New England's strongest mountain runner, Eric Blake of New Britain, Conn., faced his best counterparts from the Rocky Mountains and the West Coast Saturday and beat them to reclaim the champion's title in the Northeast Delta Dental Mount Washington Road Race.
Blake, who won this 7.6-mile all-uphill race in 2006 and 2008, came back this year from four years of near misses to run up the Mount Washington Auto Road in his fastest time ever, 59 minutes 57 seconds.
Meanwhile on the women's side of the race, veteran mountain runner Laura Haefeli of Del Norte, Colo., finally won the internationally renowned event where she had repeatedly been a popular bridesmaid. Having finished third three times and among the top six women two other times in this climb to the 6,288-foot summit of the highest peak in the northeastern United States, Haefeli, now 45 years old, took an early lead and held it, taking advantage of an occasional tailwind and finishing in 1:18:05, more than five minutes ahead of her nearest competition.
Blake's win was emphatic and gratifying. The 34-year-old coach at Central Connecticut State lined up at the start with the two men who had beaten him last year and seemed in comparably good shape this time, Joseph Gray, 29, of Renton, Washington, and Sage Canaday, 27, from Boulder, Colorado. A year ago Canaday had run away from the field to become just the sixth man ever to break one hour on Mt. Washington, while Gray was a solid second, but this time the field was reversed.
Gray, a former all-American steeplechaser with track speed to go with his mountain endurance, seized the lead at the start, opened a gap on everyone else and held it for three miles while Blake and Canaday chased him. Then Blake surged while Canaday faded."Maybe Joe was going to run away with it, or maybe he was going to come back to us," said Blake afterward. "When I caught up with Joe, I just concentrated on maintaining momentum. I had seen enough second-place frustration, and I didn't want to be second again."After his two previous victories, Blake had been runner-up twice here, then eighth in 2011, when he was suffering from a not-yet-diagnosed torn hamstring muscle that required surgery. Having regained enough form to place third last year, he looked even stronger today.
Half a mile from the finish he was pumping his fist with the confidence of someone who knows he will win. Better yet, he realized he had a shot at the one-hour mark that had always eluded him before.
"I had thought I'd finish in 61 minutes," he said, "but I was going as quickly as I could." Quickly enough so that, on top of the winner's purse of $1,000, his finishing time earned him the $500 bonus the race awards to anyone who breaks one hour without breaking the course record. The men's course record for the Northeast Delta Dental Mt. Washington Road Race is 56:42, set in 2004 by six-time world mountain champion Jonathan Wyatt of New Zealand.
Haefeli, who five years ago broke the Mt. Washington masters (over 40) record previously held by Olympian Joan Samuelson, again collected the $300 award for the first female finisher over 40, to go along with her overall winner's $1000. The men's masters prize went once again to Simon Gutierrez, 47, of Colorado Springs. Gutierrez, who won this race three times between 2002 and 2005 and holds the master's course record, placed fourth overall in 1:04:44, outkicking 38-year-old Matt Byrne of Scranton, Pennsylvania by one second.
The next woman behind Haefeli was a smiling Brandy Erholtz, of Evergreen, Colo. Erholtz, 35, had won her Mt. Washington debut here in 2008, repeated as champion in 2009, and then been third in 2010 and runner-up for the past two years. For her, however, this year's runner-up performance was especially delightful. She is four months' pregnant - a fact about which she has happily posted a narrative on her training blog.
Undeniably slower this year, Erholtz was still tough. Starting conservatively, she passed Regina Loicano of Gloucester, Mass., and Tin-Marie Poulin of New York City in the first mile, then withstood a determined challenge by Loicano for several miles before finishing in 1:23:48, with Loicano third in 1:24:45 and Poulin another half minute back. Abby Mahoney, 35, of Holyoke, Mass., was fifth in 1:25:49.
Justin Freeman, 36, of New Hampton, N.H., an Olympic Nordic skier and local favorite, placed eighth overall in 1:06:52 to win the Crossan Cup, which is awarded annually to the top finisher from New Hampshire. The women's Crossan Cup winner was Larisa Dannis of Manchester, who placed seventh among all women in 1:26:59.
1. Eric Blake, 34, New Britain, Conn., 59:57
2. Joseph Gray, 29, Renton, Wash., 1:02:46
3. Sage Canaday, 27, Boulder, Colo., 1:03:39
4. Simon Gutierrez, 47, Colorado Springs, Colo., 1:04:44
5. Matthew Byrne, 38, Scranton, Pa., 1:04:45
6. Josh Ferenc, 31, Saxtons River, Vt., 1J5:36
7. Gabriel Rodriguez, 35, Baltimore, Md., 1:06:37
8. Justin Freeman, 36, New Hampton, N.H., 1:06:52
9. P:eter Maksimow, 34, Manitou Springs, Colo., 1:07:26
10. Eric MacKnight, 24, Clifton Park, N.J., 1:07:37
1. Laura Haefeli, 45, Del Norte, Colo., 1:18:05
2. Brandy Erholtz, 35, Evergreen, Colo., 1:23:48
3. Regina Loicano, 40, Gloucester, Mass., 1:24:45
4. Tina-Marie Poulin, 40, New York, N.Y., 1:25:17
5. Abby Mahoney, 35, Holyoke, Mass., 1:25:49
6. Layce Alves, 33, Rockport, Mass., 1:26:33
7. Larisa Dannis, 25, Manchester, N.H., 1:26:59
8. Dawn Roberts, 41, West Springfield, Mass., 1:27:28
9. Suzy West, 50, Putney, Vt., 1:28:22
10. Jennifer Brooks, 34, Gloucester, Mass., 1:28:27