Teva U.S. Mountain Running photo
Del Norte’s Laura Haefeli, on the right of her U.S. teammates, as they receive their Gold Medal for winning the World Mountain Running Trophy in Switzerland last weekend.
Del Norte mountain runner leads U.S. team to Gold Medal
By LLOYD ENGEN
DEL NORTE — Laura Haefeli made American history last weekend.
The petite, upbeat 39-year-old mother of three growing children achieved what no other woman in U.S. history has ever done — winning the Bronze Medal at the 23rd World Mountain Running Trophy championships in Saillon, Ovrannaz, Switzerland.
In doing so, Haefeli led the Teva U.S. Mountain Running senior women’s team to the Gold Medal as they won the World Championship for the second straight year.
For Haefeli, it was the culmination of a dream come true — a dream she has carried inside since last year when, having qualified for the Teva U.S. Mountain Running team once again, she decided to forego the opportunity and gave her place to another runner in order to remain home with her husband, Tom Haefeli, and concentrate on her family and the family business, Haefeli Honey, as well as her task of coaching the Del Norte High School cross country team.
No one cheered louder than Laura Haefeli when the Teva U.S. senior women’s team took the Gold Medal in Switzerland last year. The world championships event, mountain running’s equivalent of the Olympics, had been moved to Switzerland’s majestic Alps at the last minute when the original site, Baghdad, had to withdraw as the host site because of the all the problems associated with ongoing war and terrorism.
So last Saturday, there was Haefeli standing on the awards stand to receive her Bronze Medal, and then joined by her teammates to receive the Gold Medal, a large American Flag billowing in the breeze behind them and shivers running through them as tears fell during the playing of The National Anthem.
“To see your own flag flying behind you, our flag, was so exciting and emotional,” said Haefeli on Thursday as she worked in the Haefeli Honey Store in Del Norte. “And to hear your National Anthem played over something you and your teammates did — it was so awesome! My mom and my sister (twin sister Ann Sorenson) were there and mom was singing The National Anthem as loud as she could — belting it out and crying at the same time.”
Afterwards, Haefeli was receiving congratulations from Swiss citizens who thought Laura was running for the Swiss team since Haefeli is a common Swiss name, and even her maiden name, Schweitzer, has Swiss connections. Finding out she ran for the United State, their congratulations were just as hardy.
No stranger to mountain running, Haefeli was the top runner on the Teva U.S. Mountain Running senior women’s team that won the Bronze in New Zealand in 2004. She has won two of the last three Mountain Trail Championships in Steamboat Springs, finishing second last June by the barest of margins, and entered the mountain running scene with the best qualifications one is apt to find anywhere.
That’s because Laura Haefeli, quite remarkably, is a 7-time U.S. Summer Biathlon National Champion — a sport that combines distance road racing with accuracy in shooting a rifle. Sometimes she would miss her target, but no one could outrun her. As a result, she also represented the United States on the U.S. Biathlon team at world championships.
Back in those days, she was getting training advice from legendary Adams State and Olympics distance running coach Dr. Joe I. Vigil, following his strict schedule of quality workouts.
Now, Laura trains on her own on the rugged mountain trails above Del Norte.
‘You couldn’t ask for a better place to train than right here,” she said.
She had to do a lot of hard training on those trails this summer during the six weeks before the World Championships. She made up her mind that this year she wanted to be on this team, but her second place finish at Steamboat Springs where only the first place finisher automatically made the team sent her to the inaugural California Mountain Running selection race, where she also finished second by just 6 seconds, again missing the automatic berth.
That left Laura on the bubble for the team’s sole at-large berth. She had trained so hard in the mountains and used extremely strenuous power-walking that propelled her faster than some runners can run to get ready for this chance. Looking at Haefeli’s times, finishes and previous team-leading effort for the Bronze in New Zealand, the Mountain Ultra Trail Council made the decision that she would be the fourth member of the 2007 team.
Haefeli certainly wasn’t about to be left out of this one, because this was her kind of race — running an up-and-down mountain course instead of the straight up course that is used in even numbered years. Anyone who has simply walked up a rather steep mountain trail knows well what that does to one’s heart rate. But even a number of veteran mountain runners will avoid the up-and-down races because of the danger and strain on the body created by the steep downhills.
But that’s exactly the part of the race where Haefeli makes up ground — and this time it earned her America’s first Mountain Running World Championships Bronze Medal.
The day of the race opened with a wind that caused some of the para-gliders representing each of the 34 countries involved to crash into trees and fences instead of hitting their targets on the track.
Running two loops on a steep 4 kilometer course in the Alps, amounting to a distance of a little over 5 miles, the senior women runners headed out on their strenuous journey, traveling a course that started out like steps of level ground and short climbs before hitting a steep, straight up climb followed by the equally steep descent. The pattern was repeated on the second loop and Haefeli felt she was doing okay but wasn’t sure where she was in the order of runners.
“I was thinking to myself that I might be in seventh place going up the steep hill and then going down I passed a runner who had passed me on the uphill and it almost seemed like she was standing still — she was so scared,” Haefeli said. “Then I thought, ‘Okay, you’re in the top five,’ and I was going down so fast when I heard someone yell, ‘Laura, you’re in third place!’ That’s when I realized that I really was in third, and I picked it up even more to try to make up as much as I could on the leaders. I like the downhill, but it’s dangerous and I wouldn’t ask anyone to practice them. I must look like a crazy woman on the downhill with my arms waving all over, but I use my arms for balance.”
She had run into a concern of her own on the first downhill, however, as she felt a slight muscle pull at the top of her left leg.
“It didn’t hurt again until I was close to the bottom of the second downhill,” Haefeli said. “I wanted to hit the track with a strong finish the last 300 meters, but I was concerned that the muscle might tear and I would fall and not even finish the race. So I took it a little easier at the finish. They gave us Gatorade or powerade on the way up, and I was thinking they ought to be handing out wine and cheese on the way down. It was the toughest course I’ve ever run.”
She finished in a time of 41 minutes and 49 seconds, followed by teammates Christine Lundy of Sausalito, Calif., in 8th in 42:23, Rachael Cuellar of Albuquerque, NM, in 12th in 42:40, and Anita Ortiz of Eagle, Colo., in 31st in 44:29, scoring 23 team points and beating the Czech Republic for the second straight year — by just one point.
Back home, her elated husband was busy sending out e-mails about Laura’s achievements, and when Laura arrived back in Del Norte late Monday night, she received more good news.
Steamboat Springs had received the bid to host the 2008 Mountain Running World Championships.
By late Thursday afternoon, Laura was back to training her Del Norte runners, telling them what it feels like to run against the world’s best mountain runners and pointing out that in this rapidly growing sport, “the Mountain Running World Championships is the Olympics of our sport.”
Turning 40 on Oct. 15, Laura will miss the Masters National Championships age cutoff by one day, but that day in her amazing career also will come.
“As long as I can, I will go after it,” Laura said.
Then she was off with her runners, preparing them for a race in Pagosa Springs, including her son, John, now in the sixth grade and finding out just what it is that makes his mom love this sport so much.