By Eric Eagan
There sat 17-year-old David Hedges, smack in the lead pack at the Twisted Branch Trail Run, a 100k race on the Bristol Hills Branch of the Finger Lakes Trail in NY. As he ran, surrounded by veterans of the sport, past winners of ultras and consistent hometown favorites he patiently waited.
So did the grizzled veterans of the sport. They were sure this young hot shot was going to blow up at any time. They figured he would blast up a hill like he’d been doing all day and his legs would drain out.
Race Director Scott Magee was concerned about a 17-year-old entering his very challenging race, with 22,000 feet of elevation change on loose terrain and challenging footing.
“I was concerned about his welfare in a race like Twisted Branch. I immediately looked him up on UltraSignUp only to find that at 17 he has already built up an impressive list of top finishes,” said Magee
A little pre-race research would have given the veterans of the sport the same information. They were sure however that this hot shot was going to blow up and bonk out at any time.
Hedges, however, knows how to handle these long races. Previously, unbeknownst to some of the other racers he had won the Black Hills 50 miler in South Dakota. He was biding his time to make his own move for a top spot back onto the podium.
“I ran the Black Hills 50 miler and won by a good 25 minutes,” said Hedges. “I felt great from the start and was in the lead for nearly all of the race after an intense battle with second place.”
After running cross-country for two years in high school and suffering through a few injuries, David sheepishly admits, “I was never great on the speed front.” He slowly began adding miles, building his endurance and found that running was something he really loved just for the sake of running.
These races aren’t flukes though, said Hedges, who as a senior in high school this year spends each morning running 13 miles to school and then each afternoon running 13 miles back home. He’s regularly logging 120-150 miles each week and has even topped off in the 175-mile range.
Twisted Branch brought in some serious competition, with many of the region’s top runners showing up, and it came as a shock many that Hedges was hanging around where he was.
Richard Bolt of the American Trail Running Association says he is seeing a trend with young and fast runners showing up at races, “Fast, younger runners with XC, track and road backgrounds are getting into MUT running and dominating.”
Hedges said his initial strategy was to tag along Daven Oskvig, recent Burning River 100 and Beast of Burden 50-mile winner (as well as Twisted Branch’s eventual winner). “From the fast start, I knew I could not maintain that sort of pace. I held second for a while until a little over halfway into the race. I ran a few miles with Scotie Jacobs until I bonked hard.
As the race played out, aid station to aid station the top runners kept asking, “Is that kid still with us?”
The answer an astonished, “Yes.”
“I recovered and made decent time until, somewhere around mile 57, I spotted the fourth place runner [Jamie Hobbs fresh off his second place finish at Laurel Highlands Ultra] and got scared.”
Race Director Scott Magee said, “Fourth place Jamie Hobbs put in a huge effort over the last climb thinking he could pull out third place. Once David saw Jamie approaching, he took off to definitively seal himself in third place.”
At 17-years-old, the questions become is Hedges on the verge of being the next big thing in American trail racing or is this too much too soon? Is he too young to be pushing these distances? What is the future like for American MUT running? Richard Bolt of the American Trail Running Association has varied feelings on it;
“I don’t know where you draw the line in terms of what age should run which distance.” He said adding “Teenage runners should absolutely be involved in mountain & trail running at reasonable sub-ultra distances.”
As for Hedges he says he would appreciate that label, but he is not yet able to agree with it. “After all, there are some great young runners on the scene, not much older than myself. We will see how I do in the near future.”
What does the future hold for the young trail phenom?
He has already begun his college visits at schools like Colorado College, Pitzer, and Cornell, which are, as he states, “Schools with fantastic academics and fantastic trails nearby.”
Bolt added that “New and young trail running talent is key to the future success of the American MUT scene. The US Mountain Running Team has been bringing 16 to 19 year old athletes to the World Mountain Running Championships since 2002.”
So what does this look like for Hedges? Keep an eye out for him at the New York Marathon next spring.