In the Jupiter Peak Steeplechase, the 16.5-mile course proves the toughest opponent for most athletes, who string out so quickly they stagger across the finish line minutes away from their nearest competitors. The course exacts its own token of victory before it allows a winner.
"This is the most brutal event I've ever done," said local marathoner Dan Connolly, who sustained a 7:56 mile pace. The Steeplechase is an annual event sponsored by the Mountain Trails Foundation.
The race started 15 minutes late. Temperatures rose to 10 to 20 degrees warmer than last year, said Charlie Sturgis, director of the Mountain Trails Foundation. Matthew rne of Scranton, Penn., the winner with a time of 1:50:22, still went out hard.
"I just tried to get to the front and stay there," he said. Byrne's aggressive strategy soon dropped the leaders. "I thought, 'let me just try to neutralize this by getting to the top first.'"
Runners trek past Shadow Lake, up through Pioneer Ridge to the peak, above Park City Mountain Resort's highest chairlift. For big-mountain powder, skiers traverse a primitive trail forged by boot marks in winter, trail shoes in summer. That's where Byrne and other competitors were forced to loosen their definition of running.
"Even though that part is really painful, it's sort of my favorite," said Susan Minneci, the 19th runner overall and the women's champion with a time of 2:14:35. "You kind of do whatever."
"I was doing this crabwalk," Connolly said. "That scramble is brutal."
Even Byrne, who averaged a brisk 6:53 mile pace, admitted, "In the last 100 meters, the course made me walk." He described a "liar's peak," that drained runners before the 200-meter climb to the real summit. Still, he said, "Nothing beats the top."
Byrne outdistanced most of his competition by the time he reached the summit, but Minneci waited until the peak to make her move.
"I wanted to make sure I had the lead girls in my sight," she said. "I passed two girls right at the peak."
Sturgis said last year's winner, Robert Krar, reached the peak in about an hour, then descended in 45 minutes. Byrne, this year's leader at the halfway point, also cruised through the descent.
Byrne emerged first in front of the savage bear statue that guards Silver Star Café, claiming second place in the La Sportiva Mountain Cup, another endurance trail series that spans 10 events across the United States. Runners choose five races to compete in and accumulate points after each event. The steeplechase forms the peak of the series for good reason.
"It meets all our criteria for a mountain race: good altitude gain, tough course, tough descent," said La Sportiva's president, Jonathan Lantz, who finished the race with a respectable 2:28:38. The culmination of his company's event didn't let him off easy.
"It was tough because I went too hard," he said. "I'm a little dehydrated."
Second-place finisher Fritz Van De Kamp trailed Byrne by five minutes. He crossed the line in 1:55:00, before limping to the podium. Later, runners finished in twos and threes, some mud-encrusted, others sprinting.
The steeplechase begins a trilogy of distance races for Connolly and Dominick Layfield. Both are competing in the Triple Trails Challenge organized by the Mountain Trails Foundation. In the Steeplechase, Connolly lost three minutes to Layfield, who finished in 2:04:06. Connolly could close the gap in the Park City Marathon—he is the defending champion—before reaching the challenge's final event, the Mid-Mountain Marathon.