Patrick Smyth's plan to forgo marathons and reinvent himself as a trail runner is off to a pretty good start.
The 27-year-old Salt Lake City, Utah, resident with a 2:15 marathon PR has raced just twice on the trails, but has a a national title and a world championship to his credit, won $3,000 in prize money and earned a spot on Nike's newly-formed trail-running team.
On Sunday, Smyth torched a strong field at the sixth annual XTERRA Trail Run World Championship on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. He covered the rolling 21K course over a combination of singletrack trails and dirt roads in 1:16:38.
Joe Gray (Colorado Springs, Colo.), who tied for the XTERRA win last year and placed seventh at this year’s IAAF World Mountain Running championships in Poland was second in 1:17:26. Max King (Bend, Ore.), a four-time winner at the XTERRA World Championship and 2011 World Mountain Running champion, was third in 1:20:53, while Nathan Peters of Salt Lake City (1:23:44) and Roberto Mandje of Boulder, Colo., (1:26:53) rounded out the top five.
Polina Babkina, a 26-year-old Russian who is attending graduate school in Honolulu, won the women's race in 1:37:24 with, a 31-second margin over 2012 winner Lucy Smith of Sidney, British Columbia.
Smyth and Babkina earned $2,000 apiece for their victories.
Smyth shot to the lead from the start, with Gray and King hot on his heels. In the early going, Smyth extended his lead on the climbs and flat sections, only to have King and Gray catch up on the descents and semi-technical sections. By the four-mile mark, though, Smyth had a lead he would never relinquish.
"Basically what I tried to do was open it up on the flat, doubletrack trails and create a big gap," Smyth said. "On the technical stuff, I don't have the reckless (instincts). I still have a bit of a governor, I guess, when it comes to the trails.
"Early on, Max and Joe were passing me on the steep, technical downhill. I just tried to keep pushing it on the flatter and wider sections. It was kind of a cat-and-mouse game at that point."
He eventually built a 75-second lead, but after getting through a muddy technical descent near Mile 10, Smyth admitted he had to run scared over the final three miles. He didn't know how big his lead was and had to contend with slower runners from the concurrent 5K and 10K races.
"I was popping around people on the trail and I got off trail and kind of tumbled head over heels, so I knew whatever lead I might have had was probably closed down," said Smyth, who finished with a scraped shoulder.
"I had the image of last year running through my head, where there was a surprise attack at the end when there was a tie at the finish. I was just imagining Joe or Max sneaking up and catching me after that, so I got up and kept going as hard as I could to the finish."
Smyth also outran Gray and King in the XTERRA Trail Run National Championship back on Sept. 22, where he stunned the field and won by 90 seconds. On Sunday --thousands of miles from his home state and in temperatures dozens of degrees warmer -- Smyth proved he is no fluke.
"I didn't think it would come this quickly, taking back-to-back races like this," Smyth said. "I've run a lot of races against some of these guys, just not on terrain like this. Getting my mind and body ready for the trails was my biggest concern, so to get back-to-back wins is really nice."
After an All-American career at Notre Dame, Smyth found modest success on the track and roads. He placed second in the 2010 U.S. cross country championships, 35th in the 2010 world cross country championships and third in the 2011 U.S. half-marathon championships. He's posted personal bests of 28:33 for 10,000 meters, 1:02:01 for the half-marathon and 2:15:00 for the marathon.
Smyth might still go back and run on the roads or compete in cross country, but he"s definitely interested in exploring more trail racing opportunities.
"Growing up in Salt Lake City, I would always hop on trails for easy runs here and there, but once I started running collegiately and professionally after that, trails almost became a hazard more than anything, so I pretty much ran all on flat roads and the track," Smyth said. "But now, it's kind of reinvigorated me in the sport."
For Babkina, winning was sweet redemption after a wrong turn cost her the lead in last year's XTERRA Trail Run World Championships, where she settled for third. She used this year's race as a tune-up for the Dec. 8 Honolulu Marathon, where she's hoping to run 2:43 or faster and reach the 2016 Olympic qualifying standard.
"I think it helped me to know the course and know what to expect," Babkina said. "I knew the field was going to be tougher than last year. I tried to push as hard as I could and give it my best effort."
In all, more than 1,800 runners from 12 countries and 36 states participated in the three XTERRA races. Kevin Enriques of Honolulu and Nancy Hobbs of Colorado Springs won the 5K races in 20:55 and 24:26, respectively. Honolulu's Jorge Mendez won the 10K in 38:37, while Karen Miller of nearby Kailua was the women's 10K winner in 47:57.