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June 16. 2013 11:34PM

NH runners rose to the occasion

"In my dreams, I'm going to win this race," New Hampton's Justin Freeman said Saturday afternoon, a few minutes after completing the super-steep Northeast Delta Dental Mount Washington Road Race.

Freeman, 36, is one of the strongest Nordic skiers in the United States, a veteran of the 2006 Olympics and three-time winner of the Ski to the Clouds, a ski race on the first half of the Mount Washington Auto Road. Winning the footrace, which covers the 7.6 miles from the mountain's base to its summit, the highest in the Northeast, is another story. Years ago, a Nordic skier would sometimes win the road race, but since the 1980s the mountain and trail runners have dominated.

Nevertheless, Freeman made a strong bid to realize his dream.

Thanks to his excellent aerobic capacity and his previous years' experience running as well as skiing on the Auto Road, Freeman Saturday made the ascent to the 6,288-foot summit in 1 hour, 6 minutes, 52 seconds, good not only for eighth place overall in a field led by the nation's best mountain runners but also fast enough to win the Crossan Cup, which is awarded each year to the first male and female finishers from New Hampshire. Freeman's brother, Kris, a three-time Nordic skiing Olympian, was the second Granite Stater to finish, in 1:08.19.

Meanwhile, 25-year-old Larisa Dannis of Manchester was tickled to discover that she had won the women's Crossan Cup in this, her first-ever appearance in this historic race.

"I'm a New Hampshire girl, and this is my mountain," Dannis said after the race, "but I had no idea how I'd do here. My goal was simply to run every step."

Running every step is normal in a standard 5-kilometer or 10-mile road race, but on Mount Washington's 12-percent grade, many runners walk part of the time. Dannis, however, has the exceptional strength of an ultramarathoner — her favorite runs are 30- or 40-mile jaunts on the trails of the White Mountains — and she knew she had the stamina to meet her goal.

Her finishing time, 1:26:59, placed her seventh in the field of 328 women, the largest ever here.

"I'm thrilled to be the first New Hampshire finisher!" Dannis said before taking a ride back down the Auto Road's base to the awards ceremony.

While Freeman was the first Granite State man to cross the finish line, the top honors of the day went to Eric Blake, 34, of New Britain, Conn. The world-class mountain runner and coach at Central Connecticut State, whose nine previous appearances here have included two wins (2006 and 2008) and only one finish outside top five, soundly defeated the two men who had finished ahead of him in 2012, Joseph Gray, 29, of Renton, Wash., and defending champion Sage Canaday, 27, from Boulder, Colo.

Blake broke the 1-hour barrier, crossing the finish line in 59:57.

Two top-tier Rocky Mountain runners, three seasoned runners from Massachusetts and a New York City artist were the only women ahead of Dannis. Fastest of the bunch — by far, as it turned out — was 45-year-old mountain running veteran Laura Haefeli of Del Norte, Colo.

Haefeli burst through the finish-line banner in 1:18:05, more than five minutes ahead of Brandy Erholtz of Evergreen, Colo.

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