It wasn’t the delusionally fast pace he was setting, nor the hazy mist of East Coast rain playing tricks on his eyes. When David Sinclair clamored past the 35-kilometer mark of the Ragged 50K trail marathon, which served as the 2018 USA Track & Field (USATF) 50 k Trail Championships two Sundays ago in Danbury, New Hampshire, there was no denying the shape that greeted him from side of the trail: a mother black bear and her cub.
Ten kilometers earlier, Sinclair had been the company of fellow runners, running in the top 10 until the halfway point. At 25 k, he positioned himself into the lead. In another 2 k, the former Dartmouth skier was pulling away and by the time he came across the duo of bears, Sinclair was alone, minutes separating him and the rest of the field.
Not slowing, Sinclair then did what outdoor adventurers are instructed to do should they encounter a black bear whilst traipsing about in nature. Stay calm, be big.
“I picked up the pace a little bit and started yelling, ‘Get out of here!’ Just making my presence known,” Sinclair, 26, of Peru, Vermont, told FasterSkier on the phone. “A minute later, I come around a curve in the trail and I see the cub again. Literally in the middle of the trail. For a second, I thought the mom would come and chase me down for getting too close to her cub.”
The mother bear, however, never reappeared. With that obstacle behind him, Sinclair ran the rest of the race alone. He crossed the finish line first in a time of 4 hours, 17 minutes and 36 seconds. That broke the previous course record set by Patrick Caron in 4:53:26 last summer.
To date, the Ragged 50K was only Sinclair’s second race at that distance. His first was the 2018 Speedgoat 50 k, which took place in Snowbird, Utah, exactly three weeks earlier.
He described the Speedgoat, which features more than 12,000 feet of climbing over 33 miles, as “absolutely insane.” The bottom of the race’s website warns entrants (in all caps and bold font) “REMEMBER THIS IS A HARD RACE, IF YOU FEEL LIKE THIS SHOULD BE YOUR FIRST 50K, YOU ARE PROBABLY WRONG IN YOUR ASSUMPTIONS.”
Apparently, Sinclair chose to ignore or missed the heeding. He entered and won the Speedgoat, his first 50 k ever, in a time of 5:27:13. Two rest weekends and a week later, he won the Ragged 50 k in record time.
“Speedgoat took an hour and half longer than [the Ragged 50K] because of the altitude and insane amount of vertical,” Sinclair explained. “In comparison, the one here in New Hampshire felt a little bit easier.”
Easy being a relative term. The Ragged 50 K features 6,300 feet of vertical over 32 miles. After “mostly dirt road or pretty smooth trail” for the first 15 k, the remainder of the race pulls competitors through what Sinclair described as “gnarly, muddy single track.”
“That last hour of fighting your legs cramping up or when your stomach stops taking in any food and water, that part can be hard,” he said.
Losing sense of one’s vitals never sounds easy (or fun). Still, that hasn’t deterred Sinclair. Since the beginning of the summer, he had planned to taper specifically for the Ragged 50K. In winning the race, he earned a nomination to the US Mountain Running Team, as well as an automatic entry into the 2019 Trail World Championships next June in Mirandha do Corvo, Portugal. Sinclair plans to attend.
For winning the Ragged 50 k, Sinclair was also awarded $750 dollars from USATF and $300 for being a member of USATF New England Association.
Finishing 21 minutes and 17 seconds behind Sinclair in second was Simi Hamilton, 31, of the U.S. Ski Team (USST) in a time of 4:38:53. Third went to David Kilgore, 26, in a time of 4:41:38.
Hamilton’s time also surpassed last year’s Ragged 50K record by approximately 15 minutes. Though he usually spends his summers mountain biking as cross training, Hamilton spent much of this summer training on foot.
“I was in France for quite big chunk of the summer [at teammate] Erik [Bjornsen]’s wedding and then our [USST training] camp. I didn’t have my bike over there, but had access to some really cool running trails, so ended up doing a ton of running while in France,” Hamilton told FasterSkier on the phone while at a USST training camp in New Zealand. “When I came back to [to the U.S.] I was really psyched with how I was feeling running, so I talked to Matt [Whitcomb] about trying to find a race to do.”
The 50 k cropped up as one option thanks to a conversation with Sinclair, who dates Isabel Caldwell, the sister of Hamilton’s girlfriend and USST teammate, Sophie Caldwell.
“I think 50 k was probably a little longer than what Matt had in mind,” Hamilton said with a laugh. “But I’d been doing a lot of three- to four-hour runs, so I felt like my body was at least mostly prepared for something of that duration.”
According to Hamilton, the race did not qualify him for the 2019 Trail World Championships, though his recent performance has him more intrigued with mountain racing and running.
“It’s definitely something that’s on my radar, possibly next year I might try to find a few more mountain running races to jump into,” Hamilton said. “Obviously it all depends on my plan with my ski career and how much longer I’ll be doing this, but it’s something that’s been on my mind.”
Sinclair and Hamilton are not the first nordic skiers to find success at a USATF mountain ultra. Last year, Caitlin Patterson, of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, placed fourth in the 10 k at the 2017 USATF Mountain Running Championships. Her performance also qualified her for the 2017 World Mountain Running Championships in Premana, Italy. Glenn Randall and Morgan Arritola have also posted strong results in national mountain running races.
“It’s really great to see Nordic athletes give it a go in mountain and ultra races,” US Mountain Running manager Paul Kirsch, also chair of USATF New England Mountain, Ultra & Trail Running, wrote in an email. “The aerobic and strength training required to be a great xc skier translates so well to the trails and mountain.
“To have David and Simi have such great races at this year’s grueling USA 50 km Trail Champs course reinforces how much the skills cross over in longer races as well,” Kirsch continued. “They both looked as strong at the end of the race as when they started. I look forward to seeing more Nordic athletes in future years.”
Even trailside. Both Caldwell sisters, along with their grandfather John Caldwell, came out to watch and cheer for Hamilton and Sinclair in person.
“We had a great support crew,” Hamilton said.
Following the race, Hamilton had one week of dryland training before jetting out to New Zealand for the USST’s on-snow camp at the Snow Farm.
Sinclair, who had been in Flagstaff, Arizona, earning his masters degree in geology until this spring, is now back in Vermont, preparing to start a teaching job at the Stratton Mountain School. He will continue to devote his spare time to running, welcoming anyone willing to join (he occasionally brings Isabel or joins the Stratton boys ski team).
“I don’t really track it,” Sinclair said of his running mileage per week.
Since he became involved with the sport two years ago, he indicated he has been self-coached, learning from conversations he’s had with other trail runners. His first long distance trail running race was the 2017 Flagstaff Skyrace–a 40 k race that finishes in the Arizona Snowbowl Ski Area–which he won. In winning the 2017 Flagstaff race, he qualified for the 2018 World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships in Karpacz, Poland, which took place this past June.
Taking the opportunity to travel in tandem with the World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships race, Sinclair spent the month of June in Poland, Italy, Austria and Germany. Prior to racing the World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships, Sinclair first raced the Livigno Skymarathon, a 32 k event that is part of the skyrunning series.
In the Livigno Skymarathon, which he said he used as “a warm-up race for the World Championships in Poland” he finished third. Sinclair then traveled to Karpacz, Poland to compete in the World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships, where he placed 30th and helped the men’s U.S. team to a second place team finish.
While most of his trail running race experience has come in the past two years, Sinclair was quick to point out that his time at Dartmouth also contributed to his quick ascent in the ranks. As a member of the men’s ski team at Dartmouth, Sinclair would run 12-18 mile over distance runs on the Appalachian Trail every weekend through the fall.
“The guys team would tend to run these pretty quickly and I think doing this for four years made transitioning to trail running races a lot easier,” Sinclair wrote in an email.
In terms of how he outlines his training weeks nowadays, Sinclair remains fairly flexible.
“I’ll have one or two days where I’ll run a little bit harder or do some intervals or do 45 minutes at threshold in the middle of a run,” Sinclair said. “Then I’ll try to do at least one longer run which might be three to four hours on a trail or 20 miles on a little more of a dirt road.
“It’s definitely a lot less structured than when I was focused on ski training, but for me it works better to not keep too close track of it because then I get too competitive with myself,” Sinclair added. “That’s my philosophy is keep it fun and exciting.”
So far, the biggest learning curve for Sinclair has been getting accustomed to pacing his running for a four or five hour race. He indicated that he usually wears a heart rate monitor to ensure he stays below his threshold hear trate and puts focus on staying hydrated early on.
“Getting enough fluid early in the race will pay off three hours later,” Sinclair said.
“It goes by pretty quickly if you stay focused on what’s the trail doing ten feet in front of you,” he continued. “Probably a good thing to do too because it keeps your mind off of how much further you still have to go.”