Off-road runners come together at Trail World Championships
Over 360 athletes from 52 countries converged on Portugal for the 5th Trail World Championships last weekend. Many of these athletes arrived at the championships with impressive results from many disciplines of off-road running. Mountain runners, fell runners, sky runners, obstacle course runners, road ultrarunners and of course trail runners, all toed the starting line seeking glory on the 44 km single loop course featuring 2200 meters of climbing and descending.
While the course was primarily on mountain trails, it also featured narrow cobbled streets, a dark tunnel, stone steps, slippery wooden bridges, extremely steep muddy slopes and even sections of fast paved paths. It would take a versatile runner to conquer all these features to become the 2019 Trail World Champion.
On race day, sunny and mild weather greeted runners who drove in from nearby Coimbra to the start / finish in the small mountain town of Miranda do Corvo. At 9:00 AM sharp, the race commenced with a small road loop in the village center to the loud cheers of assembled trail running fans. Only 1 km into the race, the dense stream of runners left the road for a climb up to the hilltop church of Igreja Matriz and into the mountains overlooking the town.
First into the 16 km aid station at Sr. Piedade located 275 meters above sea level was Christian Mathys (SUI). Christian finished 10th at the 2017 World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships making his dash to the lead not unexpected. Second into Sr. Piedade was Jonathan Albon (GBR). Jonathan is the reigning Spartan World Champion and winner of three Skyrunner World Series events. Third into Sr. Piedade was defending Trail World Champion Luis Hernando (ESP). With three world champions from four different disciplines of off-road running vying for the win, the race was on!
In the women’s race, newcomer to the French team Blandine L’hirondel charged into the 16 km aid station at Sr. Piedade with a healthy 7 minute lead. After finishing 2nd earlier this year at Trail du Ventoux and Trail Drôme, Blandine didn’t look like she wanted to settle for anything other than a win. Second into Sr. Piedade was Denisa Dragomir (ROU). Denisa previously finished 3rd & 4th at the 2017 & 2018 World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships. A veteran of Skyrunner World Series races, Sheila Aviles (ESP) was only 30 seconds behind Dragomir into 16 km and in a good position to help the Spanish women defend their team gold medal.
Not far behind these leaders were an impressive group of athletes with deep mountain running experience. On the women’s side, 2017 World Long Distance Mountain Running Champion Silvia Rampazzo (ITA) looked comfortable in the top 10. Also among the top runners at 16 km was 2017 Trail World Champion Adeline Roche (FRA), 2018 World Long Distance Mountain Running Champion Charlotte Morgan and 2011 World Mountain Running Champion Kasie Enman (USA). Kasie was also runner-up to Silvia at the 2017 World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships.
Also among the top men through 16 km were Julien Rancon (FRA) and 22 year old Alexandre Fine (FRA), both veterans of the World Mountain Running Championships. Among the top Italians were a quartet of experienced mountain runners including 5-time World Mountain Running Champion Marco de Gasperi (ITA), 2017 World Long Distance Mountain Running Champion Francesco Puppi (ITA), 2016 & 2018 World Long Distance Mountain Running Champion Alessandro Rambaldini (ITA) and World Mountain Running Champion veteran Luca Cagnati (ITA). For those counting, that’s eight world championships!
Describing his experience early in the race for corsainmontagna.it, Puppi wrote, “The pace after the start felt blistering but soon after I decided to let the other athletes go. I had to run at my own pace and work my way up to the leaders slowly and patiently if I wanted to have any chance: that was clear since the beginning. As I expected, it was not a race I could control from the front, but rather from the back of the leading pack.”
Perhaps not what he wanted, but Puppi would go on to a strong 4th place finish moving up steadily during the race.
Looking to improve on last year’s team silver medal, Great Britain also had mountain runners chasing teammate Jonathan Albon and close to the leaders early in the race. Andrew Davies (GBR) was 9th at the 2016 World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships and 2013 Trail World Champion Rickey Lightfoot who also had strong races in the 2016 and 2018 World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships.
It wasn’t just off-road specialists who took on the trails of Portugal. Zach Ornelas (USA) came to Miranda do Corvo for his second Trail World Championship just a few months after winning the USATF 50 km Road Championships in 2:50:01. While he didn’t have a trail good race, Zach will join the worlds best ultrarunning road specialists at the IAU’s 50 km World Championships this September in Romania.
When the dust settled and the top runners crossed the finish in Miranda do Corvo, the 5th Trail World Championship broke more than participation numbers; it was the fastest in history. Men’s winner Jonathan Albon (GBR) finished in 3:34:29 - almost 50 minutes faster than the last “short” Trail World Championships in 2017. Top in the women’s race was Blandine L’hirondel (FRA) who lead from the start and finished in 4:06:17 - almost 55 minutes faster than Adeline Roche’s (FRA) victory in 2017.
Second place finishers and silver medalists were Ruth Croft (NZL) who moved up during the race and crossed the line in 4:14:28 and Julien Rancon (FRA) who also moved up during the race to cross the timing mat in 3:37:47.
Third place finishers and bronze medal winners were Sheila Aviles (ESP) in 4:15:04 and Christian Mathys (SUI) who while he dropped back from the lead, still held on for a podium spot and crossed the line in 3:40:34.
In addition to the many mountain running athletes at the championship were a number of experienced of mountain running coaches and team leaders. From the United States, Jason Bryant and Richard Bolt have raced in or coached at over 20 World Mountain Running Championship races.
The steady hands of Paolo Germenetto and Tito Tiberti have guided many Italian mountain runners to success across athletic disciplines. Paolo recently earned a coaching award from European Athletics.
Underscoring the impressive course, Tiberti said, "An ever changing course rewarded those runners who proved able to better adapt to almost schizophrenic changes: soft trail then climbing, a bridge then running fast, a jump downhill then a slow uneven rocky part, a ford and then running again, shadow in the wood and sunshine under the wind turbines... It was an unusual and exciting show where mountain runners' speed brought both high quality and uncertainty, making it impossible to predict the race results. Team Italy got back home without medals and that's a news, too! Not the one we hoped for, but in a developing sport environment you cannot take anything for granted and should work hard for a better future (for all). Viva la corsa in montagna e il trail!"
Needless to say, Italy is a perennial mountain & trail running powerhouse and has many medals in its future.
Leading team Poland was WMRA Council Member Andrzej Puchacz. Andrzej has lead Poland at numerous World Mountain Running Championships and was instrumental in organizing a successful World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships at Karpacz in 2018.
Looking back at last weekend’s Trail World Championships, it was a success on many levels. For the organizers, sponsors, volunteers, teams, coaches and most importantly, the athletes. Regardless of how you label them, trail runners, mountain runners, skyrunners, obstacle course racers or ultrarunners from the roads - they all came to Miranda do Corvo ready to face the same off-road racing challenge. All are now veterans of the Trail World Championships.
Photos by Richard Bolt, Jamil Coury and Marco Gulberti.
Complete race results can be found on this website.