HYRUM — It's fair to say the Blacksmith Fork Freedom Run is not your run-of-the-mill race for former Mountain Crest teammates Spencer Nelson and McKale Bladen.
You see, it's an annual tradition for members of the Mustang cross country team to compete in the popular 9.3-mile event, and many of them continue to show up and run well beyond their high school years. Such is the case for Bladen and Nelson, who both reigned supreme in the 41st installment of the event, which took place on a warm Monday morning.
Nelson captured the overall title for the second time, while Bladen powered her way to the women's crown for the first time at the 15-kilometer race, which starts at the Hydro Park in Blacksmith Fork Canyon and ends at the Hyrum City Park.
"I think it means a lot," Bladen said of the race. "I love it at the beginning. It feels like some people might hate it, but everybody knows everybody, so you get up here and you're like, 'hey, it's good to see you, it's good to see you.' And it's nice because as you're running down, you cheer everyone on. As I was running down, I passed a few of the kids I coached (at Mountain Crest) for cross country and I was like, 'let's go.' And I'm like, 'we're dying, but we're dying together.'"
Bladen has finished among the top six female athletes at the Freedom Run every year it has been contested since 2017 — last's year race was canceled due to COVID-19 — and enjoyed her breakthrough performance Monday. The Hyrum native was the bronze medalist as a soon-to-be Mountain Crest senior in 2017.
The 22-year-old wasn't quite able to achieve her goal of breaking the one-hour barrier, but she did run more than two minutes faster than she ever has at this race. Bladen completed the mostly downhill course in 1 hour, 1 minute, 0 seconds.
"I've still been trying to break an hour and I'm still not there," she said. "I saw my time and I was like, 'I'm not far off,' so I'm happy with it."
Bladen was pushed in the early going of Monday's race by fellow Hyrum resident Julie Best before gradually pulling away. The 43-year-old Best, who ran the first three miles with Bladen, was the silver medalist with a time of 1:02:09.
"She was killing it," Bladen said of Best. "She does some Spartan Races it sounds like and I was like, 'Whew, you go, girl.' That's really tough. But no, she was really killing it. Those first three miles were insane."
Likewise, Nelson faced some tough competition, but was able to build a comfortable cushion heading into the most challenging part of the course — a steep uphill section after exiting Blacksmith Fork Canyon. The 23-year-old had a one-minute gap with about two miles remaining and finished strong as he clocked in at 47:53.
The top three men all broke the 50-minute barrier, which is a noteworthy accomplishment. Nelson won this race as a soon-to-be Mountain Crest senior in 2015, but ran a full seven minutes faster Monday, even though the athletes didn't have the typical advantage of a brisk tailwind flying down Blacksmith Fork Canyon.
"For the most part I'm happy with (my performance)," said Nelson, who was the bronze medalist in 2016. "My stomach decided it wasn't going to cooperate with me around mile five and I was a little scared I was going to quite literally leave everything out on the course, but I'm glad I held it in and was able to cruise into the finish (line)."
Nelson's impressive time wasn't a big surprise, inasmuch as he is coming off a memorable academic year as a distance runner at Utah State University. During the outdoor track & field season, the Hyrum resident ran a 14:08.84 in the 5,000 meters, which ranks sixth in the Aggie record books. Additionally, Nelson was a scoring runner all spring long for USU's cross country team, which turned a lot of heads by placing 11th at the NCAA Championships in March — the program's best-ever performance at nationals.
Nelson placed 17th at the Mountain West Championships (8K time of 24:17 and 138th at nationals (10K time of 32:05). Of the seven Aggie harriers that ran at nationals, only one was a senior, and Nelson still has two full years of eligibility remaining in cross country, indoor and outdoor track.
"We want to continue that momentum into the next (academic) year," Nelson said. "Of course we can't get complacent and just think we're going to automatically make it back to the NCAA Championships. We've still got to put in the work, get in the miles, but I think with the way (head) coach (Artie) Gulden has us training ... I think that we're going to have a really special season and a lot of great things are coming."
Finishing second behind Nelson was former Mustang teammate and Ridgeline graduate Eric Nelson, who crossed the finish line in 49:35. The two former teammates are not related. Logan High product Mark Summers also broke the 50-minute barrier en route to claiming the bronze medal (49:50).
Ryan Jenks edged fellow Hyrum resident Hyrum Staffanson for fourth place by six seconds. The 39-year-old Jenks clocked in at 53:49, followed by the 15-year-old Staffanson.
Rounding out the top 10 in the men's field were former Freedom Run champion Josh Steffen (54:44), 14-year-old Logan resident Trey Davidson (55:41), North Logan's Sebastian Ramirez Wiener (56:03), Logan's J.D. Needham (57:35) and former Mountain Crest star wrestler Bo Labrum (57:50). The 40-year-old Steffen also claimed the title in the masters men's division.
Caroline Moon, a 15-year-old from Lehi, posted the third-fastest time in the women's competition (1:02.29). Moon was followed by masters women's champ Theresa Helsel (1:05:29), Richelle Moon (1:06:21), Kiana Henry (1:06:30), former Freedom Run titleist Megan Call (1:07:06), Hyrum's Ginger Nelson (1:08:20), Logan's Tiffany Bergsjo (1:08:50) and Logan's Taylor Laney, who like Davidson is only 14 years old. Laney finished the race in 1:08:58.
Helsel is a 44-year-old Providence resident. It was also a splendid effort by the 50-year-old Moon to earn her spot in the top 10.
Bladen made it a point to thank the people in charge of the race, especially those who provide relief at the various aid stations.
"I see the gatorade and the water, and I think, 'hallelujah,'” Bladen said while chuckling.
Like Bladen, Spencer Nelson was happy to see the Freedom Run return after a one-year hiatus. He also took time to reflect on what Independence Day means to him.
"I mean, it's kind of crazy that we didn't have this last year, but it's such a blessing that we're able to get back to running together and to have this opportunity, it's a really great thing," Nelson said. "... I'm extremely happy that we live in a country like this where we can enjoy these types of opportunities and to be able to experience races and be out as a community. And just to experience those freedoms that we have as Americans is such a blessing, and I'm so very grateful for that."
NOTES: There were 299 athletes — the lion's share of whom call Cache Valley home — who completed the course while the timing system was still set up. ... The youngest finisher was 10-year-old Hyrum resident Hunter Hulbert (2:17:33), while 72-year-old Logan resident Rich Guy (1:37:25) was the oldest finisher. ... There were two wheelchair competitors this year in Logan's Stephanina Michaelis (1:25:00) and veteran Nathan Crowton (2:07:42). ... Results from this race can be found on B6.