After 38 qualifying events in 18 different countries, the reimagined XTERRA Trail Run World Series is set to culminate on the famed trails of Sugarloaf Mountain with the first ever qualification-only XTERRA Trail Run World Championship. Those with a place on the start line will have earned it the hard way. They are the Sugarloaf Trailblazers, and these are their stories.
At the age of 75, Dan Holbrook is still a full-time lawyer who specializes in estate planning and represents various charities. He’s also a veteran runner with enough miles in his shoes to know that you can’t take life too seriously.
“They say that growing old is like frying bacon in the nude – you know it’s going to hurt, but you don’t know where. So true,” he says. “What I do know is that running trail races for decades has prepared me to deal with all of life’s issues with gratitude, endurance, and resilience. I’m blessed by being a runner and by the community of runners.”
Dan has been a runner for as long as he can remember. As a kid, he’d run all over his neighborhood, just because it felt good. The neighbors would ask Dan’s father if there was something wrong with the kid. When he went to law school in Oregon, suddenly his fascination with running was something cool, rather than odd. “After Frank Shorter won gold in the 1972 Olympic marathon, I dreamed big and discovered my only real athletic gift is to run for hours and enjoy it,” he says.
When he turned 40, Dan switched over to trails to save the wear and tear on his knees, and he fell in love with the sport. He lives in the perfect place for it too: Knoxville, Tennessee, just close enough to the Smoky Mountains to enjoy the area’s vibrant trail network.
In his 50s, he started running ultra-marathons, including several 50K and 50-mile races. He’s done the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim three times.
On his 60th birthday, he ran 60 miles on the track and invited family and friends to join him. Over the course of 13 hours, Dan raised a little over $33,000 for charity and was interviewed on television. “My wife said it was one of the best days of her life, like one big party, because we collected donations and had food and drinks for all who showed up.”
At age 61, he ran 100 miles at Western States in California. It was a brutally hot day and only 5 of the 25 competitors in his age group finished. Dan persevered and earned a coveted bronze buckle.
“Running teaches persistence, patience, recovery from setbacks, being honest with myself, setting realistic goals, and having the discipline to attain them,” he says. “Its lessons have served me well in long hours of law practice and rearing amazing children and grandchildren.”
“Running teaches persistence, patience, recovery from setbacks, being honest with myself, setting realistic goals, and having the discipline to attain them.”
Dan qualified for the World Championship at XTERRA Oak Mountain in Pelham, Alabama. “They called it the Americas Trail Run Championship, but in fact I was the only one in my geezer age group. I still laugh about that and love telling folks I won my age group before confessing I was the only one in it!”
His goal for Maine is, first and foremost, to finish. “Just to be there, healthy and ready to run, and surrounded by great athletes from around the world will be the thrill of a lifetime, comparable only to being at the start line of the Boston Marathon or Western States,” he says. His other goals include winning his age group and inspiring other runners his age to give trails a try. “There are very few men in trail races at this age and no females at all. My hope is to inspire others to race on trails well into their 70s, and maybe to see runners in their 80s at future World Championships.”
Dan is a big believer that doing an endurance exercise like running promotes a better diet, strengthens the heart and circulatory system, and improves mitochondrial health, metabolic health, and brain health. “It’s quite the magic pill,” he says. “Why doesn’t everyone take it? The single most powerful marker for longevity is high VO2 max. Study after study shows that regular exercisers live as much as a decade longer than sedentary people, with far better health and lower morbidity.”
"My hope is to inspire others to race on trails well into their 70s, and maybe to see runners in their 80s at future World Championships.”
In addition to the health benefits that running provides, the time spent traversing trails is good for the soul too. “It’s part of my quiet time that helps restore my soul,” he says. “After cancer, a heart attack, surgeries, and other assaults on body and mind, running in the woods brings peace, perspective, and restoration to full engagement in life. When I don’t run, my wife notices a change in attitude and lets me know it’s time to hit the trails.”
Dan says it’s just like that movie, Chariots of Fire. When he runs, he feels God’s pleasure. “I see myself as a runner, not just a person who happens to run. While the ability lasts, I run with gratitude, thankful both to have and to exercise this great gift.”
Paul Jenkins has lived on Maui since 1981. He’s an electrical contractor by trade and enjoys exploring the islands by hiking and surfing with his wife, Kim.
At 68 years old, Paul describes himself as a “late in life runner” that prefers rock gulches and deer trails over pounding pavement. His first organized race was the XTERRA Kapalua 21K Trail Run that took place on Maui in 2021.
“I’m kind of a back door participant for the World Championship, because I was the only one in the 65-69 age group,” he laughs. “It was my first competitive race of any kind. Since then, I’ve also completed the 2022 and 2023 Maui Marathon.”
Despite the fact that he’s relatively new to the sport, it seems Paul was destined to be a runner. “I recently met a young couple from Germany. I told them I have German ancestors whose name was Lauffer. They told me that Lauffer means ‘runner.’ I laughed and felt that was significant!”
About ten years ago, Paul injured his knee while surfing. He has since recovered, but finds that the more he uses his knee, the better it behaves. “Trail running has so many different movements, like darting around avoiding obstacles, while running on road is monotonous,” he says. “I really like the varied scenery as well as the different ways my body needs to adapt to run the course.”
While you might imagine that running on Hawaii is done on flat, sandy beaches, the terrain is actually quite rugged and mountainous. Paul enjoys running through the deserted pineapple fields that are covered with tall grasses and peppered with deer trails.
“I like to run in the rock gulches. These are areas of rock that have been worn down from years of run-off,” he says. “They’re dry now unless we have a storm.”
Living life on island time has allowed Paul to appreciate nature and embrace living a more holistic lifestyle. Consistent exercise, getting a solid eight hours of sleep, and swimming in the cold ocean and freshwater mountain streams are a few of his secrets to longevity. “Get out and experience God’s green earth,” he says. “Eat food the way God meant for us to eat it- grass fed meats, live and raw milk, and fermented food.”
“Get out and experience God’s green earth. Eat food the way God meant for us to eat it- grass fed meats, live and raw milk, and fermented food.”
Paul’s main goal for the World Championship is to complete the 42 kilometers in one piece and make some good friends along the way. “Maui and the people in our country are currently going through tough challenges. I’m hoping and praying this Sugarloaf Mountain experience draws us all closer together in a drive to foster well what God gave us and not let it slip from our hands,” he says.
When Tom Miller retired from the US Marine Corps, he’d already obtained a BS in engineering and a MS in management. He decided to further his education by earning a doctorate in Exercise and Sports Science. Afterwards, he taught at the college level for 20 years and even published a book- Programmed To Run.
“Like Chris McDougall, I believe we were Born To Run, but not on the pavement,” he says. “Trail running demands that you stay in the now, because every step may be different dependent upon the nature of the trail. I call it trail dancing, with Mother Nature leading the action.”
At 81 years old and still running strong, Tom is the picture of longevity. After having won the 75-79 age group at Nationals and Worlds three times in the past, he was excited to receive an email from XTERRA inviting him to the Trail Run World Championship this fall. But he was disappointed that he might not make it to the start line.
In July of 2022, he contracted COVID, and then rebound COVID, which morphed into long COVID. Even after recovering, he couldn’t run more than a couple of steps at a time. Later that month, he was diagnosed with CLL, a slow growing form of leukemia.
“By my birthday on Halloween, I had come to terms with my mortality and was determined to sustain the highest level of general health and fitness I could, while appreciating every day and those I love around me,” he says.
"I had come to terms with my mortality and was determined to sustain the highest level of general health and fitness I could, while appreciating every day and those I love around me.”
By wintertime, he’d made two New Years resolutions. The first was to focus on developing his skills as an all-around athlete by snowshoeing, snow biking, Nordic classic, and skate skiing. The second was to develop a plan for his return to trail running after a 9-month hiatus. “The most successful aging runners I know are also the best all-around aging athletes who participate in more endurance sports than just running,” he explains.
Tom is fortunate to have access to quarterly check ups with the VA, which point to a healthy outlook for the future. However, he still wasn’t sure how his novel approach to “reprogram some spring back into my aging running steps” was going to work. He used the knowledge gained from 60 years of running, racing, coaching, and research to implement his plan. With a few weeks left before the race, the question is no longer can he get to the finish line, but rather how long it will take him to race each mile as effectively as he can.
“For me, this race is no longer a competition, but a celebration,” he says.
Sugarloaf Trailblazers is an ongoing series, with edition #1, #2 and #3 already published and more stories still to come from those preparing to take their place on the starting line of the XTERRA Trail Run world Championship in Maine, USA.
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