It started with a grueling uphill that most competitors chose to describe as brutal. More than 1,000 feet in elevation gain in the first 1.65 miles took an elite field of the country's 67 top trail runners up and then straight back down Christie Peak at Mount Werner. And that was just the first lap.
But for Simon Gutierrez, Clint Wells and Rickey Gates, Saturday morning's USA Track & Field 10K Trail Championships came down to the final stretch.
Gutierrez estimated he was about 10 meters off Wells and Gates, the defending national champ and the recently crowned USA Mountain Running Champion, respectively, as the three-man lead pack came barreling down a speedy final descent to the gondola base.
"You're just focused on going all out after saving something for the finish," Gutierrez said. "It comes down to whoever feels better in that last 20 meters."
Gutierrez passed Gates turning down toward the finish area, but Gates had the final kick. Gates, a 26-year-
old, Boulder-based runner, had a little left to win the national champion title, a second ahead of Gutierrez. He finished the 7.5-mile course in 51 minutes, 42 seconds.
"That did not feel good," Gates said after the finish, immediately assessing cracked toes and blistered heels. "You get focused, dig hard, let it hurt - that's all you can do."
Wells, a 32-year-old Moffat County High School graduate, said he "grinded back up" after falling to fifth to round out the lead threesome. He finished in third in 51:49, just missing a top-two qualifying spot for the Teva Men's U.S. Mountain Running Team.
"I can't see why, with how (Wells) ran today, that he wouldn't be on the team," USATF Mountain Ultra Trail Council chairwoman Nancy Hobbs said of his consideration for an at-large bid.
Gutierrez, qualifying for his sixth consecutive team, did not consider second place much of a loss when looking ahead to what the competition spells for the men's chances at the World Mountain Trophy Race, September in Saillon, Switzerland.
"That's by far the most competitive field we've had this year, and there hasn't ever been that close of a national championship, that I remember," Gutierrez said. "I'm 41 and running pretty well, but I know these (U.S. team) guys can do just as well as each other on any given day - we have four guys that could land in the (worlds') top 20."
On the women's side, Laura Haefeli, 39, looked to have her fourth 10K trail championship wrapped up until she said California runner Christine Lundy, 36, "caught me on my second lap before that section through the weeds."
Lundy, who finished in 58:57, said she was relieved to have qualified again for the women's team, especially considering there was only one spot up for grabs and she had been training exclusively on roads for a marathon event at the 2007 Pan American Games.
Haefeli "got blisters, and I got cramps," joked Lundy, who still admitted to the race being "the most fun I've had at a championship."
Haefeli took second in 59:41, and 24-year-old Alamosa runner Emily Mortensen took third in 1:01:03.
Nordic skier Mark Iverson led all three local participants in the event, finishing in 23rd in 58:59. Derek Leidigh finished in 28th and Greg Long finished in 48th. Battle Mountain High School standout Jonny Stevens took first in the junior division (59:34).
Many championship runners were eager to find out course specifics - including the steepest section of See Me that had even the elite runners walking - and advice from the incoming 90 runners who participated in the Steamboat Springs Running Series citizen's division race preceding the championships.
Grand Junction runner Garret Piispanen, 20, finished first in 59:51, Steamboat's Travis Mattern, 32, finished second and Ft. Collins' Brad Pace took third in the race.
San Jose, Costa Rica, native Monica Umana won the citizen women's division in 1:09:46, and Steamboat residents Jenna Gruben and Lori Huggard followed in second and third, respectively.
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