Husband and wife team Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski and Heather Irmiger (Gary Fisher/Subaru) each won their respective national marathon championship events during the 9th annual Firecracker 50 Race in Breckenridge, Colorado on July 4.
Horgan-Kobelski bested his closest rivals by over 10 minutes to win his first US Marathon Championship. Defending champion Jeremiah Bishop (MonaVie) fought hard, particularly in the last half lap of the race, to take the silver medal. Former champion Jay Henry (Tokyo Joe's) finished a strong third, followed by road racer Peter Stetina. Young Colin Cares (Kenda/Tomac/Hayes) took the last spot on the podium in one of his best races since turning pro.
Racers competed on two laps of a 25-mile course with 5,400 feet of climbing per lap. The course started with a four-mile road climb, followed by a mixture of fire roads, flume singletrack and hair-raising switchback descents. The trail surface was often littered with sharp rocks that spoiled the chances of many racers due to flat tires. These included race favourites Dave Wiens (Topeak/Ergon), Mary McConneloug (Kenda-Seven-No Tubes) and Amanda Carey (Kenda-Tomac-Hayes) who all were riding to podium finishes.
On the four-mile road climb up Boreas Pass, Horgan-Kobelski broke away from the pack with the help of Stetina and Andy Schultz (Kenda/Tomac/Hayes). However, once they hit the singletrack, it was all Horgan-Kobelski, who went on to set a new course record.
"I had no idea how much of a lead I had. I was racing the whole time like there was someone right behind me," said Horgan-Kobelski. "That was not the plan today... the plan was to take the first lap kind of easy and then race a little harder on the second lap.
"I felt really comfortable on the first lap and found myself with a gap - so I figured I would just make the most of it."
Bishop found himself leading a chase group up the pavement, and then began to chase down Horgan-Kobelski in earnest once he hit the singletrack. However, after a half lap he had lost a minute to Horgan-Kobelski, and from that point on, the gap increased. Wiens, Stetina and Carres all raced within seconds of each other behind Bishop.
Near the end of the first lap, Wiens could be seen riding right on Bishop's wheel. Unfortunately for Wiens, he suffered a flat tire right at the bottom of the descent into French Gulch on a very rocky section of trail.
With a half lap left in the race, Hogan-Kobelski had increased his lead to nearly 10 minutes. Stetina had passed a suffering Bishop to assume second place. Henry was riding a solid third, and Cares was not far behind.
"When the rain came my lungs started to do better...and I started to get some strength back," said Bishop. "I had problems today...I am actually pretty proud of how I raced. I thought about pulling out because I was dying."
On the final half lap, Bishop matched Stetina on the climb back up the ridge and then closed the gap on the descent to regain second place. Henry also made a late race surge and passed Stetina to claim third place.
The women's race
Irmiger rode off to a 14-minute victory, miles ahead of her closest rival. Pua Sawicki (Ellsworth), who had targeted to win this race, was hampered by a bad sinus infection, but still had enough to take the silver medal.
Previous winner Gretchen Reeves (Tokyo Joe's) rode a consistent race to finish third. Krista Park surprised even herself when she finished fourth in her first marathon. Heather Holmes (Kenda/Tomac/Hayes) finished fifth.
On the road climb out of town, Sawicki and Irmiger quickly broke away from the other racers.
"I wanted to feel it out the first lap," said Irmiger. "Pua set a pretty good pace up that first climb. I just wanted to see what happened if I pushed it on that top singletrack. I got a gap there and never looked back."
Behind Sawicki the race for the other podium positions was hotly contested with some positions changing during the race. McConneloug, who was racing in third place, suffered a flat tire that required several additional dismounts to add air after the repair was made.
Amanda Carey was having what appeared to be having one of her best races ever. She was riding the singletrack well and descending better than most of the other racers. She also suffered a flat tire which took her out of contention.
Last year's winner Sari Anderson (Honey Stinger) was never a factor in the race. Her emphasis this year has been on adventure racing and X-Terra.
Sawicki was clearly disappointed with her race. "I came down with a sinus problem this week. I thought I would be okay, but when you are out there racing with these girls you need to be on top of it.
"Everything just hurt...it was sucky. It was just bad luck."
In what was a very big moment in their racing respective careers, husband and wife and teammates Irmiger and Horgan-Kobelski mounted the podium together in their new stars and stripes jersey. Horgan-Kobelski later said," The only thing that could be better than this is if we do it again."
Many of the endurance racers, including Bishop, will be racing the six-day Breck Epic stage race starting on Sunday. The prologue includes a nine-mile climb above the tree line to nearly 13,000 feet.
The cross country specialists, including defending national champion McConneloug, will compete in this year's championship races at Granby, Colorado in two weeks. McConneloug was using the Firecracker 50 as a tune-up to help acclimate to the altitude after a long stretch at sea level.