Kasie Enman, a 1997 graduate of Manchester Central High School's powerhouse running teams, loves tackling trails.
She's not necessarily enamored of getting up and down steep grades, but she gets a kick out of chewing up miles and handling hills while zipping along over sometimes-rough and rugged terrain through woods and fields.
And she's darned good at it, too.
World-championship good, in fact.
This morning, Enman, who did some of her first hill running at the McIntyre Ski Area in Manchester, takes her first step toward defending the World Mountain Running Championship title she won last September in Albania when she competes against a strong field in the 5-mile Loon Mountain Race.
The top four female finishers in the race earn spots on the United States team that will compete in the World Championships in Italy on Sept. 2. The six members of the men's team qualified last month through their results in the Mount Washington Auto Road Race.
“The field has gotten so strong with people trying to make the team,” said Madison's Paul Kirsch, the co-director of the Loon race and the manager of the U.S. junior team. “I think Kasie has a real good shot. A very good shot.”
Enman — who gave birth to a daughter in August of 2010 lives in Huntington, Vt., works there at her family's Sleepy Hollow Ski & Bike Center and coaches at Camplain Valley Union High School — has an edge with her experience running at Loon.
But she knows she has her work cut out for her.
One clear reminder of difficulty of making the team: Max King, who was the men's world champion last year, failed to finish in the top six at Mount Washington last month and did not make the U.S. team.
The format for the World Championships, and thus the national qualifier, alternates each year between being an all uphill race and a course that covers both uphill and downhill.
Last year's race was up and down, which plays to Enman's strengths.
“This year's a little bit harder for me,” Enman said. “Last year, I was able to take advantage of the downhills pretty well. Some of the other runners that do mountain racing specialize in climbing.”
Kirsch put together a list of elite female runners in today's race; it numbers just more than two dozen. Nine, including Kim Gibson and Brandy Erholtz, who finished one-two in front of Enman at Mount Washington, are from Colorado
“I'd say there are about 10 women who have a legitimate shot at making the team,” Enman said. “Many of them are coming into the sport for the first time and are coming from other disciplines. There's a Nordic ski Olympian and some from a ski mountaineering background, and there are others who are strong at other endurance events who I've never raced before. There are a lot of unknowns.”
Last year, Enman, 32, was a bit of an unknown. She made her first U.S. team and the World Championships by winning the qualifier at Mount Cranmore and then broke her own course record at Loon.
“She was running so strong, you just had to wonder what she had in her,” said Kirsch, who traveled with the team to Albania. “Then we went and saw the course, and it was very technical, with a lot gravel on the downhills. As soon as we saw it, we said, 'Wow, Kasie could do very well on this course.'”
She beat her closest competitor on the 8.5-kilometer course by 1 minute 8 seconds to become the United States' first women's world champion.
“I wasn't thinking about winning at all,” Enman said. “I was definitely in shock after the race last year ... It was awesome. It still kind of doesn't seem real — still.”
The young woman who teamed with Emily Hodgdon and Jill Laurendeau and many others on those powerful Joe O'Neill clubs at Central and then went on to become an All-American at Middlebury College is a world champion now.
“We did a lot of hill workouts at McIntyre, for sure,” Enman said. “I moved to Vermont and started doing more hill training. I don't need to be running up and down the steeps. I like trail running, and most trail races have quite a bit of uphill. I don't mind hills, but what I really like are technical trails. They're the most fun and feel the most natural to me.”
She likes taking on Loon, from the bottom up, too.
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Allen Lessels may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.