Defending champion Sage Canaday leads men’s field; Erholtz may be top woman

PINKHAM NOTCH, N.H. – Top mountain runners from New England, the Rockies, and the West Coast lead the field this year in the 53rd Northeast Delta Dental Mt. Washington Road Race. On June 15 they’ll make their way 7.6 miles up the relentlessly steep Mt. Washington Auto Road to the summit of Mt. Washington, at 6288 feet above sea level the highest peak in the Northeast. Starting time is 9 a.m.

A year ago, observers at this historic and grueling race did a double-take when newcomer Sage Canaday of Boulder, Colo., took an early lead and never looked back, defeating an intensely competitive group of rivals, including two former World Mountain Champions and several members of the U.S. national mountain running team. This year those observers will expect to see the 27-year-old Canaday up front, and the main question will be whether his closest competition from last year can challenge him for first place this time.

The women’s field is led by Brandy Erholtz, 35, of Evergreen, Colo., who won the race in her first appearance here in 2008, won again in 2009, and has finished second twice (2010, 2012) and third once (2011) since then. As she has happily reported in her running blog, Erholtz is now four months pregnant. Although she may be slightly slower this year than last, her strength and her intelligent training keep her on top of the list of contenders.

Sponsored by Northeast Delta Dental, which provides comprehensive dental-care insurance in northern New England, the race this year welcomes its largest number of entrants ever — 1300 in all, from 34 states including Alaska and Hawaii, plus the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec. It is directed by Dave McGillivray Sports Enterprises, the same organization that directs the Boston Marathon.

Canaday, a former Cornell cross-country and track runner who subsequently trained with the highly respected Hanson-Brooks Distance Project, showed last year that Mt. Washington’s severe 12-percent grade suited him well. He covered the 7.6-mile distance from the base to the summit in 58 minutes 27.58 seconds, the third-fastest time in the race’s history. Behind him were Joseph Gray of Newcastle, Wash., a former all-American steeplechaser and U.S. Mountain Running Team veteran, who finished in 1:00:33; and two-time winner (2006 and 2008) Eric Blake of New Britain, Conn., in 1:00:54. Gray’s and Blake’s times in 2012 would have won this race in most years. Gray, 29, and Blake, 34, will return this year to test their conditioning and mental toughness against Canaday’s.

Erholtz has been the steadiest female performer in the Mt. Washington Road Race women’s field for five years. She won in 2008 in 1:11:08, then lowered her time to 1:10:53 when she won in 2009. Her best time since then was last year, when she clocked 1:12:27, making her runner-up behind Kim Dobson, of Denver, Colo., who ran 1:09:25 – the second-fastest time ever recorded for the women’s field at Mt. Washington. Dobson will be absent from Mt. Washington this year, as will last year’s third-place finisher Kasie Enman of Vermont.

The uncertain variables are how fast Laura Haefeli, 44, Carolyn Stocker, 20, and Kristin Frey, 29, will finish. Haefeli, of Del Norte, Colo., the first American woman ever to win an individual medal in the World Mountain Championships, placed fourth last year at Mt. Washington, in 1:15:10, and she knows the mountain well.

Stocker set the Mt. Washington Road Race record for junior runners in 2011, lowered it to 1:18:58 with her fifth-place finish in 2012, and returns to Mt. Washington strengthened by two seasons of collegiate competition at the University of Maine. Stocker is also one of the country’s top snowshoe-racers, having won the gold medal in her age group at this year’s U.S. National Snowshoe Championship in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon, placing third among all women and earning a place on the U.S. national snowshoe team that will compete next February in Sweden.

Frey will run the Auto Road for the first time, but she is familiar with steep climbs, being the premier staircase racer in the United States. A resident of Schaumburg, Ill., she has won every major stair climb race in the skyscrapers of Chicago, placed fourth in New York’s Empire State Building Run-up, and run a personal best marathon time of 3:14. In 2012 Chicago Athlete Magazine named her the Female Athlete of the Year.

Other likely top male finishers this year at Mt. Washington include Simon Gutierrez, 47, of Colorado Springs, Colo.; Matt Byrne, 38, of Scranton, Penn.; Peter Maksimow, 34, of Manitou Springs, Colo.; Ryan Bak, 30, of Bend, Ore.; and Matt Flaherty, 27, of Chicago, Ill. Gutierrez won the Race in 2002, 2003 and 2005, holds the masters (over 40) record for the course in 1:01:34, and last year set a new 44-49-years age-group record of 1:02:24. On the evening before this year’s race he will be inducted into the Mt. Washington Road Race Hall of Fame, in a ceremony at the base of the Auto Road.

Byrne has run Mt. Washington four times, including a third-place finish in 2011, a personal best of 1:02:02 in 2008, and a 12th place finish last year, when the field was the most competitive in the Race’s history. Maksimow, a seasoned member of the U.S. Mountain Running team, is perennially strong.

Flaherty was expected to finish among the top contenders at Mt. Washington last year but was injured before the race. Having finished fourth in the Napa Valley Marathon in March and having won the American River 50-mile race in April, he comes to Mt. Washington with the strength and endurance to contend in this field. Bak won the inaugural Rock’n’Roll Half Marathon in Portland, Ore., last year and was the fourth U.S. finisher in the elite Fukuoka Marathon in Japan last winter. This year’s Northeast Delta Dental Mt. Washington Road Race kicks off his summer of international mountain racing.

Although she may not finish with the leaders this year, J’ne (pronounced “Janey”) Day-Lucore, 52, of Denver, Colo., will be in everyone’s sights when she returns to Mt. Washington. Day-Lucore has won Mt. Washington three times including a 1992 debut in which broke the existing women’s course record with a time of 1:11:46. Along with Simon Gutierrez, she will be inducted into the Mt. Washington Road Race Hall of Fame the evening before the race.

The Northeast Delta Dental Mt. Washington Road Race attracts hundreds of hardcore road and trail runners from across New England, other regions of the country, and abroad. In fact the number of would-be entrants has long been greater than the 152-year-old Mt. Washington Auto Road can accommodate. The “Run to the Clouds” is therefore filled each year partly by invitations issued to elite runners but primarily by a computer-generated lottery selection process that opens each year in February.

Runners pay an $80 participation fee. Fifty percent of all proceeds from the race will support Coos County Family Health Services in Berlin, N.H., a community-based organization that provides comprehensive health care and social services to everyone, regardless of economic status. The organization also provides a school-based oral health program.

The winners’ first prize in the race is $1,000, with a bonus of $5,000 for anyone who breaks the course record. The men’s course record, set in 2004 by six-time World Mountain Champion Jonathan Wyatt of New Zealand, is 00:56:41. The women’s record, set by Ethiopian runner Shewarge Amare in 2010, is 1:08:21.

Delta Dental Plans of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, jointly do business as Northeast Delta Dental, headquartered in Concord, N.H., with sales offices in Saco, Maine, and Burlington, Vt. Northeast Delta Dental administers dental insurance programs for organizations of all sizes and for individuals and families who have no access to employer-sponsored dental benefits. To learn more about Northeast Delta Dental, visit www.nedelta.com and follow Northeast Delta Dental on Facebook and Twitter.

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