Running High

[Updated, Aug. 1, 2019]

Move over adventure races and marathons, the latest trend in extreme fitness is mountain running. With a surge in new races, these Vermont ski resorts have you covered.

Cody Reed, 25, a winner of the 100-kilometer Ultra Race of Champions in 2016, is not someone you’d ever want to challenge to race up a mountain. Reed had already won the first event in the Under Armour Mountain Running Series when he set off to run the 50 kilometers of trails on the ridgeline between Killington and Pico in August, 2017. It was the first time the three-race national series had come to Killington, bringing Reed and other top runners to the Green Mountains. Not far behind was  Saxtons River local Josh Ferenc. On the rest of the course, hundreds of other competitors were running through alpine forests and along ridgelines with 100-mile views, racing distances that ranged from a 5K to a vertical mile, to the 50K.

Running up mountains:  It’s what local skiers and riders have always done to stay in shape after the lifts closed. But in recent years, the number of mountain races at ski areas has exploded.

While the Under Armour event did not return to Vermont for 2019 and two other favorites —Circumburke and the Smuggler’s Notch Marathon— have been paused for 2019, there are still plent of cool ways to race to the top of some of Vermont’s ski mountains.

The 11th running of the Northeast Delta Dental Race to the Top of Vermont in Stowe, on Aug. 25, challenges runners and cyclists to see who can get up the 4.3-mile, 2,654-foot vertical gain route up the Toll Road the fastest.

And the  Endurance Society’s Sky Run sends the vertically adept up the trails of Mad River Glen to the summit in either a 5K or a 10K, which has 3,700 vertical feet of climbing on September 7.  Stratton’s North Face Race to the Summit is October 13, followed by the daunting 29,029 which challenges runners to run up Stratton Mountain to accumulate 29,029 feet of vertical (the height of Mount Everest) over a weekend, while taking the gondola down.

“It seems like more and more people are looking for different types of running challenges and running up a mountain feels like an extreme endeavor, but it’s attainable,” says Greg Maino, who runs the Vermont Running Company and serves as the communication director for the Catamount Trail Organization, the host of Stowe’s Race to the Top. “Each year, we’re seeing more and more trail races like that.”

It’s not all straight up and down. The trail running season kicked off with the Catamount Ultra, in June, which letsrunners take a 25- or a 50-kilometer route around the trails of the Trapp Family Lodge (ending with a von Trapp beer, of course) and the Trapp Mountain Marathon and Half Marathon return to those trails on October 19, during full foliage. 

 Ragnar, a New England-wide running camp/festival and ultra trail relay races, returns to Mount Ascutney August 16-7. Jay Peak hosts its 8th Annual Trail Festival over Labor Day with three different 5Ks (green circle to black diamond) all the way up to a an ultra marathon. 

Out of breath just thinking about this?

It’s no wonder that Vermont turns out some of the top mountain runners in the nation, including world-class mountain runners Aliza LaPierre and Kasie Enman. To get a sense of how stiff the competition can be, at “fun” events like the race to the top, Montpelier’s Liz Stephen, the three-time member of the U.S. Olympic cross country ski team holds the women’s record for running the 4.3-mile course in 37 minutes 22 seconds. And Olympic mountain biking silver medalist Lea Davison, of Jericho, holds the record for riding it in 37:18.

Now, there’s a new crop of young runners. In  2016, John Kerrigan, a cross-country coach for more than 30 years at Waterbury’s Harwood Union High School, put together the first U.S. team to head to the Youth Sky Running World Championships. The event, held in Andorra, featured a vertical kilometer race (a 3.5K race with an elevation gain of 1,020 meters) and 15K races.

Erin McGill at the 2017 Youth SkyRunning World Championships in Andorra. The Under Armour 50K course.

Erin McGill, of Moretown, a competitor on the Ski The East freeride tour, finished second in the vertical K and third in the 15K.  In 2018, McGill and her brother Brendan as well as Waitsfield’s John Henry Bardes and East Burke’s Naia Tower-Pierce were on the team and competed in Italy.

“One of the biggest assets Vermont has is our terrain,” says running coach Ryan Kerrigan (John Kerrigan’s son) of Ripton. “There are not too many places where you get to run up and down as much as Vermont. Running flats might build up your foot speed but running hills builds strength.”

For actor Rusty DeWees, running mountains in Stowe did more than that: it got him back on skis this year for the first time in 17 years. “My back was shot, I had degenerative discs and I could barely walk in 2004,”  DeWees recalls. “The mountain saved me. I started walking up Mt. Mansfield, then running and now I’m in better shape than ever,” the 57-year-old says.

As Ryan Kerrigan says, running mountains has another benefit. “Running on steep, hilly terrain through forests and over mountain tops, on and off trail is our heritage,” he says. “We don’t need to hunt for food anymore but we’re always hunting something; one way or another a run in the woods helps us find whatever we’re looking for.”

Lisa Lynn

Editor of VT SKI + RIDE and Vermont Sports.

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