A tale of two runners

Boulder ultramarathon athletes Sage Canaday and Cameron Clayton finally face each other to conclude the 2012 season in San Francisco

Sage Canaday in the Northeast Delta Dental Mount Washington Road Race

One was a collegiate runner from the East. One was a collegiate runner from the West. One was showered in champagne at the end of his first ultramarathon, while the other received five stitches after his ultramarathon debut. One goes by Sage Canaday. One goes by Cameron Clayton. Both are runners from Boulder with nothing in common — and everything in common. And these two will compete against each other for the first time on Dec. 1 in San Francisco.

This race, the 50-mile North Face Endurance Challenge Championship, is generally considered to be the championship 50-mile race of the 2012 season. In the elite field where the average age is 33, the dark-haired Canaday and the neon-blonde Clayton will be two of the youngest runners in the field.

The 27-year-old Canaday and 24-year-old Clayton debuted into the world of ultramarathon racing this year, and the two are among the most talked-about novices in ultrarunning forums across the nation.

When Canaday made his ultramarathon debut, it was the proverbial winter of despair. With one sock soggy from the stream of blood trickling down from his knee, Canaday finished his first 50-kilometer race on March 16. In three hours, 49 minutes and 28 seconds, he traversed trails in the northwestern corner of Washington through rain, snow and mud.

“When I finished,” Canaday blogged, “I stumbled at the line. Dizzy from the low blood sugar and a loss of blood I started tipping backwards, but fortunately I was caught by race director Krissy Moehl.”

His reward at the finish line: second place and five stitches in his knee from an ER doctor in the race’s medical tent.

Clayton made his ultra debut during the summer of hope. Among the sun-kissed, yellow aspens above Steamboat Springs on Sept. 15, Clayton entered, completed and won his first ultramarathon — the Run Rabbit Run 50-miler. Largely on his own for the majority of the race, he crushed Zeke Tiernan — also a CU cross-country alumnus — by a half hour and dropped the course record by two minutes.

Through the summer and fall racing seasons, Canaday had an illustrious but tiring year. In August, his 6:16:10 time along the White River 50’s woodland trail in the shadow of Mt. Rainier in Washington broke a course record previously clocked by two-time Leadville 100 champion Anton Krupicka. Canaday bested Krupicka’s two-year record on the 50-mile course by approximately nine minutes.

Canaday crosses the finish at the Mount Washington Road Race, winning by more than two minutes. | Photo by Dennis Coughlin

After securing a spot on the USA Mountain Running Team in early September, Canaday took a brief hiatus from ultramarathons. In the northern Italian Alps he scampered up steep mountains at the World Mountain Running Championship and suffered debilitating hamstring cramps in the avalanche-prone mountains at the Jungfrau Marathon in Switzerland.

After the Run Rabbit Run, Clayton took only 12 hours off and began training again the follow morning. A break too short, Clayton admits, but he says he now feels ready to race Canaday in the North Face 50.

Clayton at the Run Rabbit Run race in Steamboat Springs | Photo by Stephen Kasica

“I feel I’m as fit as I’ve ever been,” Clayton says. “I’ll have to be, because the competition is going to be really good.”

Clayton isn’t alone in his sentiments. The online Colorado running community RunColo called Saturday’s field “the most competitive ultra field ever,” and iRunFar, an online forum for ultramarathoners, called the entry list “jaw dropping.”

However, Canaday seems slightly underwhelmed, since two of the top ultramarathon runners in Colorado, Boulder-based Krupicka and Durango native Dakota Jones, will not be competing.

The New Balance-sponsored Krupicka said he will sit this competition out due to mounting fatigue in previous weeks and a recent bout with the flu.

But on the starting line with Canaday and Clayton Saturday morning will be defending champion and course record holder Mike Wolfe, in addition to Adam Campbell — who bested Canaday at the Chuckanut 50K.

With Krupicka and Jones out of the race, both Canaday and Clayton say they feel that they have a better shot at taking home the title.

“Since I’m trying to go pro in ultra running, I have to win this,” Canaday says. “If you want to be a top-sponsored ultra runner, you need the big races like this, and you need to place in the money.”

Since this race was first organized in 2007, it has traditionally included the largest prize purse in ultramarathon racing: $10,000 for the top male and female runners, a prize that stands on Saturday.

In 2011, the North Face-sponsored athlete Wolfe set the course record in 6:19:04. That comes out to $1,582 per hour. Not a bad wage for any recent college graduate like Clayton, who got his degree from the University of Colorado in May, or Canaday, who graduated from Cornell University in 2009. This prize also explains why this race attracts such an elite field.

“I’m not going to lie, the money’s a huge draw for me,” Canaday says. “I made more money ultrarunning this year than I ever did on the roads.”

After graduating from Cornell in 2009, Canaday joined the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, an Olympic development program for post-collegiate long-distance runners. He left the Hansons Project, then moved to Boulder in June.

Both runners say they are too new to the sport to have cultivated any deep-seated rivalries, but aren’t shy about their own ambitions.

“I’d like us to go one-two,” Clayton says, but when pressed for more details on the order of that combination, he says he would prefer to finish his inaugural season undefeated.

Likewise, Canaday says, “There’s a lot of tough ultra-runners from Boulder, and I consider Cameron a friend. So I definitely want to beat him.”

The competitive spirit between Canaday and Clayton is benevolent; they get along well, often pairing up for easy runs.

The two share a complicated affinity for each other that is not unlike the Lochte-Phelps pair: friendly, yet openly competitive.

But both are aware that at the North Face 50, on the first day of the month, in the last month of the year, both will run, but only one can win.

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