Four points were all that separated the Fort Lewis College mountain bike team from a third consecutive national championship.
After a hard-fought three days of racing, all eyes were on the team relay – the final event of a nine-race program at the USA Cycling Collegiate Mountain Bike National Championships at Big Bear Lakes, California.
Henry Nadell and Ellen Campbell had FLC in third place after the first of four laps in the relay. Savilia Blunk bridged the gap to the leaders to get Cole Paton in position, and the FLC standout senior torched the final lap to give the Skyhawks a team relay victory ahead of Brevard College. But it was a third-place finish by the Colorado Mesa University Mavericks out of Grand Junction that proved to be enough, as CMU edged FLC by four team points to claim the national title.
“It’s an awesome competition with them always,” said Blunk, who won the varsity women’s individual omnium championship for her combined results in the cross-country, downhill, dual slalom and short-track. “It was super cool to see such strong teams competing against each other. Everyone on our team fought and put everything on the line, and I’m proud of everyone.”
Paton closed out the team relay win for the FLC men in his final collegiate race. It brought an end to a sensational career in which he won back-to-back varsity men’s titles in cross-country and short-track. Though it wasn’t enough to win FLC a 25th national title in program history this year, Paton was proud of the FLC fight.
“It took everything I had,” Paton said of his final lap on the team relay. “I was set up super well by Henry, Ellen and Savilia. I had to really give it everything I had, and I sealed the deal. We had the whole team out there cheering for us, and that makes it the most special moment of the whole weekend.
“My weekend couldn’t have been better, even though we got second as a team overall. Everyone gave it everything, and we can be stoked on second overall. This was a really good way to finish my collegiate cycling career.”
FLC’s final day at nationals started with fireworks. Elle Runyan, a junior, claimed the women’s varsity national championship in stunning fashion. The 20-year-old from the Seattle area ripped down the course in 4 minutes, 53.265 seconds to deliver a win. Sarah Smith of Colorado Mesa was second in 4:55.389.
“The course was very dusty and dry, what we call kitty litter back in the Pacific Northwest,” Runyan said. “That deep dust is hard for me because I mostly deal with mud and wet conditions where I come from. I did have a few downhill races over the summer in Idaho and other dry places, and that helped a ton along with having guidance from awesome coaches.”
One of those coaches was McCauley Smith, who won the last two downhill titles for FLC. Runyan said she immediately thought of Smith when she crossed the finish line Sunday.
Runyan wasn’t confident going into the race or after her final run. She had qualified in seventh place and had to watch six other riders come down the course who could unseat her from first place.
“My practice in the morning didn’t go super well. Honestly, I was just hoping for a top-10 and thought I’d be lucky to get that since the course didn’t play to my strengths,” she said. “I was in disbelief when I came across the line and my teammates said I was going into first. When all six people behind me came down with slower times, that was insane.”
Runyan, who also led the FLC women with a fifth-place finish in dual slalom, will have one more year to defend her national title. She then plans to get a masters degree in education at FLC and wants to return as an FLC coach.
The men’s varsity downhill is what put the Mavericks in the lead for good, as CMU took first through fourth in front of three FLC riders. Turner Conway won in 4:17.509 ahead of Andras Simon’s 4:18.186. Trevor McCutcheon was third in 4:18.343. FLC’s top finish came from Keanu Smith, who was fifth in 4:23.220. Cole Fiene and William Farmer placed sixth and seventh for FLC.
FLC finished with 664 points in the team omnium behind Colorado Mesa’s 668. When the Mavericks won the men’s and women’s dual slalom and FLC placed third in the men’s slalom and fourth in the women’s slalom, the Mavericks took control of the weekend. Brevard College out of North Carolina finished with 551 points to place third.
Blunk was still able to deliver the women’s individual omnium to the Skyhawks. She raced all five events, as she placed third in cross-country, second in short-track, sixth in the downhill and added a top-15 in dual slalom. Blunk finished 28 points in front of Maria Doering of Lees-McRae in the standings. Third place, only one point behind Doering, went to FLC’s Campbell, who completed her collegiate mountain bike career in style with multiple podium finishes and the team relay gold to go with her omnium bronze.
Blunk will have two more seasons of collegiate racing with FLC.
“It was a hard weekend of racing for (Campbell) and I both racing for the omnium,” Blunk said. “It’s a lot of racing at the end of a long season for me. It was super fun to mix it up with the gravity girls and get some experience racing downhill and dual slalom. This whole weekend was fun to be part of, and the team relay was super special. I’m so happy to be part of this team and also relieved the racing is over. I am completely exhausted.”