Race to the Top: Prickly Pear Fundraiser

Race up Mount Ascension

IR photos by John Doran – Cyclist Will Snider competes Wednesday in the Race to the Top. Snider clocked a 10 minutes, 18 seconds, but his mountain bikers fell short of defending the Mount Ascension crown.

Revenge of the runners

By MARTIN J. KIDSTON – Independent Record – 10/23/08
Like Pheidippides running from the plains of Marathon to tell his fellow Athenians of their victory over the Persians, a team of dedicated runners charged up Mount Ascension on Wednesday to steal victory from their rival mountain bikers.

The Race to the Top, a grueling test of endurance and grit, pitted the two teams head to head on the 2006 Trail to settle an old score and launch a tradition that promises to last.

When the sun settled behind the nearby hills and the light finally drained from the sky, the runners slipped away with victory, outpacing the bikers on their way to the top.

“It was fun because the times were really close for the most part,” said biker Scott Herzig. “That bodes well for next year. We’ve got a rematch and the training starts now.”

Herzig clocked an impressive 9:02, placing second among the bikers and doing his part to hold down his team’s score. But Greg Wirth, the runner who followed Herzig, made the dash eight seconds faster, finishing in 8:54.

And so went the night for team cycling, losing six seconds here and seven seconds there to a competing runner. In the end, each of the seven runners outpaced each of the seven bikers they were paired against, helping seal the deal.

“There are a couple tight switchbacks and there’s a little loose dirt,” said Will Snider, a member of the cycling team. “Everyone’s cheering you on, so you want to do as good as you can, and you don’t want to fall off your bike.”

At the top, more than 20 spectators clad in jackets and caps turned their backs to the chilling wind. The views of the valley stretched north to the Big Belt Mountains while the city, spread just below, gleamed in a kaleidoscope of light cast by another Montana sunset.

One by one, the competitors brushed past the last stand of pines to make a final push to the summit, where Brian Wieck stood keeping time. The crowd lined the stony course, cheering each racer to the finish while trying to keep their dogs off the trail.

No matter the team, the crowd applauded the same. Some — like Jenn Baker and Wendy Brooke — secretly pulled for the bikers. Others had their money set on the runners.

“I wasn’t in quite the shape I wanted to be,” said runner Tim Davis after cooling down. “My arms went a little numb. I guess it means I wasn’t getting enough oxygen. It was a little further than I wanted to go.”

It was his lungs, not his legs, which hurt the most.

The pain didn’t discriminate between teams. Bikers and runners alike embraced their knees to catch their breath.

Words like “hurt” and “pain” and more colorful elocutions were common. Spectators offered the sweaty athletes jackets and caps and beanies to fend off the cold wind pouring over the mountain.

The event was started last year to resolve a friendly bet between cyclist Eric Grove and runner Michele Bazzanella on who could reach the top the fastest — a biker or a runner.

In that race, Grove reached the top in 9:24 while Bazzanella finished in 10:11. Victory went to the cyclists, but the inaugural event hardly settled the score.

Grove improved his time this year by four seconds while Bazzanella dropped five seconds off last year’s pace. Backed by a lineup of men and women, however, the runners took Race to the Top II.

“It confirmed my theory,” said Bazzanella after the race. “I was so pleased. I was so excited. I just knew we could do it.”

Cyclist Frank Gonzalez logged the fastest time among the male riders at 8:37, while Thomas Jodoin, the fastest male runner — and the fastest person up the mountain — clocked a blistering 8:19.

Among the female riders, Michelle Richardson rode the fastest time at 12:22. Bazzanella — the fastest female runner — completed the course in 10:16.

“Next year, I think we need to do this downhill,” said Richardson, while reviewing the times with Herzig after the race.

“On a mountain bike, there are a lot of mistakes you can make, like on a corner or spinning out,” Herzig added. “Running, you just can’t trip.”

No matter who won, the competitors were happy to support the Prickly Pear Land Trust, which netted close to $20,000 during its recent Harvest Moon banquette and will draw more from the fundraising held by the teams in conjunction with Wednesday’s race.

“It was good to help out Prickly Pear,” said Snider. “I’ll do any kind of fundraiser for them. I’d even swim for them if I had to. But biking is more fun.”

Reporter Martin Kidston: 447-4086 or mkidston@helenair.com

IR photo by John Doran – Eric Grove, one of the original racers in last year’s inaugural Race to the Top, climbs his single speed near the top of Mount Ascension Wednesday. Grove raced four seconds faster this year in 9 minutes, 20 seconds.

IR photos by John Doran – In a race that pitted runner against biker, it was all camaraderie at the top as biker Will Snider, left, and runner Tim Davis converse Wednesday at the peak of Mount Ascension.