The XTERRA Thrill in the Hills Trail Run lived up to its name, as a capacity field of runners was treated to a thrilling event at Fort Yargo State Park in Winder, Georgia, on February 23.
Close to 600 runners registered for the event, and a downpour of rain prior to the race created a challenging course. As race director Tim Schroer described it: "A mud race at no extra charge." But it was hardly enough to slow down the four winners, as they each ran to impressive victories.
The XTERRA Thrill in the Hills Trail Run is unique in that it features two races in one event - a 42-kilometer full-marathon course and a 21K half-marathon.
The four winners were: Matt Shechtman (42K men), Emily Anne Vall (42K women), David Bell (21K men) and Tara Gormley (21K women).
Bell has won the 21K course at the Thrill in the Hills event in each of the past four years. His winning time this year was 1 hour, 24 minutes, 46 seconds. He said he took the lead in the first mile of the course and stayed in front the rest of the way.
"I know the course well and know how I should be feeling at various stages of the race," said Bell, who is 29 and works as an environmental scientist in Decatur, Georgia. "It's a course I look forward to each year."
Bell described the muddy conditions as "perfect" for his trail-running style. "The course is already challenging, with hair-pin turns and saw-tooth elevation changes, but add a couple inches of rain and it became a very slippery mud run," he said. "I felt confident on the slick trails."
Matt Haley of Buford, Ga., was second in 1:26:30, and Bradley Thomas of Watkinsville, Ga., was third in 1:33:30.
Gormley, the women's 21K winner, is also a familiar face in the XTERRA Georgia Trail Run Series. This victory was her 20th in the Georgia Series since 2008. Five of those wins have come during the current 2012-13 season.
However, this was her first win at the Thrill in the Hills race, following second-place finishes in each of the past four years.
"I ran to the front of the pack from the start," said Gormley, who is 29 and resides in Marietta, Ga. "My goal was to get out front and stay there. Once I realized I had a reasonable lead on the second female I relaxed and focused on catching the men around me. I knew last year I had tough competition at this race, so I was prepared for anyone to show up. I was very pleased with my win. I felt strong and smooth throughout the race despite the conditions."
Gormley finished with a time of 1:40:15, which was more than six minutes faster than the other females. Joy Makinen-Palmer of Suwanee, Ga., was second in 1:46:33, and Marie Audett of Cincinnati, Ohio, was third in 1:52:03.
In addition to racing, Gormley was also at the event as a representative for PowerBar, and she spent much of her time before the race handing out products. She said the capacity crowd was "awesome."
"Everyone seemed pretty excited to play in the mud," she added.
The 42K winners also ran away from the competition, with Shechtman taking top overall honors by a whopping 15 minutes, and Vall taking top female honors by nearly four minutes.
Shechtman, who is 28 and works as an attorney in Atlanta, finished with a time of 3:17:59. Making his win more impressive, it was his first time entering an XTERRA Trail Run event, and his first time running on the trails at Fort Yargo State Park.
"It was really satisfying because I beat my own expectations, and considering it was my first trail marathon, I thought my time was pretty decent given the conditions," he said. "I think I realized I had a good gap on folks because the volunteers at the aid stations were telling me that I had about 5 minutes on the next runner and that was the time check from the first lap."
Shechtman is in training for the upcoming Boston Marathon, so he said he pushed the pace throughout, even after he realized he had a significant lead. He added that the challenging conditions made it an unforgettable experience for him.
"The conditions were a bit of a curveball," he said. "The course was muddy and then some. My first loop around the trail was in decent shape, but the second loop was a mess after several hundred runners had been through it. At that point, I gave up trying to avoid the puddles and mud and just forged straight through them. It was a blast, but I took a header with about a mile to go and gurgled some mud. What's a trail race without a tumble in the mud?"
Vall prevailed in the women's 42K race, and agreed that the second lap around the trail was tougher than the first. "The second lap was ankle deep in mud," she said. "In my mind, it was where Shrek lives."
Vall was an impressive third place overall - beating dozens of men to the finish. She said she did not see any of the other female runners near her, and ran with some of the other top males for most of the course.
"The third place man (Jeremy Wadkins) really helped me get through the last few miles," said Vall, who is 33 and works as Wellness Coordinator for Children's Healthcare in Atlanta. "We kind of took turns leading through the mud. The last few miles were cold, wet and I was tired. I was just happy to see the bright red finish line!"
The XTERRA Thrill in the Hills Trail Run was the sixth of seven races in the 2012-13 season for the XTERRA Georgia Trail Run Series. The season finale is scheduled for June 1 - the XTERRA Deep South Trail Run in Jackson, Ga. To register for the race or learn more about the series, please visit www.dirtyspokes.com.