Joseph Gray is in Hawaii looking to win his fourth XTERRA Trail Run World Championship half-marathon title in a row, and his unprecedented fifth overall, this Sunday at Kualoa Ranch on the island of Oahu.
In his way are a handful of speedy trail runners including Sage Canaday, Andy Wacker, and 2016 XTERRA Triathlon World Champion Mauricio Mendez, who is looking to become the first elite athlete to win both a triathlon and trail run world title with XTERRA.
“It would be a dream to do that and make history,” said Mendez, who has been focused on just running since a nerve injury earlier in the season made it impossible to sit in the bike saddle for extended periods of time.
“I feel really good, and running strong right now,” he added. “I can’t wait to race against Joe and Andy and Sage and all these strong runners. I can tell you I’m here to give it my best, and if those guys sprint off the start line I’ll go with them for as long as I can, and we’ll see.”
Mendez has been racing XTERRA since he was 15 (he’s 24 now) and won the 15-19 XTERRA Trail Run National title back in 2013, but this is his first-time racing at XTERRA Trail Run Worlds.
“It’s incredible here at Kualoa Ranch, just so beautiful, I can’t wait to get out there and run around the ridgelines on Sunday.”
For Canaday, who finished second less than one-minute behind Gray in 2017, it’s a matter of tapping into his endurance prowess to really excel on the hard parts of the Kualoa course.
“As an ultramarathon runner "moving down" in distance I have to work on my speed a bit more to try to keep up with the fast pace that guys like Joe Gray and Andy Wacker,” said Canaday, who placed second at the Pikes Peak Marathon mountain race in Colorado this summer. “I think Joe will for sure be the top guy to beat in this race. He's just coming off a great season and has shown tremendous fitness so it will honestly be hard for me to close the time gap on him, but it would be great to make the podium here again.”
Canaday added that he’s hoping to use his experience from two years ago to his advantage on Sunday.
“I had a blast here at XTERRA two years ago. I liked how the course had a mix of everything from really muddy and technical singletrack sections to faster gravel path sections and a good mix of short and long hills. My favorite part was the steep and muddy downhill in the second half as it allowed me to move up into second place. Knowing the course a bit now I'm more confident that the second half is a good place to try to make up ground on my competitors,” said Canaday.
Wacker, who has placed third here the past two seasons, has even loftier goals this year.
“I am aiming for the win, but know the competition is always very strong,” he said. “Joe, coming off a recent victory in the world mountain running championships, will be hard to beat. For me, I think last year was a big improvement. I learned how to pace this course. It’s really hard with the dramatic change from speedy trail to steep climbing in the jungle when you cross over the pass between valleys. And my fitness is really coming around. I’ve been hitting workouts I can usually only hit at my peak fitness before a road marathon so after a long trail season, this is a great thing.”
Wacker said he’s loving the trail life, and coming straight from Patagonia last weekend to Hawaii this weekend is a blessing.
“The trails everywhere tell the story of a community,” he explained. “No two are the same. From the alps and fondue, empanadas in the Andes, to poke fresh from the pacific; the climate, culture and history shine through the natural environment in the mountains. Kualoa is so striking, with rising green cliffs, wild chickens and pigs. It really makes being here feel wonderful and special!”
The trails at Kualoa are normally closed to the public, so race day provides a rare opportunity for runners to experience “Jurassic Valley” – a 4,000-acre private nature reserve, working cattle ranch, and film site for a bunch of blockbuster movies.
Other elite men of note include speedy Brazilians – Douglas Da Silva and Joseilton Santos – who finished 5th and 7th last year, long-time XTERRA standout Brandon Mader, and noteworthy harrier Devin VansCoy.
In the women’s race all eyes are on Grayson Murphy, who like Gray, won the World Mountain Running Championships in Argentina last weekend.
“Coming off a win at World Champs in Patagonia the goal is really just to have fun and see what happens,” said Grayson, who has made a brilliant transition from road to trail running this year and also won the U.S. Mountain Running Championship this year. “I’m feeling good, a little tired from a long hard year of work, but ready to give it one last push.”
On why she put XTERRA Trail Run Worlds as the bookend to her first full trail season, Grayson said, “I decided to do this race because it’s a really cool place, it was a great excuse to explore a new place, and I’ve heard great things about the XTERRA community from a lot of my friends and other runners in the community so I figured it’s my turn to give it a shot.”
The top returning contender is a local running legend, two-time XTERRA Trail Run World Champion Polina Carlson, who finished second last year to Dani Moreno. Taylor Ward, who placed third, is also in the mix.
The fastest runners on the 21K course will be competing for $10,000 in prize purse, which is distributed to the top seven overall men and women. Everyone who conquers the half-marathon championship course will earn a finisher’s medal, and the top three runners for every age group in the 21K, 10K and 5K will receive medals and other prizes.
Learn more and register at www.xterrakualoa.com.