MILTON, Mass. – Every April since 1897, runners from around the globe have flocked to Massachusetts to take part in the iconic Boston Marathon. Now one of the world’s largest marathons and among the most recognized events in all of sports, Boston has captured the imagination, hopes and dreams of runners for 121 years.
While Boston may be the big show (27,221 runners started this year’s race), there’s another race in town that’s iconic in its own right, albeit on a much smaller scale and on a course that’s far more difficult to follow. The Trail Animals Running Club’s “Don’t Run Boston” trail ultras are a New England ultrarunning cult classic.
DRB has lured runners off the pavement and onto the rocky, rugged trails of the Blue Hills Reservation the weekend before the Boston Marathon each April since 1997. The brainchild of race founder Howie Breinan, DRB began as something of an “underground” event with a dozen starters, no course markings, and no aid stations, just a map, some written instructions, and a few jugs of water and some snacks hidden in the woods. Now an official, permitted event with 50K and 50-mile races, DRB was back for the 21st year on Saturday, April 15, and it beckoned runners to follow their maps through the Blue Hills and try to navigate one of the more physically and mentally draining courses in New England.
“Much like the return of the robin each spring, DRB is a harbinger for the arrival of a new season of trail running,” says Kevin Mullen, who ran DRB for the sixth year in a row. “Specifically, I enjoy the fact that in order to complete the run, you have to use your head for something other than a hat rack. It requires more than blindly following course markings in order to finish. Upon completion, not only the body, but the mind is exhausted.”
More than a trail race, Mullen compares DRB to a complex math problem.
“You are summoned to the Blue Hills armed with a color-coded 50K course map consisting of pink, blue, yellow, green and orange sections,” he says, “then told to link the sections together in order to solve for X.”
Runners were drawn to DRB for a variety of reasons, be it tradition, temptation, or something else. For Sam Johnson, the DRB 50K served as his first ultramarathon. For Elise DeRoo, the DRB 50-miler was her longest race to-date. For longtime TARC timing guru Norm Sheppard, it was a chance to step out from behind the computer, get away from monitoring results, and get back out on the trails. For speedy Josh Katzman, it was an opportunity to get his groove back.
A week prior to DRB, heavy rains doused the course and covered it in pools of standing water, but by race day the trails had largely dried out – save for the course’s notorious swamp at Mile 7. Chilly 40-degree temperatures at the start rose to 68 under a toasty sun by mid-afternoon, with a cool breeze offering occasional relief.
Comfortable conditions don’t always equate to fast times at DRB, especially on a course that can be a navigational nightmare for newcomers and veterans alike. On this day, however, fleet feet prevailed.
The five-hour mark had only been eclipsed four times in DRB 50K history prior to 2017. Three of those four times were delivered by Katzman. That included the course-record run of 4:49 that he and Scott Traer shared in 2012.
Katzman went sub-5-hours again in 2013 with his 50K split en route to posting the 50-mile course record of 8:10. He missed DRB the next two years after having knee surgery to have a plica removed and then battling other medical issues. His only race since having knee surgery was the 2016 DRB 50K, which he won in 5:30, a fast time by most runners’ standards but his slowest on the course in five tries.
The 2017 DRB 50K was his sixth crack at the course and just his second race since having knee surgery, and Katzman returned to form. He also had company the entire way. Although not planned, Katzman and DRB newcomer Matt Picard ran the entire course together.
“Howie had given me a heads-up that there were some strong runners this year, and given that I needed to get to my son’s soccer game in the early afternoon, I had some motivation to try to get close to 5:00 again,” Katzman said. “Matt has a couple little kids at home, so he had some motivation to hustle and get back and help take care of them. I definitely didn’t plan on running with him for the whole race, but we just kept stride the whole time and moved together.”
Katzman logged training runs on the course to reacquaint himself with some of the unmarked trails, sharp turns, and sections that required scrambling up steep rock piles. Navigating for himself and Picard, Katzman knew the course well enough by race day that he only had to check his map once. The duo flew through the early miles of the course, across the swamp, and through the steep, rocky climbs and descents of the Skyline Trail. They bombed down the 325-foot descent of a ski slope, and wound their way to the final road crossing around Mile 26.
“The first time we ever talked about ‘racing’ was when we started on the last five miles after you cross the road,” Katzman said. “We both gave the other the okay to push ahead if he felt like it, and pretty much in the same breath both said that we would finish together.”
While the pair hadn’t planned to run so many miles together, Katzman was grateful to have Picard’s company – especially during the final miles when they made the final climb, then descended and circled Houghton’s Pond before crossing the finish line together in a new course-record time of 4:45.
“I was super-grateful for having Matt there pushing me,” Katzman said. “The steep climb to start the homestretch was the only trail I hiked all day, and when we got to the top of it I had my first real dark moment of the day. I was hurting at that point until we were able to move (to) a bit flatter/downhill (section of trail). This definitely reminded me of the first time I ran the race, when Garry Harrington guided me around the course and we set a new course record (of 5:16 in 2009), so I was really happy to have the experience of acting as the ‘guide’ this time around. And if that tradition holds, we can expect to take another 30 minutes off the course record in the coming years!”
While Katzman and Picard were writing a new chapter in the DRB history books, so was DeRoo. Just a few weeks removed from running her first ultramarathon (she was the overall champion with 35 miles at the TARC To Hale and Back 6-Hour Ultra in March), DeRoo took on DRB as her first 50-miler. She spent weeks training on the course and studying the map, and that diligent preparation paid off as she smashed two course records. Given that the 50-mile course covers the 50K course first, followed by 19 additional miles, DeRoo established new women’s records for both distances.
DeRoo spent the early miles running with a small pack of guys including Philip Kreycik, enjoying the camaraderie and sharing navigational duties while pacing intelligently and laying the foundation for a strong day of running.
Once the group reached the well-blazed Skyline Trail, DeRoo forged ahead solo and picked up the pace. Her three training runs on portions of the course allowed her to navigate well on her own, although she admitted she wasn’t flawless.
“I kept my maps out at pretty much all times,” she noted. “A couple of times I ran past a turn onto a singletrack path (on the east side of the course), and then had to double back to find the correct trail once I realized my error.
“I also ran past two markers I should have turned at on the west side of the course between miles 16 and 26, and doubled back to make the correct turns which definitely added on a few minutes.”
Even with a few missed turns and extra steps to recover, DeRoo blazed through the 50K mark fifth overall in 5:53 – nine minutes ahead of the previous women’s record mark of 6:02 that Kehr Davis and Kristina Folcik set in 2016. Only Katzman, Picard, Tim Finocchio (5:26) and Kyle Bergemann (5:48) finished the 50K faster.
DeRoo didn’t ease up after rolling through the 50K. She continued to push the pace through the final miles.
“The last 19 miles of the course from a navigation perspective were much easier for me to keep straight for whatever reason,” she said. “I was pretty cautious from a navigation perspective, which may have added on a bit of time, but I thought was worthwhile since I was running alone and thus navigating alone.”
Successful navigation and strong running combined to make a masterful performance as DeRoo raced across the 50-mile finish line in 9:52. Not only did her time eclipse the previous women’s 50-mile record of 12:30 that Michelle Roy set in 2013, but DeRoo earned the overall 50-mile victory and notched the sixth-fastest performance by anyone in the eight years that a 50-mile distance has been offered at DRB.
For the DRB newcomer, every step made for a memorable experience.
“How would I sum up my first DRB/50-miler experience? In two words, awesome and ouch!” she said. “I had never run beyond 35 miles, so running 50 miles alone was a totally foreign experience to me. Throw in some hills, and I was in the hurt box by the end of that! Living in Boston and without a car, I do most of my training runs directly from my apartment, and there just aren’t a ton of hills in the immediate area, so the hills in the course, especially the downhills, kicked my butt. My quads aren’t used to running down steep, technical hills fast, and were definitely feeling it by about mile 45. So that’s the ouch, now more about the awesome …
“When I say awesome, I don’t just mean the beautiful course or the act of conquering 50 miles, but also the community of people that were out there at this event – from the volunteers to the runners, it was a great group of people to spend a day with! Looking very much forward to running this event again in the future!”
While speed was part of the story at DRB 2017, so was the physical challenge and close-knit camaraderie that have been hallmarks of the event since its earliest days.
Most runners spent at least a few miles running together in small groups, if not the entire day, sharing miles, stories and friendly conversation. That was the case for second-year DRB runners Alexandra Brinkert and Chris Wristen who ran most of the day alongside nine-time DRB finisher Jeff List, as well as for larger groups such as Nicole Ponte, Dane LeBlanc, Mike Maher, Stephen Taylor, Jeremy Fuller, and Mullen who found strength in the pack.
“I have always said that if you really want to get to know someone as they truly are, not who they say they are, go for a long run with them,” Mullen said. “Howie provides the platform for that to occur at DRB.”
Additional highlights of a day full of personal milestones and shared experiences included Craig Wilson logging his record 15th finish DRB finish and event founder Howie Breinan posting his 13th finish. Meanwhile, Rich Collins became just the fourth double-digit DRB finisher as he logged his 10th successful trip around the course.
Joining DeRoo as 50-mile finishers were Breinan, Carolyn Harper, Mike Kenney and Michael Barrett. Additionally, Christopher Martin completed 50 miles, although he chose to make DRB even more difficult by running the course in reverse.
Beyond running, DRB participants are always encouraged to make donations to the Blue Hills Trailside Museum to help support the organization and give back to the Reservation. The 2016 event raised $305, and that number was more than doubled in 2017. Notably, DeRoo took her fundraising effort up a notch by launching a gofundme campaign that brought in $355 for the museum.
Fifty-five runners started DRB races this year, and 43 finished – the most in the event’s 21 years. Some were speedy, while others needed more than half a day to cross the finish line. All dipped their feet a little bit deeper into the tradition of the Trail Animals Running Club, Katzman indicated.
“When you finish DRB, you know you’ve earned it,” Katzman said. “And if you are interested at all in the history of the sport and the people who have made it what it is, well, you’ve got to come out and run DRB. To me, Howie captured the essence of why any of us run these long distances. There’s a sense of adventure in the course itself, this little niggle of doubt about ‘Am I doing this right?” which is, in many ways, a perfect metaphor for a lot of people’s training and a lot of people’s lives, that, at least for those beautiful hours you are out on the course, you can viscerally work to answer that by making your way through that serpentine mess of a course.
“I owe a lot of what I’ve done in running and TARC to the people I met at my first DRB (including Steve Pero and Bob Crowley), and I think that is part of it – because it is so low-key, so intimate, so personal, people want to come back and share that experience or go out and share it.”