Three-time XTERRA Trail Run World Champ Joe Gray is back to defend his title at Kualoa Ranch, following another incredible year on the dirt. In 2018, Gray made his 11th consecutive USA Mountain Running team, which he did at the North American, Central American, and Caribbean (NACAC) Mountain Running Championship at Loon Mountain, New Hampshire in July. A month prior, in June, Gray was third at the Long Distance Mountain Running Championship in Poland on a tough 36K course. In July, he won the USATF 30K Trail Run Championship, and in September, he won the USATF Half Marathon Trail Championship in Wisconsin. That same month, at the World Mountain Running Championship in Andorra, Gray finished fourth against one of the strongest fields ever on the 12K uphill-only course, which included over 1,000 meters of ascent.
Clearly, Joe Gray has no shades of gray. He is one hundred percent clear that at the 2018 XTERRA World Championship, he has come to win.
“I’m just excited to get back and see what I can do on the new course,” said Gray, referring to modifications and improvements to the course in 2017. “I’m looking forward to seeing what I can give. And if it’s wet, then that’s even better because I love the mud.”
What does have a shade of gray is Joe Gray’s shadow, who is also his toughest competitor at the XTERRA Trail Run World Championship. Last year, Andy Wacker was third at XTERRA Trail Run Worlds behind Gray and Sage Canaday, and this year, Wacker literally followed in Gray’s footsteps.
“I raced Joe five times this year,” said Wacker. “At the three national championship races we competed in, he was first and I was second.”
At the USA Mountain Running Championship, Wacker was less than 90 seconds behind Gray on the 10.6K course. At the USATF 30K Trail Run Championship, Wacker was 27 seconds behind Gray. And at the USATF Half Marathon Trail Championship in Wisconsin, Wacker was also just 27 seconds behind Gray. Out of the hours they have spent competing against each other, they are only a couple of minutes apart.
“The race at XTERRA Worlds in Hawaii is really interesting,” said Wacker. “Joe and I are pretty unique athletes in that we have this weird combination that no one else has. We both ran in college and can do flat, fast road racing, but we both prefer the trails. XTERRA is really fun for us because we have the speed for the half-marathon distance but we can also handle the gnarly, technical stuff.”
Like Gray, Andy Wacker is built like a whippet, and also like Gray, Wacker has speed on the road to match his skill and strength on the dirt. Even their marathon PRs are basically the same color. Wacker achieved a personal best of 2:17:34 at Rotterdam in April this year while Gray’s PR of 2:18:45 in Boston in 2013 probably doesn’t do him justice. Another similarity is that both are equally good going down as they are going up.
“I feel like I’m balanced both at climbing and the downhills,” said Gray. “But maybe I don’t have a preference because I just love to compete.”
Wacker compares downhill running to a skill that must be practiced, but he is equally committed to developing the fitness that uphill courses demand. The XTERRA Trail Run Worlds course, with its grueling climbs and treacherous descents, demands that whoever wins, must be equally adept at both.
Sage Canaday, who finished second last year, won’t be returning this year because of an injury sustained in October at the Otter Trail Marathon in South Africa. He is going to take the rest of the year off to recover, but expect to see him back on the trails at Kualoa Ranch in 2019.
Another athlete, who is capable of surprising both Gray and Wacker is Brett Hales. In 2014, the former Weber State harrier jumped into the XTERRA Trail Run National Championship on a whim. He won by more than six minutes, eating up the course at a sub-six-minute pace. In December of that year, he was second at the XTERRA Trail Run World Championship.
This year, just like in 2014, Hales cruised to victory at XTERRA Trail Run Nationals in Utah. And signs point to yes that he is ready to rumpus in the rainforest at XTERRA Worlds. This spring, Hales decided to pursue the path of ultras and thought that the 50K might be his sweet spot. He showcased his stamina at the Way Too Cool 50K in March by leading until mile 26, but ultimately faded because he was still getting his nutrition dialed in. In June, he finished a respectable 12th at the Golden Gate Dirty 30 50K. But his victory at the Gib Wallace Memorial 10-Miler in May and at the XTERRA Trail Run National Championship 21K suggest that the half marathon is still where Hales hails.
Like Gray and Wacker, Hales is no stranger to pain. His college coach even recalls that he knew Hales had what it took to be a distance runner when he threw up while running uphill and afterward, picked up his pace.
Another runner to watch is Enock Birir, who with his 2:19 marathon PR, could be in the same league as Gray, Wacker, and Hales. Just last month, Birir won the IMT Des Moines Marathon in 2:23:39. Of course, a road marathon and a trail half marathon are as different as road biking and mountain biking, but if Birir has the technical skills to handle the dirt, he could be a contender.
Like Birir, Abu Kebede Diriba is a road runner who is likely to be in the lead pack at XTERRA Trail Run Worlds. He ran a 45:15 at a 15K in France last year and has a 2:22:04 PR in the marathon.
A few other top ten runners from last year are back, and because of the elevation gain, downhill swoop, and the rigorous and narrow single track, the course at Kualoa is willing to showcase anyone who is hungry enough for either the victory or the suffering. Patrick Vernay from New Caledonia is joining this year’s line-up. One of France’s most successful endurance athletes, Vernay won the XTERRA New Caledonia 22K in June. A nine-time Ironman champion, Vernay twice finished in the top ten at the race in Kona.
Young Forrest Missenti, a former standout runner at Syracuse University, cured his burnout with the trails. While he broke his ankle earlier this year, this runner is full of both fire and promise and may show up in the top ten. He cruised to an easy victory this October at the XTERRA Gold Rush 10-miler in northern California, and he loves the sport so much that you might spot him by his smile.
The Big Island’s Patrick Stover, who finished seventh last year will also be back, as well as local Kaawa triathlete and trail runner Sergio Florian who finished in the top 20 in 2017.
Returning from Brazil to race in Hawaii again are Joseilton Santos – ninth last year – and Jose Silva, who was tenth.