Steamboat Springs The amazing part isn’t that few in the Steamboat Springs running community have ever heard of Nicholas Sunseri.
Sunseri, who Saturday wrapped up the season-long points championship in the Steamboat Springs Running Series, is just another in a long line of champions, many of whom seem to come from nowhere, blow the field away, win the championship and step back for the next runner.
This summer marked at least the fifth in a row that featured a different men’s champ, so it isn’t Sunseri’s burst onto the scene that has left people talking all summer, has wowed opponents and had race directors double-checking their stop watches.
It’s how Sunseri burst onto the scene.
Strong start fades
Sunseri won every local race he entered in 2011 with one exception, but the summer of winning wasn’t something Sunseri prepared for as much as it has been something that has prepared him.
He took to the sport in junior high and flourished in high school, in Raleigh, N.C., eventually earning the right to run at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where he ran cross-country as well as indoor and outdoor track.
He took a break after two years and went to train in Canada, where he’d spent time growing up and earned citizenship, but later returned to collegiate athletics by walking on at Florida State.
He pumped the brakes big time after graduating, however, and packed up with a now-ex-girlfriend to move to Steamboat two years ago.
The Yampa Valley proved another world, one where he skied five days a week and became adept at navigating the region’s backcountry slopes but one where he rarely, if ever, ran.
He ran one race last year, the 10-kilometer race at the Steamboat Marathon. He would have finished third had he and another runner not been disqualified for taking a wrong turn.
Back in stride
Sunseri said his lifestyle drove him back to running this year, and when spring began to dawn in Steamboat, he tried to pick the sport back up, first on the treadmills at Old Town Hot Springs and soon on the trails in and around town.
Before long, he was running 100-mile weeks and burning through a pair of shoes nearly once a month.
He’s had little trouble slipping into Steamboat’s thriving running community. He made friends with other Running Series regulars, occasionally participates in a weekly running group and this fall has helped coach the cross-country team at Steamboat Springs High School.
“I’m super excited about it,” Sailors distance coach Greg Long said. “He comes from a big-time running program at Florida State, and he’s been around a lot of elite athletes, so that’s really fun for the kids.”
The Running Series has made for nice training, he said, but he’s never had a summer training like he’s put together in Steamboat.
That’s not to say he hasn’t been faster or stronger. He has, particularly at Florida State. It’s just been different, and that relates back to his amazing performances in the Running Series.
He started his tour de force this year with a win in the Steamboat Marathon’s 10K, a race in distance and style he was plenty familiar with. It turned into a crushing victory in which he finished nearly five minutes before anyone else.
A week later, he won the Hayden Cog Run, an 8.4-mile uphill test that, at the time, amounted to one of the longest races of his life. He was nearly two minutes ahead of the competition.
Next up was the Mountain Madness half-marathon, his first attempt at a race of that distance. He won again, this time by nearly three minutes.
He won the Howelsen Hill 8-Miler by a scant 14 seconds after getting lost on the trail but took the 12-mile Mount Werner Classic by eight minutes, the 15-mile Continental Divide Trail Run by five minutes and the 10K at 10,000 by one minute, beating one of California’s top half-marathoners.
He lost only once, beaten in the final stretch of the 9-mile Spring Creek Memorial trail race by a Front Range athlete.
“He was really beating everyone senseless,” series Director Cara Marrs said. “He didn’t just win a bunch of the races — he did it with amazing times. A lot of the time, the runners coming in second or third had what were some of the fastest times of the course, but they weren’t close to Nick.”
A real question lingers, however: Sunseri may be good for Steamboat, but is Steamboat good for Sunseri?
Sunseri has big-time goals in running, ones he’s rededicated himself to after his initial Yampa Valley hiatus. Some are so big, he’s still almost embarrassed to mention them.
“If I talk about it and don’t come close, I look like an idiot,” Sunseri said, debating.
“Competing at Florida State opened my eyes. We had a bunch of Olympians on the team, and I’d train with those guys,” he said. “Occasionally, in workouts during hard intervals I’d beat them. I thought, ‘OK, well, if I can beat them today, why can’t I beat them in a race?’
“I thought, ‘If they can do it, the Olympics, maybe I can do it. Maybe I won’t win a medal, but maybe I can get there.’”
The dominating summer series has done plenty to fuel his confidence, but he’s been unsure just what it all means. The sweetest victory may have been in the 10K at 10,000, when he beat Crosby Freeman, the half-marathoner.
Outside of that win, he’s had trouble judging what his times have meant. How does a 1:47:50 on the 15-mile Continental Divide Trail run compare with 13.1 miles on a road, considering parts of that race are so steep and slippery that the pace of even some of the best runners grounds to a halt?
He wants to make a dent in his sport but has had few ways to know whether his training is paying off.
“I plan on going to Denver here in a month for the Rock ’n’ Roll half-marathon just to see how I do,” he said. “It’s just been really hard for me to gauge. I’ve always had a coach to tell me what to do before, but now I’ve been doing this on my own.”
Sunseri still is unsure of so much.
He likes Steamboat and loves his job at Honey Stinger, where he’s able to find time to train between selling the company’s products to running specialty stores.
But he’s a nomad by nature, in big and small scales. He’s lived in Canada and the United States, several times each. He’s also lived in seven houses in two years in Steamboat.
“I could be somewhere else entirely in a year,” he said. “Or I could still be here in five or 10 years.”
There are a few things he’s sure of.
In Canada and Florida, he mingled with national team members and Olympians. He dreamed then of Olympic glory, and he’s begun to dream that way again.
Sunseri became reacquainted with running this summer, and he’s loved every step.
“It took me awhile to realize I really wanted it back,” he said. “It makes me happy. It’s something that feels missing from my life when I’m not training really hard.
“This summer gave me confidence and showed me I needed to again take things up a notch, to train hard, do more workouts, harder workouts. I know I’m not ready yet. I need to do more. I also know I’m not ready to hang up the shoes.”
To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com