in front of Blake. Gates clocked in at 59:58 in his 2009 victory.

In addition, the last three winners have broken the one-hour mark. It is the first time in history that three consecutive winners have been under an hour and only once before had two races in a row been won in under that mark.

As for other contenders, how about Zach Miller, 26, of Manitou Springs, Colo.? He was fourth in a time of 1:02:56 last year in his Northeast Delta Dental Mount Washington Road Race debut.

Gutierrez, 49, and out of Colorado Springs, is a three-time Mount Washington winner and finished sixth last year and is entered. Peter Maksimow, 36, of Manitou Springs, was seventh last year and is back and he and Gutierrez will try to help maintain their state’s mountain running supremacy in New Hampshire. Five of the top seven male finishers in last year’s race were from Colorado.

Gray had finished runner-up in the two races prior to his win and was third a couple of times and fourth once before that.

“You knew there was going to be a year he eventually was going to win it,” Blake said. “Joe’s tough to beat. He has a good combination of both strength and speed. He has solid track times and has run some good half marathons and marathons on the road and he’s a good climber, too.”

Newcomers on the men’s side include Luca Cagnati of Italy, a member of the 2014 Italian Mountain Running Team, and Andy Wacker of Boulder, Colo. Wacker was third behind the second-place Gray in the Vail Pass Half marathon earlier this month and second to Gray the next day in a 10K, also at Vail.

On the local side, can Justin Freeman, 38, of New Hampton, N.H., three-peat? He’s won the Crossan Cup as the top men’s finisher from New Hampshire on the men’s side the last two years and three of the last four. He’s been in the top 10 overall each of the three times he has won it. One of his rivals for Crossan honors is his brother, Kris, 34. Kris was tops from NH in 2010 and was third last year.

The winners of five of the last seven Northeast Delta Dental Mount Washington Road Race women’s races are in the field, setting up what should be an interesting race.

Erholtz (2008 and 2009) and Dobson (2011 and 2012) each won consecutive races and Haefeli won in 2013. Erholtz owns the fastest times of the threesome with a 1:10:53in 2009 and 1:11:08 in 2008. They are the fifth and sixth fastest times in race history.

Dobson’s best is a 1:12:11 from 2011, the 10th fastest time ever in the race. Haefeli won in 2013 in 1:18:05.

Erholtz was third last year behind Payne and Italy’s Valentina Bellotti in 1:15:38.

Denise Sandahl, 34, of Bow, N.H. and Larisa Dannis, 27, of Mill Valley, Calif. aim to move up after finishing fifth and sixth last year. They are also the last two winners of the women’s Crossan Cup.

Sandahl was nine seconds out of fourth place with a time of 1:17:21 last year in her first Mount Washington race. Dannis was running out of Manchester, N.H., two years ago when she was the first New Hampshire finisher and seventh overall in 1:26:59.

Dannis has become a force in long distance running. She won the 50-Mile Road Championship last year and was second in the Western States 100-Mile Race.

Amber Ferreira, 33, of Concord, N.H., is a world class triathlete, and another contender for a top spot. She was seventh in the Northeast Delta Dental Mount Washington Road Race in 2010.

Other New England runners looking for top 10 spots include Abbey Gosling Wood of Laconia, N.H.; Abby Mahoney of Holyoke, Mass.; Ashley Krause of Easthampton, Mass.; and Regina Loicano of Gloucester, Mass.

On another note, George Etzweiler of State College, Pa., is entered again. Etzweiler, 95, was a late scratch from last year’s event because of illness. His son Larry, 69, is also signed up.

The Northeast Delta Dental Mount Washington Road Race begins at the Auto Road base on Route 16 north of Pinkham Notch and climbs to the 6288-foot summit at an average grade of 12 percent and a net altitude gain of 4650 feet.  The runners battle not only each other but the sheer force of gravity and Mt. Washington’s famously severe winds.

Former six-time World Mountain Champion Jonathan Wyatt of New Zealand holds the men’s course record at Mount Washington: 56 minutes 41 seconds, set in 2004.  The women’s record was set in 2010 by the 23-year-old Ethiopian runner Shewarge Amare, who made the ascent in one hour eight minutes 21 seconds.

Northeast Delta Dental has sponsored the race up the historic Mt. Washington Auto Road since 2001.  The dental insurance company, headquartered in Concord, N.H., with sales offices in Saco, Maine, and Burlington, Vt., provides dental benefits to more than 800,000 people in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, including individuals and families, and organizations of all sizes.  Northeast Delta Dental’s President & CEO, Tom Raffio, has run the race in a personal best of 1:50:51. In 2012, Northeast Delta Dental increased its already strong support for the event, making it officially the Northeast Delta Dental Mount Washington Road Race.

Fifty-percent of all proceeds from the race will be donated to Coos County Family Health Services for their oral health programs. Based in nearby Berlin, N.H., this community-based organization provides innovative, personalized, comprehensive health care and social services to everyone, regardless of economic status.

Release provided by Peter Thomsen, Mount Washington Road Race.

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