This Sunday, some of the best marathoners, trail and cross-country runners in the country will head to the Wasatch Mountains for the XTERRA Trail Run National Championship.
The course is one of the most epic trails in the world. Starting at the blue-lip inducing altitude of 6400 feet, the course includes about 2200 feet of gut-wrenching climbs and breathtaking vistas. Like all XTERRA events, true grit matters as much as training and fitness.
Speaking of grit, Brett Hales, the 2014 XTERRA Trail Run National Champ and runner up at the 2014 XTERRA Trail Run World Championship, will be back on the course this year.
"I've missed the last couple of years because of scheduling conflicts, but this year, my weekend is open and I'm excited to get back to Snowbasin and race," said Hales.
Some of his "scheduling conflicts" included being a member of the US Mountain Running Team, which won a gold medal at the 2016 World Championship in Bulgaria and a bronze medal at the 2017 World Championship in Italy. (XTERRA Trail Run World Champ Joe Gray is also a member of the team.)
When Hales won the race in 2014, he entered the race on a whim. The Saturday before, he won the Big Cottonwood Half Marathon in a speedy 1:03 and spent the day before the XTERRA National Championship helping his brother shovel rocks and pull weeds on his property. At 10:30 that night, Hales told his wife he was still thinking about the race, and she told him to go for it.
He entered the 2014 race on site and ended up winning by about six minutes in front of a very strong field, much like the one this year.
Anthony Fagundes, who will join Hales on the starting line, has been competing in the Southern California XTERRA Trail Runs for about three years, and he keeps getting stronger. This year, he broke his own record at XTERRA Black Mountain less than 24 hours after competing in a Ragnar Relay.
“I’ve somehow been getting faster since college,” he said. “I always surprise myself now because in college, I never thought I had much speed. Everyone else on the team was faster than me.”
Fagundes also competes on the road and is training for the California International Marathon in December. This is his first year competing in XTERRA Trail Run Nationals and he's excited to see what he can do in the woods.
"I’m coming off a small injury so my training isn’t quite where it was two months ago but I’m slowly getting back into it. The speed is still there and the strength is coming back as I’ve been doing more miles each week so I’m feeling good about the upcoming races that I have," he said.
Zachary Holloway is another relative newcomer to XTERRA, but he also brings a long list of accomplishments on both the trails and the track. A former steeplechaser, he has an uncommon strength for a distance runner, which will serve him well on those long climbs in Snowbasin. The grad student is currently volunteering with the renowned Adams State Track and Cross Country teams, led by Head Coach Damon Martin. Holloway says that working with the great coach has definitely impacted his own training and has motivated him to try even longer distances on the roads and the trails.
On the women's side, Penelope Freedman, is a workhorse on the hills. She lives and trains in Steamboat Springs, so she is used to the altitude. A former competitive snowboarder, Freedman has transitioned to trail running under coach Darren De Reuck.
In 2015, Freedman was third at the XTERRA Trail Run World Championships behind Kimber Mattox and Polina Carlson. In 2016, she was fourth at the XTERRA Trail Run National Championship in Utah, and this year, she hopes to improve her performance at both events.
So far, 2017 has been a great year for Freedman and she is injury free. She was seventh at the Barr Mountain Trail Race on Pikes Peak, first at the Mountain Madness Half Marathon, second at Hahn’s Peak Hill Climb, first at Spring Creek Trail Run, first at the Aspen Backcountry Half, and first at the Continental Divide Trail Run.
But what sets Freedman apart is her dedication to the sport because of what it adds to her life. “Running is a way for me to clear my mind,” says Freedman. “And that helps me become a better person."
Morgan Arritola, is similar to Freedman in that she also loves the freedom of trail running. And like Freedman, Arritola has a successful background in the snow as an Olympic Nordic skier. Arritola was the XTERRA Trail Run National Champ in 2011 and the XTERRA Trail Run World Champ that same year. Since then, she's been a three-time US Mountain Running Champion and placed third in the World Mountain Running Championship in 2012.
"I raced XTERRA Nationals several years ago and I like the course and the atmosphere," said Arritola. "It's a fun place and it's not too far of a drive so I can swing it on the weekend. I also have a friend racing the Tri on Saturday so it will be fun to watch her."
While this may sound lackadaisical, this laid-back strategy is a great way to stay relaxed - one of the keys to successful trail running.
Lauren Zimmer has the same laid-back approach, so be on the lookout for her. Like Hales, she signed up for her first XTERRA race on a whim last year.
“The only reason I signed up for XTERRA Nationals was because my husband was doing the triathlon the day before and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s cool! It sounds fun to run 13 miles up in the mountains.’”
The result was that she finished in the top ten in a field that included Olympian (and former nordic skiier) Liz Stephen.
Also of note in line-up on Sunday is XTERRA Pan Am Champ Tammy Tabeek. She will be competing in the grueling XTERRA Pan Am Championship on Saturday and will be doubling back for the 21k on Sunday.
"Yeah," said Tabeek. "I just can't help myself. "
On Saturday at 10:30 AM, Lauren Zimmer and Michael Fussell will host a free trail running clinic at XTERRA University, presented by Paul Mitchell. Fussell is a 2016 XTERRA National Age Group Champ and 2017 XTERRA Regional Champ. The event will be held at the Snowbasin Resort. For more information, email trailrun [at] xterraplanet.com or visit www.xterrautah.com.