THE FINISH LINE: Runners experience it all at Mt. Madonna Challenge

Eric Palmer of Monterey wins the 18K in 1:30:27.

Grueling hills, sweat, joy, tears, bees, dirt, gorgeous scenery, mist, cool temperatures and fresh mountain air greeted 177 hardy runners Saturday at Sprig Lake in Gilroy during the 37th annual Bill Flodberg Mt. Madonna Challenge.

The event grabbed the attention of athletes from around the area, including a refugee from Africa. Overall winners in the 6K, 12K, 18K and 30K received unique ceramic vases instead of the traditional trophy.

Before the 8 a.m. start, winds swirled around the shivering participants as race director Allan Abrams and Bill Flodberg’s widow Sheila Flodberg shared a few encouraging words.

At the start, despite the freezing weather, I was more concerned about the monster hill awaiting us in the tree-lined trail. I ran this course before and knew what to expect so I chose the 6K route with the shortest elevation gain. It was only 900 feet.

“A wimp run. No biggie,”  I lied to myself.

When Abrams shouted “go,” everyone bolted forward sending dust into the air.

The mountain goats in front charged up the hill like it was flat. Not so for some, including me who struggled on the steep grade. This was the first slope of many during the race.

Despite the calf-killing climbs, the mist-covered mountains and panoramic views made everything enjoyable. The circuitous bumpy terrain of the 6K tested the mettle of each runner but the top winners made this look easy.

Andrew Walgren, 15, of Santa Cruz shot through the finish in 30:24.

“It was really hard. I tried to ease my way up the hill and hammer the last part,” Walgren said. “The downhill was steep. I fell once or twice.”

Gilroy’s Karlie Hemeon, 24, took first place in the women’s division with 36:05.

“This was my first time running this course,” Hemeon said. “I thought it was really fun.”

Justin Baraona, 13, of San Jose took first place in his age category with 34:01.

“It was fun,” he said. “There were a lot of hills.”

Imagine, doubling the distance with more inclines. That’s what the stalwarts in the 12K faced. Modesto’s Michael Singleton, 42, won the 12K in 1:00:16.

“I totally forgot how those uphills were,” Singleton said. “They killed me. It was strategic racing, you didn’t want to go out too fast.”

San Jose’s Nina Giraudo, 45, nabbed the top spot for the women with a time of 1:16:31.

“I would do it again next year,” she said. “I love the trails.”

The robust competitors in the 18K deserve kudos as well. Eric Palmer, 28 of Monterey, blazed the trail in 1:30:27.

“I like hillier races in general,” he said. “It started on a hill. Right away, I was tired. This was one of the hardest races I ran.”

San Jose’s Kate Flexer, 40, despite suffering stomach cramps during the race, was the first female to finish with a time of 1:59:29.

“It was great . . . I was just running for fun. I was thinking, take a hike and run a little bit,” Flexer said.

Morgan Hill’s Zachary Abrams, 17, who got his running gene from his father the race director, took second in the 18K with 1:42:09.

“Running is really fun, really awesome,” the younger Abrams said. “It’s a good way to get rid of stress. To be out in the wild, trail running. Everyone should try it.”

The 30K distance, with its impressive 2,900-foot elevation gain,  debuted at this year’s event. The toughest of the tough conquered the mountain during this race.

Bihama Vedaste, 22, from Rwanda, Africa, won the Mt. Madonna Challenge by finishing with a time of 2:26:10.

“My goal is to do the best I can,” he said. “I’m preparing for a career as a professional marathoner … On a road race, my average (mile) pace is 5:05 to 5:10.”

Salinas’ Sean Curry, 44, took second, finishing with a time of 2:38:10.

“That guy (Vedaste) passed me in the first 6K,” he said. “I did get to see him a little bit on the downhill. He made me feel like I was going down like an old man,” Curry joked.

Structural engineer Jennifer Hsiaw, 24, of Los Altos took first for the ladies by finishing with 3:48:51.

“It’s good to get out of the office,” she said. “I thought I was going to quit after the first 12K but it helped to regain my energy on the downhill. I could keep going.”

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Angela Young is a free lance journalist for South Valley Newspapers and is passionate about the running world. She’s been a runner for over a decade and loves to write stories on seasoned athletes, weekend warriors, newbies, races of all distances on paved roads and off the beaten path. She likes to include the wild and crazy and as well as the most serene in her stories. Send her an e-mail [email protected]

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