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When the 2023 Golden Trail Marathon series began last spring, Stifel U.S. Cross-Country Team member Sophia Laukli was viewed as a wildcard. Her chances of winning seemed improbable even to Laukli, herself. Now, with the last race weekend of the race season behind her, the happy ending of Laukli’s improbable season was confirmed. Her victory in the season-long Golden Trail Series was a storybook season for the young American who rocked the world of professional trail running and possibly changed the paradigm of what is possible in how trail runners train. An underdog American going from a trail-running novelty-act to a dominating competitor is the stuff of Hollywood scripts, not the usual brutal reality of professional endurance sports.
Going into the final weekend of racing, Laukli stood on the cusp of winning the overall World Championship in her hobby and part-time gig; however, victory was no sure thing. This weekend’s finale in the Liguria region of Italy consisted of two races: a prologue on Thursday, followed by a women’s-only 24 kilometer final on Saturday.
Golden Trail Series organizers staged a final weekend calculated to heighten excitement, and it did just that. After Thursday’s prologue, Laukli held onto first place in the overall rankings by 18 points, the exact margin separating the points awarded to first and second place for Saturday’s race. But, Laukli could guarantee winning the overall title if she finished immediately behind the women trailing her in the rankings, Judith Wyder (SUI). Mathematical possibilities definitely existed for the season-long series to end in a tie, but a complex tie-breaking process favored Laukli as long as there was no runner between her and Wyder.
Besides the prestige of winning, there was also a lot of money at stake: the series winner would take home $15,800, plus additional prize money for winning the concluding race. In Saturday’s race, Laukli received some help in the overall standings from her competitors. Monica Madalina Florea (ROU) was able to push the pace to claim first place, putting Laukli’s competition, Wyder, into second by a mere 15 seconds. Laukli held onto third. This resulted in a tie in the overall standings. The math was complicated, but since Laukli had one more season victory than Wyder, it worked to give Laukli the overall title. Had Wyder been able to pull out the win—and separate herself from Laukli by one competitor—Laukli would have been denied the title.
However, it wasn’t an easy road for Laukli. “After the first lap I didn’t feel good,” Laukli commented after the race. “On the second lap I felt like I was going to drop out.” Despite the physical challenges, Laukli pushed through. It was a gutsy and praise-worthy finish to a long and unlikely season.
“There were moments in the race where I felt so bad that I just didn’t know how I was going to make it to the finish,” Laukli told FasterSkier, “but it was going to take a lot more for me to actually drop out since there was so much on the line. So I thought about it but knew it wasn’t really an option to drop, so pushed through. Luckily it still worked out because I really had no idea throughout the race if it was going to be enough, but it was such a good feeling to cross the finish line and finally know I had gotten the overall. So anyways very happy now but super excited to move quickly into skiing now!”
And with regard to her plans for competing in the trail race circuit next season, Laukli made her plans clear: “I’ll be back for sure!” So, next spring, the cross-country ski world will be anxiously watching to see if the woman who identifies as “a skier first” will still be able to dominate the world of professional trail running.