Brutal course causes attrition for Team USA
At the Trail World Championships in Portugal on Saturday, October 29, Team USA was at a deficit from the start. With injuries plaguing the initial ten-member squad (5 men/5 women), only seven made the trip to Portugal (4 men/3 women). With the cumulative finish time of three athletes counting for a team score, the women had no leeway from the start, whereas the men had the luxury of just one potential drop.
With a record 38 countries participating in this second annual Trail World Championships, competition would be as heated as the forecast temperatures, which would be unseasonably warm for late October. The 85-kilometer course boasting over 5000 meters of ascent, would be as challenging as the temperatures and require additional planning on the part of the athletes on the start line at 5 a.m. in Geres.
There was no doubt that the highly technical course would test the strength and endurance – both mental and physical – of the 234 starters in the race.
Illuminated by the steady glow of runners’ headlamps and a brightly lit archway on the Rio Caldo bridge which spans the Cavado River, the countdown ensued and the field was led by an ATV for approximately 2 kilometers to the first steep ascent on loose, rocky gravel. Darkness added to the challenge of the climb, as well as the first two and a half hours of the race.
By the first aid station 30 kilometers into the race, the US was down to two women insuring the squad would not post a score. Larisa Dannis, last of Team USA into the first aid station, was the first casualty for the team. Struggling into the aid station with severe and unrelenting stomach issues, Dannis was forced to drop.
Second for Team USA to drop was early leader for the US women, YiOu Wang, who called it a day at aid station number two, 54 kilometers into the race. Wang, with tendonitis in her right knee, suffered through the descents and reached the aid station with quivering quads and numbness down to her ankle.
This left just Corrine Malcolm for the women who encountered her own challenges along the way including twice running out of water, and once being saved from a lurking cow by an Argentinian runner.
But Malcolm was steadfast, reaching the final aid station at 74 kilometers still smiling. With a quick change of shoes and replenished fuel, Malcolm zipped out of the aid station ready to tackle the final 12 kilometers to the finish line. She would face just 160 meters of climbing, but a quad-busting 1200 meters of descent.
“That was a race of attrition from like mile 12,” said Malcolm. “I climbed really well passing women, but I failed miserably on the downhill. I don’t think I have any toenails. I’m down four. I should have changed shoes earlier.”
As for the course, “It was awesome,” said Malcolm. “It was really hard, it was really unforgiving. The downhills were really steep and the uphills were really steep and there wasn’t a lot of flat in there.”
Her favorite part was fairly early into the race. “The most beautiful section was from mile 11 to 15, or 16,” said Malcolm. “I didn’t do real well on this section, but it was beautiful. We finally got a little daylight and then we were in this giant boulder field and then we dropped down into a river basin and it was really pretty.
As for the toughest part, Malcolm said, “For me, downhill was the toughest part because I couldn’t run them very well. It trashed my quads unnecessarily. I was breaking the whole time, which is not a very fun way to run.
“I’m dissatisfied with my performance, but I’m happy with my effort,” added Malcolm. “I toughed out a lot of things on the course. I’m bummed that we as a team had a tough day.”
Malcolm was 114th overall and in the top 30 for the women with her finish time of 11:35:50. France’s Caroline Chaverot was first among the women speeding to a time of 9:39:40, good enough for 26th overall.
The US men had an equally challenging day, although the first drop was not until the 74-kilometer aid station when Tyler Sigl succumbed to a distressed stomach, which relegated him to a slow walk into the aid station unable to continue.
Alex Varner, who passed the early leading Sigl somewhere between the first and second aid station, faltered after the third aid station. He was passed by the conservative-starting Jared Burdick several miles from the finish. Burdick went on to claim the top US spot in 51st position with a time of 10:26:45 to Varner’s 61st position finish some 12 minutes later.
The final finisher for team USA was Mario Mendoza, who was the second US athlete into aid station two at 54 kilometers. Mendoza, however, had a tough section between 54 and 74 kilometers, and laid down at the aid station to regroup for nearly 20 minutes before continue on to the finish.
Mendoza, knowing the final miles contained an intense amount of descent, borrowed Wang’s trekking poles to assist with his balance on the downhills. Mendoza finished in 123rd position timed in 11:54:14.
A visibly depleted Mendoza said at the finish, “That course was unhuman. It made Slovenia (the World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships – 42K with 2800 meters of climbing) look like a track.
“Super technical even on the descents you couldn’t go. There were rocks everywhere,” added Mendoza. “The last 12K felt like 50K. It’s the hardest run I’ve ever done. I didn’t think I was going to finish to be honest. I thought about the team. We needed three to score. I needed to finish. I thought about friends and family. I didn’t want to come all this way and not finish. My faith got me through. It was cool everyone encouraging me as they passed.”
The men’s race was won in a blistering finish time of 8:20:26 posted by Luis Hernando, Spain.
There were 197 finishers in the World Championships with the most athletes dropping between aid station one and two. The US men finished 15th among 25 teams, the US women did not score as a team.