Trip Report by Native Eyewear Ambassador Maria Dalzot.

I have a storied history with Mountain Running in Mexico that begins back in 2011. One spring day, four years after I had run on the U.S. Junior team at the World Mountain Running Championships in Ovrannaz, Switzerland, I got a call from the USATF Mountain Ultra Trail Council Chairperson and ATRA Executive Director, Nancy Hobbs. They needed somebody last minute to fill a spot on the Women’s team that would be competing in Ajijic, Jalisco, Mexico for the North American, Central American and Caribbean Athletic Association (NACAC) Mountain Running Championships.

Ever since competing on the Junior team, my dream was to earn a spot on the Senior team. So, when I was offered the position, I was elated… but I also cried. Because, just a month before, I had foot reconstructive surgery and wasn’t even walking at this point, let alone capable of running up mountains. After serious thought and consideration, I decided to accept. I reasoned, “you never know if an opportunity like this will present itself again, so I should take full advantage of the experience.” I began power hiking hill repeats as soon as my doctor gave me permission, followed by running as time continued to heal my foot.

Going into the race, my expectations were low. I had no idea how I was going to fare amongst my teammates or the field. I assumed I would be in the back of the pack, so made plane tickets to leave for Puerta Vallarta for a little R&R immediately following the race.

I was the youngest one on the team, spearheaded by mountain running legend and multi-time national champion, Chris Lundy. Chris was on the Senior team that won the gold medal in Switzerland when I was on the Junior team so to line up next to her was magical, albeit somewhat intimidating. When the race was off, I found myself as 2nd American just behind Chris. Shelead the way up the mountain. But halfway up the steep ascent, I felt like I was holding back, so I asked her if I could pass. At this point I was leading the women’s field. A wave of adrenaline pulsated through me and I started running wildly, slipping and falling over the boulders and barely hanging on to the rocky cliffs. My feet burned as I half slid half rolled down the steep descent to the cobblestone streets below.

The Finish Line: photo by Richard Bolt

As I turned the corner towards the finish line banner, the whole town of Ajijic was lining the street cheering for me. I crossed the finish line as first female in total disbelief and euphoria. The U.S. women made a clean 1-2-3—sweep for the gold medal. Unfortunately, because I had made plans to fly out right after the race, I had to miss the award ceremony.

Ever since that fairy-tale day, Mexico has held a special place in my heart. I was thrilled to learn that Ajijic was going to host the2014 NACACChampionship and I was given the opportunity to defend my title. I made a lot of friends in Ajijic in2011 so received much support and excitement when I announced that I would be returning. The first night there, the race director gifted me with the pesos I had won for breaking the course record two years before buthad to leave before I couldaccept it. This is just one of the examples of kindness that the Mexican community bestowed upon me.

The course was the same12-kilometers with a technical ascent, technical ridge line and technical descent that we conquered in 2011. This timeI finished second place, a couple minutes behind another mountain running legend, BrandyErholtz, and a couple minutes ahead of Chris Lundy. It was another winning 1-2-3—sweep and all three of us broke my course record from three years ago. This time, I stayed for the awards and celebrated with my teammates.

Photo by Tad Davis

As I have matured and my body is unable to take the intensity of training for shorter raceswithout experiencing some kind of injury or setback, I have naturally progressed into an ultrarunner, competing in distances ranging from 26 to 50 miles. My training is currently focused on being prepared for a 50-miler in early December.

Running in the 2019 NACAC Championships for the U.S. team was not on my radar until the opportunity arose (selection is based on resume and prior international experience and performance) to compete back in Mexico, but this time in Tepatitlán, Jalisco.I knew this 12-kilometer race at altitude was going to be a challenge, but again, you never miss an opportunity to represent your country.

Absurdly, here in 2019, I am now the old woman of the team. I have almost a decade of experience under my belt since first competing in Mexico. Where did the time go?!

The travel to Tepatitlánwas uneventful despite renting a car and driving in a downpour for the one-hour drive from the airport. The next day the team woke up early and headed to the course for a preview. We ran the first mile and half (of the 4 miles) up the mountain and then back down. The rest of the day was dedicated to preparing for race morning.

Warming up before the race in the colorful town of Tepatitlán. Photo by Tad Davis

I woke up early, made my coffee, had some bread and Trail Butter (in place of the provided ham and cheese sandwiches) and we were on the bus to the racecourse. I could tell my stomach was feeling a bit off during the warm-up but ignored it and focused on the task at hand. Only 400 meters into the race, I already felt as if I was in oxygen debt and my stomach was cramping up with the exertion. The previous night’s downpour left the course muddy with pools of shin-deep water and cobblestones coated in a slick veneer.

I struggled to the top of the mountain, slipping and falling once in the mud. Due to the out and back nature of the course, I was able to see my teammates come flying down the mountain. I knew our ladies were going to bring home the gold despite me being so far back. They are three not only very talented runners, but awesome women who inspire me and make me excited for the future of our sport. It was an honor to represent our country alongside this amazing group of men and women.The U.S.’s Dani Moreno and Andy Wacker won the induvial gold for women and men, respectively, and the women’s team finished first while our men came in second to the Mexican team.

Photo by Tad Davis

I finished in 10th place, but the community made me feel as if I had won. While I did not perform as well as I would have liked, that did not deter from the significance of this special experience. As always, Mexico is a gracious host. All the people of Tepatitlán treated us with kindness and respect. One time I was in the town square taking pictures of the surrounding churches in full USA team gear and someone yelled from a moving truck window “Welcome to Tepatitlán!”

Photo by Tianna Rothwell

I feel as if my mountain running career has come full circle, starting and returning to Mexico, going from the youngest to the oldest. I am so grateful for the friends that I have made, the experiences that have opened my eyes to extend beyond the confines of my daily life, and the opportunity to be a positive representative of our country during a time our leadership disparages Mexico and its people.

Running transcends language barriers, pushes us to reach new limits and has the power to unite us all. I think that is pretty cool.

Checking out the sights and sounds of Tepatitlánthe day after the race. Photo by Tad Davis

A special thank you to NATIVE Eyewear for their support in making this experience possible!

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