A trio of Vail area runners became friends after they all ended up on a GoPro Mountain Games award stand
Sarah Hochtl, Chase Rogowski and Christine Balistreri were Apres 5k podium pals before they become training buddies
Runner relationships typically percolate slowly over a shared understanding of training and racing, a shared hatred for mile repeats and side aches and a shared love for carbo-loading and team bus rides.
How those friendships start? That’s a little less predictable.
Chapter one of Sarah Hochtl, Chase Rogowski and Christine Balistreri’s trail triumvirate origin story begins at last year’s Go Pro Mountain Games Adidas Terrex Apres 5k trail run podium.
“I remember looking at the two girls next to me with their matching Dynafit shoes thinking ‘wow, they must be great friends and I would love to be friends with them, too,'” Balistreri recalled. “Little did I know that we were all just meeting for the first time.”
Hochtl, an Eagle resident born and raised in Vermont, placed third overall and first in the 30-39 age group in that race last June. Rogowski — another valley resident who’s successfully transferred fitness from 11 road marathon finishes to become a VRD Town Trail Run Series staple — was second. Balistreri, who spent last summer in the valley and now lives in Boulder, rounded out the age-group podium.
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“After the race, you know how the vibe is at the Mountain Games — there’s so much energy, there’s so many people, everyone is having fun — so we stayed and chatted,” Hochtl said, setting the scene.
“We just connected.”
“Sarah knew my fiance and group of friends I was with, so we all decided to grab a bite to eat after the event,” added Rogowski, who in the past had only contested Sunday’s 10-kilometer race since she started competing at the Mountain Games in 2017. Providence decreed something else. In fact, the only reason Hochtl was there in the first place was because a random Saturday May snow storm canceled the Boneyard Boogie, her preferred race.
“I was really disappointed it was canceled because we were out of town for the rescheduling date, so I was looking at what else I could run,” she said.
The three exchanged numbers in the finishing area and have since met up for long runs, like an Arrowhead-to-Minturn 16-miler last fall. Balistreri decided to pick up cross-country skiing in the winter and was looking for a skinny ski tutor. Walking down the stairs into Vail Village the day they met, Hochtl — a Dartmouth teammate of Rosie Brennan and Sophie Caldwell (and several other Olympians) who is married to former Super Tour skate ski sprint savant and Team Rossignol alumnus Kevin Hochtl, humbly said, “I’m more of a skier than a runner.”
“In that moment, my friend crush on her deepened, as this was my newest most favorite sport,” Balistreri said. “I was like, ‘golly if she’s this good at running I can only imagine how good she is at Nordic.'”
The pair trained for Balistreri’s first American Birkiebeiner. It was hard, at least for one of them.
“I’d feel so out of shape as we’d ski, with her smiling as she always is, but then I’d look at my Strava afterwards and be near the top on all the leaderboards explaining why it felt so hard — because it was!”
Hochtl has traveled down to Boulder to run with Balistreri, a commitment which speaks volumes for the mother of two young boys, age 6 and 4.
“Normally I would not leave here, just as a mom, but she’s honestly that good of a friend now,” she said. “So, it’s just kind of special.”
Hochtl described Balistreri as a “people person” with a unique ability to make everyone feel like they’re the best friend.
“She just connects that well with everybody,” she said. The long-run topics don’t usually get too philosophical. Hochtl has enjoyed simply learning about her new friends’ family history.
“You connect over something like going for long runs or skis and then you get to learn about them,” the Vail Christian teacher said. “It’s more about enjoying each other’s company while doing something you both love.”
Balestreri, a veteran of seven road marathons who ran cross-country and track from middle school through college, said all of her best friends have always been runners. Her theory is those who prioritize something a lot of people don’t find particularly enjoyable often have similar values elsewhere.
“Also, it makes the miles go by much faster if you just chit chat … you cover a lot of ground physically and metaphorically,” she stated. “It’s incredible that Sarah and I have only known each other for just a year because she’s a friend that already feels like family.”
While Balistreri is currently in Italy and won’t be at the Mountain Games this year, Hochtl and Rogowski are hoping the weekend provides a launch pad for their late-summer and fall racing goals.
Last year’s Mountain Games was Hochtl’s first running race since her second son arrived.
“It was really special for so many reasons because of the people I met there,” she said, emphasizing the inviting trail running communities’ welcoming spirit.
“It was the most positive way to get back into running and racing and I totally took off from there and had one of my best running seasons ever last year — it was the kick off to that.”
She went on to a runner-up in the Run the Rockies 10k in Frisco before finishing seventh overall in the A-Basin Cirque Series event. She also won VRD’s Meadowgold 10k season finale.
“That’s when I felt like, I’m feeling really good, this is going really well,” the 35-year-old said. It prompted her to lace up for the Moab Trail Half Marathon with Balistreri. Hochtl placed second in the Sunday race and clocked the fourth-fastest time even adding in Saturday’s USATF half marathon trail championships field.
“I have never felt so fit in my life, so that was awesome,” said Hochtl, who is returning along with Balistreri to Moab but will race in the Saturday’s elite field. She humbly considers her skiing career to be nothing too special, but is on the fence as to whether or not the breakout trail running season means she’s found her true calling.
“I have to see how this year goes,” she said. “Is that kind of as good as I can get and that’s sort of it? I don’t know. I don’t know what my potential is.”
Rogowski, who caught the running bug finishing the last 6 miles or so of her dad’s marathons while in high school, is debating a return to the roads to nab a Boston Marathon qualifier.
“In hopes of running the Boston Marathon in two years with my dad for his 70th birthday,” she explained. Her goal is to complete as many Town Series events as possible — she’s also on a mountain bike town series team and plays hockey for a pair of local club teams twice a week. Additionally, there might be a Grand Traverse on the docket for Labor Day weekend. “But I may have over committed myself this summer,” she stated.
Hochtl and Rogowski plan on running the Aspen Golden Leaf half marathon together, and all three friends might join Hochtl at a Cirque Series race in Utah as well.
As far as the Mountain Games goes, Hochtl is registered for the Friday’s 5k and Pepi’s Challenge on Sunday. She finished fourth in the latter event and is motivated by the fact that she was the first one cut off for five laps.
“There must be some unfinished business from last year that I need to resolve for myself,” she stated with a smiling tone.
Rogowski’s robust schedule includes the 5k on Friday and the 10k on Saturday. She’s also planning on flushing out the lactic acid in Sunday’s Oakley XC Mountain Bike race. In reflecting on the unique outdoor sports celebration, she said the trio’s chance meeting has given her “forever friends” who “will get out on the trails early or late with you.”
“Running friendship are the best friendships,” she aptly summarized. “They motivate you to get out, explore new trails and go on adventures with the best company.”