JP Donovan knew his chances of winning a third consecutive Squaw Mountain Run diminished considerably when Mike Sunseri arrived.
Sunseri, a 2010 Incline High grad and senior member of the Malone University (Ohio) cross-country team, bolted out of the start and never slowed down en route to winning the 33rd annual Squaw Mountain Run on Saturday. He covered the 3.6 miles to High Camp in a time of 29 minutes, 21.9 seconds — about 30 seconds off the modern course record (28:50.1).
“I took off kind of hard — harder than I normally would have,” said Sunseri, who wore a heart-rate monitor around his tattooed chest. “The beginning is kind of flat, so I figured I might as well try to gap the field early, and it worked.”
Donovan, 26, who last year finished one-tenth of a second off the course record, chased his fellow Incline High alumnus but could not gain any ground. He finished second with a time of 30:02.8.
“Right in the beginning, I had a chat with Mike and he was telling me how he was already over his target heart rate. And pretty much 10 seconds later we hit a hill, and he just kept the same pace he had on the bottom part, and I was just dying. I fell right off,” said Donovan, who was recently named head coach of the Incline High cross-country team.
The winner of this past year’s Great Ski Race, 29-year-old Brian Gregg of Minneapolis, finished third in 30:36.5, while Truckee’s Austin Meng, 20, was fourth in 32:21.8 and Truckee High cross-country member Noah Oberriter rounded out the top five in 32:25.8.
Kristin Walstad, 40, of Alta was the top woman and 15th overall in 35:37.0. She was followed by Caitlin Gregg, 32, of Minneapolis (37:00.6) and Anja Gruber, 22, of Burlington, Vt. (38:25.2). Mary Ellen Benier of Truckee was the top local woman, finishing sixth in 40:31.2.
The historic fundraising race, which now benefits Auburn Ski Club’s Junior Nordic ski programs and Tahoe Forest Health System Foundation, starts at the base of the mountain and climbs 2,000 vertical feet in 3.6 miles to High Camp, at 8,200 feet.
It’s not for the faint of heart.
“It was gnarly. It was a lot more intense than I thought,” said North Tahoe High cross-country standout Noah McDermott, who finished seventh in his first Squaw Mountain Run, posting a time of 33:21.7 despite a sore calf. “I’m not going to make any excuses. It was great. It’s a fun experience.”
Oberriter agreed about the run after racing to a fifth-place finish in a time of 32:25.8.
“It was hard, but it was awesome. I’ll definitely do it again,” Oberriter said.
Another local athlete, Truckee’s Spencer Eusden, 23, finished sixth in 32:40.0, while Truckee’s Noah Brautigam, 24, was eighth in 33:45.2, Josh Harrington of Lanesborough, Mass., was ninth (34:36.7) and Rickey Russell of Novato was 10th (34:42.2). Recently graduated North Tahoe athlete Patrick McElravey was 11th in 34:59.3.
After the run, relieved participants ate, drank and socialized around the sunny High Camp finish, where they shared tales of their Mountain Run experience. First-time participant Maya Holguin of Truckee was among the finish crowd as she sat and dined with friend Anna Demm, who persuaded her to take part.
“I made Maya do it,” said Demm, who completed her second Squaw Mountain Run in a time of 58:09.4.
“It was beautiful,” Holguin said. “I mean, it’s definitely a lot of up, but it’s beautiful. What a great way to spend a Saturday morning. Now I have 364 days to recover.”
Once again, 90-year-old Delbert Wichelman of Oakland was the oldest finisher, as he posted a time of 1:33.14 in what he said was his final Squaw Mountain Run. A total of 492 people participated.