Colorado high school runners Samantha Blair (5th place), Madeleine Burns (7th place) and Maggi Congdon (18th place) took home the team bronze medal at the World Mountain Running Association's(WMRA) U18 International Mountain Running Youth Cup in Susa, Italy. The three standout cross country runners competed against elite 16-and 17-year-old off-road runners from 14 countries on a technical 4.1-km course with 200 meters of ascent and descent.
The Italian girls took gold in the team competition by sweeping the podium for 6 points, while the USA and Turkey tied with 30 points. Turkey took silver as their third runner finished 15th versus 17th for USA's third runner.
In the boys' race, James Gregory, Rafael Sanchez and William Ledden took 5th place as a team with 40 points. This was just behind the 3rd and 4th place teams who tied with 36 points each. Gregory went out hard and led most of the race followed closely by a pack of 6 to 8 runners. Ultimately he slipped back to finish a strong 4th place with two French runners sprinting for a 1-2 photo finish. Sanchez and Ledden ran consistent races coming home in 15th and 21st place respectively. With first, second and third places locked up, France won the team gold medal.
Both boys and girls ran a 4.1 km course with 200 total meters of climbing and descending. The classic mountain running course featured dirt forest single-track trails, cobblestone alleys, stone steps, pavement, grass and a narrow tunnel through a castle wall. Most of the trails were off-camber with tight turns and there was even a steep drop down off a stone retaining wall which the athletes tackled twice.
Regardless of medals won or places earned, all the US runners had solid performances considering it was their first international race. Here's what the athletes had to say about the race and their overall experience in Italy:
Madeleine Burns (Durango, CO) - "This race was a lot of fun. I'd never done any race like this before. There were parts of the course, like in the middle of the race, where I thought wow, I'm running through a castle in Italy - this is amazing! This was such a challenging race but the huge variety of terrain made it really fun. Being here was also a super great learning experience because it was different than any races we have in the U.S. Experiencing the culture of mountain running in Italy has been incredible."
Maggi Congdon (Steamboat Springs, CO) - "My race was better than I expected and I'm so happy I had the opportunity to compete in this event. I liked the cobbled stairs - both on the uphill and downhill because it was something different than what I run on at home. It's just crazy to have won a team bronze medal. I never really thought I'd be at an international event representing the United States and then being on the podium."
Samantha Blair (Eagle, CO) - "This course was like nothing I've ever raced. I couldn't have predicted how the race would have unfolded. The start was like the Liberty Bell - a big cross cross running race in Colorado - but way more European style. Other runners ran way more aggressively than I expected making the racing very intense. My favorite part of the course was running up narrow stone stairs into the castle courtyard. The race is a really good kick off for my cross country running season. It makes me more excited for all the upcoming races at home in Colorado."
James Gregory (Fort Collins, CO) - "As soon as I hit the first big uphill I went as hard as I could. I felt good on lap two, but got passed by several runners on the final downhill. Props to the French runners on their 1-2-3 sweep, they ran amazingly. It was very motivating to hear all the cheering along the course. I had so much fun in this race and look forward to doing another European mountain running race."
Rafael Sanchez (Los Alamos, NM) - "I felt comfortable starting out in the middle of the pack and passed a lot of guys on the uphills. Unfortunately I did get passed on the downhills. Regardless, I had a ton of fun; especially racing through a tunnel into the castle courtyard finish. One thing I learned from this experience is that I can go harder on the uphills next time."
William Ledden (Lafayette, CO) - "I had fun during the race. It was a little scary seeing a runner fall off the course at a narrow section of the trail. One thing I learned is that I can be more aggressive. Even so, the culture of this mountain running in Italy is amazing. This experience makes me hungry for cross country races this fall."
U.S. U18 Girls Results:
(1st - Katja Pattis - Italy - 19.52)
5th - Samantha Blair - 20:27
7th - Madeleine Burns - 20:55
18th - Maggi Congdon - 21:48
U.S. U18 Boys Results:
(1st - Hugo Schropfer - France - 16:54)
4th - James Gregory - 17:02
15th - Rafael Sanchez - 17.54
21st - William Ledden - 18:10
Sunday after the youth cup is the traditional day of the annual Challenge Stellina race, a 14.4-km uphill event with 1640 meters of climbing. All the U.S. athletes, team staff members and several family members hiked the route of the course with about 60 other local runners, members of the Italian Mountain Running Team and WMRA President and course record holder Jonathan Wyatt who set the record in 2004 in a time of 1:14:37.
This historic event commemorates the Italian partisans who fought against the Nazis and fascists during World War II. On August 26, 1944, many local men died in a battle fought on the trails, in the forests and on the rugged mountainside above Susa. They were led by commander Aldo Laghi, also known as Giulio Bolaffi. The Challenge Stellina race was founded and sponsored by the Bolaffi family.
Additional links for the 14th WMRA U18 International Mountain Running Youth Cup:
Official Results at: https://www.mysdam.net/events/event/results-download_47751.do
Team USATF Photos: https://photos.app.goo.gl/5metiAPSt9ALv6q77
Pre-race team video: https://youtu.be/FAfVOZ2t9A8
Pre-race team story with athlete quotes is on this website here.