Could this be the season Joe Gray of Colorado Springs, Colo., celebrates his first Northeast Delta Dental Mount Washington Road Race championship?
A runner-up the last two seasons, the 30-year-old Gray looks to conquer the 7.6-mile race Saturday at 9 a.m. at the base of the Mount Washington Auto Road on Route 16 in Gorham.
Last year, Gray crossed the finish line in one hour, two minutes, 46 seconds, just behind defending champion Eric Blake of West Hartford, Conn. Blake who recorded a winning time of 59 minutes, 57 seconds.
In 2012, Gray posted a time of one hour and 33 seconds, finishing second to Sage Canaday of Boulder, Colo., who won in a time of 58 minutes, 27 seconds.
“All three runners are back this year and this marks the first time since 1999 that we have two runners in the field who recorded a sub-hour time,” said John Stifler, who has been covering this race over the last three decades. In his previous five appearances in this race, Gray has placed second twice, third twice and fourth once.
The 35-year-old Blake, a three-time winner and a three-time runner-up, is running his 10th Mt. Washington Road Race Saturday and 28-year-old Canaday is making his third overall appearance.
“Sage is very talented and you can never count out Eric, but Joe Gray has been running as good as he ever has this season,” said Stifler. “If I were a betting man, the winner will likely be one of those three runners.”
First-time competitors who could capture the spotlight Saturday are Ryan Bak of Bend, Ore., and Zach Miller of Manitou Springs. Colo. Simon Gutierrez, 49, from Colorado Springs, is a three-time winner of this race, He owns the course record (1:01:34 in 2008) for masters (over 40). Last year Gutierrez was fourth overall after Blake, Gray and Canaday, holder of the third fastest time in the 54-year history of this race. Canaday and Blake are two of only seven runners ever to record a sub-hour time up the mountain.
Locally, brothers Justin Freeman of New Hampton and Kris Freeman of Thornton will try to become the first New Hampshire runners to cross the finish line. Last year Justin, 37, won the Crossan Cup as the top Granite State runner, in 1:06:52.
On the women’s side, two-time winner Brandy Erholtz of Evergreen, Colo., is the favorite on Saturday. Last year, when she was four months pregnant, she finished second to Colorado’s Laura Haefeli, who has decided not to return this season to defend her crown. The main threat to 36-year-old Erholtz is 34-year-old Valentina Belotti, who won the women’s World Mountain Running Association championship in Italy in 2009 and was second in 2010 and 2012. She’s making her debut Saturday in the Mount Washington Road Race.
Local runners who could surprise are Larisa Dannis of Strafford, Diana Davis of Exeter, Abbey Woods of Laconia and former Manchester Central standout Kasie Enman of Huntington, Vt. Three years ago, Enman became the first American woman to win the World Mountain Running Championship. She has had two third-place finishes in the Mount Washington Road Race (2011-12). Dannis also won the Crossan Cup as the first New Hampshire woman to finish the Mount Washington Road Race last year, in 1:26:59.
Stifler said 450 women have registered for Saturday’s race and 823 are on the men’s side. “If we have 1,200 who actually start the race, I think that will be the largest number we’ve ever had,” said Stifler.