Tales from the Trails: Kualoa Ranch 2012

Dec. 14, 2012

XTERRA Trail Run World Championship provided many storylines

The 2012 XTERRA Trail Run World Championship has received its share of attention over the past two weeks. A photo finish that resulted in an unprecedented tie for first place between Ben Bruce and Joseph Gray has rightfully received most of that attention.

But more than 2,000 runners participated in the event at Kualoa Ranch, Hawaii, on December 2, and seemingly each runner has a story to tell. Here are just some of the "Tales from the Trails" of Kualoa Ranch in 2012:

A fast foursome from Alaska

A foursome of runners from Alaska warmed up quite nicely in their first appearance at the XTERRA Trail Run World Championship on December 2.

Jon Lyon, Roger Kemppel, Tim Samuelson and George Haugen made the trip to Hawaii for the race from Anchorage, and they each returned home with a medal.

Roger KemppelLyon won the men's 65-69 division, Kemppel won the men's 70-74 division, Samuelson placed second in the men's 65-69 division, and Haugen was third in the men's 65-69 division. They have been friends for more than 20 years, and have been traveling to different races together for the past decade.

(Roger Kemppel pictured, courtesy www.brightroom.com)

They have done races in Hawaii prior to this year, but this was the first time they entered the XTERRA Trail Run World Championship at Kualoa Ranch.

"We're not part of a club or anything like that, we're just four guys from Anchorage, Alaska, who get together and run," Kemppel said. "We do a bunch of things together throughout the year, and every year we pick a race that we can run together."

Their success at Kualoa Ranch becomes more impressive when considering that they trained for it by running in the snow - in temperatures that often dipped below zero degrees - back in Alaska.

"Boy, it really was nice to run in weather like that," he said of the 80-degree race day at Kualoa Ranch. "I ran without a shirt just because I never get to do that. It was like freedom to actually run with running shorts on, and not have to bundle up."

However, it did help the foursome that Alaska has steep mountainsides to train on in preparation for the hills at Kualoa Ranch. "The course (at Kualoa) is beautiful, obviously," Kemppel said. "But here in Alaska, we have some trails that are pretty severe and technical, so we were ready for anything."

The foursome said they had so much fun on their "guys only" trip that they are looking to return and defend their medals at the 2013 XTERRA Trail Run World Championship. The only problem? "We were showing the pictures to our wives and now they want to come along," Kemppel said. "So maybe we'll have to save up more money to do it next year."

The secret proposal

Stephanie Weigel made the trip from her hometown of Las Vegas to run in the XTERRA Trail Run World Championship at Kualoa Ranch, and she finished seventh overall among the elite women - which would seem like enough of an accomplishment to make it a memorable event for her. But it was what happened immediately after the race that made it unforgettable.

Kualoa ProposalImmediately after crossing the finish line, Weigel was instructed by the race announcers to turn around. There waiting for her on bended knee with engagement ring in hand was her boyfriend, Michael Ibasco.

"I figure this was the perfect place to propose since it was doing her favorite thing, running," Ibasco said. "Hawaii has so much greenery, mountains and trails."

Ibasco said he purchased the ring in Las Vegas and brought it with him on the flight to Honolulu. He carried it in his backpack everywhere they went during the Hawaii trip. "We arrived in Oahu four days before the race," he said. "My excuse for carrying my backpack around with me practically all the time was so that if we purchased any gifts we could just put in my backpack instead of carrying it. She bought into it, but did I mention that I was stressed and couldn't relax the whole time."

Ibasco ran the 10K course at Kualoa Ranch, and then had event staffers help set up his secret proposal for Weigel at the finish line. Weigel said she was genuinely stunned when she saw Ibasco and the banner that read: "Stephanie, Will You Marry Me?"

"We never had that conversation," Weigel said. "I just figured one day, but didn't know when."

Weigel and Ibasco have been dating for four years, and they own a training facility in Las Vegas called The Fitness Source. Weigel placed second overall at the XTERRA Lake Las Vegas Trail Run back in April, and that earned her a free entry to the XTERRA Trail Run World Championship.

"I immediately thought it would be an amazing race to run and a lifetime experience," she said. "Turns out I was right!"

The couple now plans to make the race at Kualoa Ranch an annual event. "No question that we are planning to do this yearly. I think we are calling ourselves the XTERRA couple."

Another photo finish

The fantastic finish between Ben Bruce and Joseph Gray that resulted in a tie for the overall championship of the XTERRA Trail Run World Championship was well-documented and captured from various camera and video angles.

But there was another close finish later in the race that decided an age-group world title that went much less noticed.

Janelle Lancaster Janelle Lancaster from Seattle made a last sprint to the finish line, and ended up passing another female runner by one second. At the time, she had no idea how it would impact the standings.

(Janelle Lancaster pictured, courtesy XTERRA Photos)

Turns out that Lancaster's final dash gave her first place in the female 40-44 division, not to mention an impressive 10th place overall among the women. Tina-Marie Poulin from New York placed second in the age group by that one-second difference.

"I became aware of my placing after checking the postings," Lancaster said. "I was thrilled! How exciting to come all that way and take away first place. I had passed the second place woman at the very end, not being sure at the time if she was in my age group, or having any idea of my standings."

It was certainly a memorable first experience at Kualoa Ranch for Lancaster, who works as a CEO of two solar companies in Washington, and is also married with a 1-year-old son. "Between the killer hills, technical trails and heat, I definitely got what I signed up for," she said. "The Ranch was gorgeous!"

Hawaii well-represented again

The home-state Hawaii runners took advantage of the tropical conditions on race day - temperatures in the 80s and high humidity - and ran away with 12 of the 26 age-group world championships.

"I love everything about being on the trails - the smell, rich air, sounds, sights, technical challenge, instant solitude; it can seem different every time," said Honolulu's Mark Speck, who won the men's 40-44 division. "Further, I think Hawaii runners are used to the climate conditions found here during December, whereas many mainlanders are coming out of colder and probably drier conditions."

Polina Babkina The age-group champions hailing from Hawaii are: Jakob DeWald (men 15-19), Willie Schefer (men 20-24), Polina Babkina (women 20-24), Natalia Kravchuk (women 25-29), Mark Speck (men 40-44), Ray Brust (men 50-54), Vicki Daniels (women 50-54), Ash Dustow (men 55-59), Edward Bugarin (men 60-64), Nancy Andrade (women 60-64), Lee Saltonstall (women 65-69) and Ed Fattoumy (physically challenged).

Saltonstall and Fattoumy are now four-time XTERRA Trail Run world champs; Speck, Bugarin and Dustow are now three-time champions.

(Polina Babkina pictured, courtesy XTERRA Photos)

Making it more impressive, several of the Hawaii runners competed in the Honolulu Marathon just one week after the XTERRA Trail Run World Championship. Five of the XTERRA age-group world champions went on to complete the marathon: Babkina, Kravchuk, Speck, Bugarin and Saltonstall.

Babkina placed third overall for the women at the XTERRA Trail Run World Championship and 12th overall at the Honolulu Marathon, and was the first Hawaii female at each event. She is originally from Russia, but is currently a student at Hawaii Pacific University.

Thomas Rivers Puzey placed eighth overall at the XTERRA World Championship and 12th overall at the Honolulu Marathon. He was the top Hawaii finisher at the marathon (and second Hawaii finisher at Kualoa Ranch). He resides in Laie, Oahu, and is a former runner at Brigham Young-Hawaii.

Speck often enters both the XTERRA Trail Run World Championship and the Honolulu Marathon, and said he prefers the family atmosphere at Kualoa Ranch. This year, he did the 21K, his girlfriend ran the 10K, and his son participated in the OC16 Kids Race. After the race, they joined other friends and family members for a picnic at Kualoa Beach Park.

"It is more important to me than the marathon, which feels like a less personal race, and it is on the road which is not my preference," Speck said.

The surprised champion

Nozomi WadeNozomi Wade and her husband James registered for the 2012 XTERRA Trail Run World Championship with plans to make the trip as much about vacation time as running time. In addition to some of the usual tourist memories and souvenirs, Nozomi got to take home an age-group world championship for the female 55-59 division.

"Oh, my gosh, this was one of the highlights of my life!" Nozomi said. "I had NO idea where I placed until my name was called at the awards ceremony!"

Nozomi has been a standout in the XTERRA Georgia Trail Run Series for the past few years, but she is still a relative newcomer to competitive running. She started entering races in 2009 - when she was in her early 50s - and had no previous experience in any other competitive sports.

(Nozomi Wade pictured, courtesy James Wade)

"My friends who knew me since I was a teenager are scratching their heads!" she said. "Oh, and of course my family members are also wondering what happened to the old Nozomi! But it's all good, because they know running makes me happy. I am living proof that it is never too late to try something new."

James Wade is a competitive triathlete, but he was gracious enough to stay near Nozomi for the entire course so that he could take pictures and provide encouragement along the way. "He was ahead of me in the beginning, but he'd stop, wait, and take a few pictures of me as I passed him," she said. "Then he'd run again and wait for me  for more pictures. Eventually, he stayed behind to take pictures of the scenery."

Nozomi works as an elementary school teacher in Georgia, and when she returned to work a few days after the race, the students from the school had created a congratulatory art-work display to greet the new world champion.

"Who would have thought that a school teacher from the suburbs of Georgia would accomplish that?" Nozomi said. "I mean ... I wanted to win, but I knew I was up against some tough women. It was beyond awesome!"

The fast guy from Fiji

A quick look at the overall top 10 finishers of the 2012 XTERRA Trail Run World Championship reveals some familiar names from familiar places … with one exception.

Kenichi Komatsu Coming in 10th overall was Kenichi Komatsu, and his hometown is listed as Labasa, Fiji. Yes, Fiji. He was also the first international finisher, as the top nine were Americans.

Komatsu is originally from Japan, but has been living and working in Fiji for the past two years. Because of the lack of big races in Fiji, he often travels to enter events, and this was his first try at the XTERRA Trail Run World Championship.

(Kenichi Komatsu pictured, courtesy XTERRA Photos)

"I was surprised to learn most of top 10 runners are road runners or track runners, and they are really fast and top runners," he said. "I was happy to have been able to run with them. They are actually way beyond my abilities … I reckon I did my best."

Komatsu teaches physical education to elementary school students in Fiji. Although he still considers Japan his home country, he is the first athlete to list Fiji as his hometown for an XTERRA Trail Run event.

Costello Completes Challenge

Sometimes, the runners near the back of the pack have the best tales to tell. Such is the case with Richard Costello, who completed the 21K course at Kualoa Ranch in 2 hours, 49 minutes, 44 seconds, which was good for 41st place in the men's 45-49 division.

The fact that Costello finished the race was the real story. He trained for this race for nearly a full year, and dropped close to 50 pounds in 2012 as a result. Although he has completed several triathlons in past years, the XTERRA Trail Run World Championship 21K marked the longest run he has ever completed.

burgunder and Costello"The 21K race went overwhelmingly positive for me," he said. "I finished, and I finished in a time frame which I had allotted myself for personal success. I felt incredibly spirited throughout my entire run, and stronger in many areas than I had expected. Once I hit the mile marker of 8 miles, it was all smooth sailing from there. Each step I ran thereafter, was a new distance accomplished towards finishing my first 21K attempt."

Costello trained in his home state of Pennsylvania throughout 2012, and enlisted the help of XTERRA Trail Run veteran Richard Burgunder for assistance.

"His accomplishment and journey are both awe-inspiring," Burgunder said of Costello. "Richard dug deep and embraced an incredible challenge to compete in one of the most grueling races in the world against a remarkably competitive world class field of athletes. He persevered with incredible passion and shined brightly on a day that should be never forgotten."

(Richard Burgunder, left, and Richard Costello, right, pictured courtesy Richard Burgunder)

Costello said the toughest section of the course came at mile 10, during a steep uphill climb. "The climb at mile 10 was not to be forgotten," he said. "It was vicious and slow-going at times, but brought about a tremendous feeling of accomplishment looking back once I reached the summit. The quads were hurting at that spot there for sure! Overall, the experience was totally amazing for me, with much new ground and territory being covered from start to finish."

Costello said he would like to run at Kualoa Ranch again, although he has other events he would like to try in 2013. Specifically, he is targeting the Continental Tour Divide mountain bike race in June. That event will require 20 to 30 days of commitment, as it will start in Banff, Calgary, Canada, and traverse down to Antelope Wells, New Mexico.

Welsch sisters garner more attention

There was a reason so many cameras were following the two littlest runners on the 21K course at the XTERRA Trail Run World Championship.

Twelve-year-old Kaytlynn Welsch and 10-year-old Heather Welsch - sisters from Alvin, Texas - are not only young, they are fast. And the rest of the country has taken notice.

Welsch Sisters(Kaytlynn Welsch, left, and Heather Welsch pictured, courtesy XTERRA Photos)

At the XTERRA Trail Run National Championship at Ogden, Utah, back in September, a reporter from the New York Times traveled to the race to write a lengthy feature on the Welsch sisters.

At Kualoa Ranch, a television crew from NBC was in Hawaii to film a segment on the sisters for an upcoming episode of Rock Center With Brian Williams. The cameras followed the family around in the days leading to the race, as well as on race day.

Kaytlynn was an impressive 15th overall among all females, and first in the 10-14 age division. Her time of 2:02:34 was faster than all the boys in that age group.

Heather finished 39th overall among all females, and second to her sister in the 10-14 age division. She also made history by becoming the youngest runner ever to complete the 21K course at Kualoa Ranch.

The Welsch sisters first gained attention during the summer, when Kaytlynn placed first overall and Heather was third at a race in the XTERRA Texas Trail Run Series.

Their feature on Rock Center With Brian Williams is tentatively scheduled to air on January 10.

Puerto Rico runner has inspiring race

Alberto Saldana became the first runner from Puerto Rico to compete in the XTERRA Trail Run World Championship, and he did it in impressive fashion. Saldana placed 13th in the stacked 35-39 age division, and finished with a time of 1:57:31.

Sara Marie Pedragon Ojeda and Alberto Saldana During the tough sections of the course, and as he approached the finish line, Saldana said he had more than enough inspiration to push him through in the form of "a little angel."

That angel is Sara Marie Pedragon Ojeda, a 2-year-old close family friend. As Saldana was preparing to leave Puerto Rico for Hawaii, he learned that Sara Marie was diagnosed leukemia.

(Sara Marie Pedragon Ojeda and Alberto Saldana pictured, courtesy Saldana family)

"That was a terrible notice for me going to Hawaii," he said. "But I said in my mind that I have to be strong and fight for her. That's why I dedicated this awesome XTERRA World Championship race to her and all the little kids in the San Jorge Children's Hospital in Puerto Rico."

Upon returning to Puerto Rico a few days after the race, Saldana visited Sara Marie in the hospital and presented her an XTERRA Trail Run World Championship event shirt.

"She helped me get through this race, and kept me positive," Saldana said. "Now I want to help her get through her (illness) and keep her positive."

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