STONEHAM, Mass. – For those unfamiliar with the Middlesex Fells Reservation, the course description for the Trail Animals Running Club’s sixth annual Fells Winter Ultra might come across as a race director’s attempt to tease runners with a tantalizing portrayal of trail conditions that couldn’t possibly be as daunting as described.
“A nightmarish course of rocks and roots with a bit of elevation thrown in,” the description says of the eight-mile loop of the Skyline Trail, which 32-mile competitors circle four times and 40-mile competitors get to enjoy a fifth time.
Still, the Middlesex Fells resides just six miles north of downtown Boston and is surrounded by suburbs. How tough could the course really be?
Plenty tough, actually.
Meredith Marx wasn’t fooled. She and her husband Andy live in Brookline, Mass., and they made two pre-race trips to the Fells to get a feel for the loose rocks, big boulders, and webs of tree roots that seem to span the entirety of the Skyline Trail. The terrain requires runners to focus on their footing, which can cause them to miss the white blazes marking the course if they aren’t careful. Both Meredith and Andy Marx were signed up for the 40-miler; they didn’t need any bonus miles by going off-course.
“I fully expected this course to be gruesome with relentless roots and rocks that would likely haunt me on loops four and five,” Marx said. “I didn’t put specific finishing expectations on myself expect to push myself as hard as I could and see what I was made of.”
Marx discovered she had enough grit – and a spirited sidekick – to conquer the course. So did Patrick Caron for the second year in a row. Of the 27 runners who started the 40-miler, they were among the 15 to finish. Additionally, 59 of the 84 starters of the 32-mile race got the job done.
Course records went untouched this year, but temperatures in the mid-30s, dry ground and a brisk, biting wind set the stage for some highly competitive December racing to close out the 2016 ultrarunning season in style.
40-MILE RACE: CARON CRUISES, AND MARX PREVAILS IN ULTRA-COMPETITIVE WOMEN’S FIELD
Twenty-seven runners toed the starting line for the 40-mile race, and two storylines lingered over the crowd as they prepared to dash into the woods. The first was a more general curiosity regarding whether 19-year-old phenom Patrick Caron would defend his title. The second – and, perhaps, more intriguing topic of discussion – was if this would be the year the women broke through.
The answer to both was a resounding yes.
Caron, of nearby Needham, Mass., delivered on his goal of title defense, and he displayed improved strength and discipline along the way. He ran each of his first three loops slightly slower than in 2015 – a matter of about 30 seconds per loop. Unlike a year ago, the wheels didn’t start to fall off when Caron began loop four. Instead, he maintained his pace and expanded what had been a comfortable but unsecure lead of 18 minutes into a dominant 33-minute advantage during the course of his fourth trip around the course.
“I was definitely going for the win, and then was hoping to improve upon my time,” Caron said. “I guess my goal was sub-6:30, and see if I could do any better than that. I felt a lot better than last year. I ran a lot more even (splits), so I was really happy with that.”
Caron’s winning time of 6:23:03 was a 25-minute improvement from 2015, and it was the second-fastest in course history. Only Scott Traer’s sizzling 5:57:00 in 2011 was speedier.
Even though Caron ultimately earned the victory, 29-year-old Brandon Baker of Lebanon, N.H., kept the race interesting for the better part of 16 miles. Baker was hot on Caron’s heels through the first loop and trailed by less than eight minutes after two loops. Baker slipped off the pace by 10 minutes during his third loop and was unable to gain ground the rest of the way, ultimately finishing second in 7:07:44. Sylvain Olier, 41, of Andover, Mass., crafted a consistent performance through 32 miles. Olier was just six minutes behind Baker entering the final loop before fading to a third-place finish in 7:31:28.
While Caron delivered on his well-established expectations, the women wrote a new chapter in the history books by collectively delivering a performance never before seen at the Fells Winter Ultra. During the first five years of the event, only two women had managed to complete the 40-mile race. Kristina Folcik of Norwood, N.H., did twice (2012 and 2014), and Kehr Davis of Great Barrington, Mass., did so in 2015.
On Saturday, eight women stepped to the starting line. Six of them completed the 40-mile race, including four of the top seven overall finishers.
The race among the ladies was close throughout. The lead trio of Davis, Meredith Marx and Megan Lenane didn’t always have an eye on each other given that the race format allowed runners to choose whether to run the course clockwise or counterclockwise, however they were never separated by more than about three minutes on the race clock.
Marx, 30, of Brookline, Mass., and Lenane, 22, of Billerica, Mass., connected on the course about two miles in, and they spent the rest of the day running and hiking together nearly stride for stride. Whether going in the same direction or in reverse, Davis was always either a few strides ahead of them or a few strides behind in terms of overall time.
“In the first loop it became clear that this was going to be a competitive women’s race, which really surprised me,” Marx said. “The competition definitely pushed me and I ran a faster race because of it.”
Davis – who had finished third overall in 2015 – held a three-minute lead on Lenane and Marx after the first and second loops before the advantage reversed.
“Kehr Davis was in first place perhaps most of the race,” Marx recalled. “I believe we passed her on loop three where we had friendly conversation and learned that she didn’t feel great.”
Sure enough, Lenane and Marx moved to the front and built a three-minute lead by the time the loop was done. Lenane and Marx went counterclockwise on loop four while Davis headed out clockwise. A resilient Davis picked up the pace, and by the time she completed the loop she was back in the lead with a nearly two-minute cushion.
Davis began the final loop with the lead, but it didn’t end that way. Lenane and Marx headed back out for a final loop together. Just as they’d done all day, they fed off each other’s energy and attitude. They picked up the pace as they went along, eventually passing Davis and pulling away.
“(Megan) was very strong and really pushed me and encouraged me during the race, especially on loop four when I was struggling,” Marx said. “On loop five, I fully expected her to go and win the thing, but the closer I got to the finish line the stronger I felt.”
The duo dashed up the final hills, danced over rocks and tore down the final rock-strewn, leaf-blanketed hill with reckless abandon.
“I remember looking at my pace coming into the final downhill and we were running an eight-minute mile,” Marx said. “It felt like we were flying through that last section!”
Lenane slipped off the pace a bit during the final half-mile, and Marx cruised to the finish in 7:39:20, good for first-place female honors and fourth overall. Twenty seconds later, Lenane joined Marx at the finish line as the fifth overall finisher. Barely two minutes later, Davis trotted in to claim third-place female honors, sixth overall, and become the second woman to finish the Fells Winter Ultra 40-miler twice.
Samantha LeBlanc, 28, of Medford, Mass., hadn’t been in the back-and-forth battle for the lead, but she was never more than a few minutes back of the front-running trio. LeBlanc – who spent multiple days each week training on the course throughout the fall – produced nearly even splits through her first four loops of the course and was 13 minutes back of the pack heading into the final loop. She was the fourth female to finish and earned seventh overall in 8:01:56.
“Going into the race, I had no idea that so few women had completed it,” Marx said. “When I saw the results, I felt extremely proud of the female showing given that five of the top 10 finishers were women, including fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh place. When I found out that previously only two women had finished it, I was even more excited and proud!”
Kara Spera, 34, of Lynn, Mass., finished ninth overall in 8:25:21. Danielle Triffitt, 41, of Topsham, Maine, avenged a 2014 DNF in the 40-miler by finishing 14th in 9:28:28.
Rounding out the top 10 were Andy Marx, 34, of Brookline, Mass., who finished eighth overall in 8:21:54, and Dima Feinhaus, 53, of Waban, Mass., who placed 10th in 8:28:13.
Additionally, Jeff List, 57, of East Falmouth, Mass., finished 11th in 8:44:20; Sam Osborn, 25, of Boston, Mass., was 12th in 9:06:23; Rick Kraics, 40, of Marstons Mills, Mass., was 13th in 9:09:52; and Michael Latham, Jr., 29, of Brockton, Mass., finished 15th in 9:28:40.
32-MILE RACE: JONES, LAWRY VICTORIOUS
Emlyn Jones isn’t a novice ultramarathoner; his credits include finishes at the Traprock 50K and Cayuga Trails 50-miler. The 29-year-old competes on the trail/mountain/ultrarunning team and cross-country ski teams at Sterling College in Craftsbury Common, Vt. The Sterling College team regularly takes part in the Fells Winter Ultra.
This was Jones’ first time taking part in the race or running at the Middlesex Fells, however, so he had to adjust to the course’s rocky and leaf-covered terrain.
“The hardest part? Probably a lot of the loose rocks and just how rocky it was,” Jones said. “Since I’ve never been on this course before, there were a couple of points where I lost sight of some of the trail markers and had to backtrack maybe a tenth of a mile at one point. That was a little tricky, but other than that it was really great. There was a lot of nice up and down with some more mellow spots where I could stretch the legs out a little.”
If the course itself wasn’t challenging enough, Jones also faced one of the most competitive fields in recent memory for the 32-miler, and he had to dig deep to earn the victory.
The lead changed hands between Jones and Michael Pulli, 40, of Medford, Mass., while 30-year-old Tim Goric of West Hartford, Conn.; 29-year-old Zak Gomes of Quincy, Mass.; and 28-year-old Christopher Knighton of Boston, Mass., jostled for position just a few minutes back.
Pulli finished the first loop with an 80-second lead, but Jones inched ahead during the course of the next eight miles. Gomes was a few minutes behind, followed by Knighton and Goric. The race remained tight throughout. Three minutes separated Jones and Pulli after three loops, and Jones pushed hard during the final loop to build separation and secure the victory.
Jones’ winning time of 5:26:28 was the fifth-fastest in course history. Pulli sprinted to the finish eight minutes later in 5:34:29 and held off a hard-charging Goric who claimed third barely a minute back in 5:35:49.
Gomes and Knighton rounded out the top five in 5:45:51 and 6:07:27, respectively, followed by Jason Devarennes, 39, of Maynard, Mass., in 6:16:28.
While Jones made his race debut on Saturday, Leah Lawry is no stranger to the Fells Winter Ultra. The 33-year-old from Charlestown, N.H., knows the course quite well – and she also knows success on the course. She was the women’s champion in the 32-mile race in 2014, and she finished third at the same distance a year ago. She was back for a third straight year Saturday, and she had victory on her mind.
Winning didn’t mean front-running from the start, however. Instead, Lawry let 22-year-old Maude Gorman of Hingham, Mass., and 44-year-old Justine Cohen of Lexington, Mass., dash out to an early lead. Meanwhile, Lawry – who was recovering from a sprained sacroiliac joint – settled into a comfortable pace that she was able to nearly replicate each loop. Strong and consistent, Lawry needed between 90 and 100 minutes to complete each loop. She moved ahead of Cohen during the second loop, and slowly reeled in Gorman before surging into the lead during the fourth loop and pulling away for the victory.
“I’m coming off a hip injury, so I wasn’t sure how it would go,” Lawry admitted shortly after the race was over. “(First place) was the goal. It feels awesome.”
Lawry’s time of 6:27:23 was the second-fastest by a female in course history, trailing only Concord, Mass., resident Hannah Lippe’s mark of 6:22:29 from 2015. Lawry also placed seventh overall. Emily Rose, 28, of Portland, Maine, steadily climbed through the field throughout the day and earned second-place female honors (12th overall) in 6:47:06. Gorman was close behind and earned third-place female honors (13th overall) in 6:48:50, followed a few minutes later by Cohen in 6:54:19, good for 14th overall.
A total of 84 runners started the 32-mile race, and 59 finished.
Full results of the 32-mile race can be found here.
Full results of the 40-mile race can be found here.
Check out a photo gallery from the race here.