PRINCETON, Mass. – It took a decade for The North Face Endurance Challenge to venture into New England. When it finally did, runners were treated to a whopper of a course as the region’s diverse and difficult terrain lived up to its reputation.
Whether it was rocky, steep ascents and gnarly descents of Wachusett Mountain, a technical and overgrown stretch of the Midstate Trail, or the rock- and pine needle-strewn trails and fire roads of Leominster State Forest, runners took on a course that was burly and daunting from start to finish in the 50-mile and 50K ultramarathons on Saturday, June 10.
“I expected the course to be relentless, and it didn’t disappoint,” said Will Swenson, a resident of Andover, Mass., and experienced ultrarunner who finished fifth overall in the 50-miler.
The course doled out plenty of punishment, and it proved to be a stout challenge for veteran New England mountain runners and newcomers alike. That was particularly true for the 50-mile distance. Of the 179 runners who started the race, just 75 completed the distance (41.9 percent). What’s more, only 60 runners – less than 34 percent of the field – finished within the race’s “official” 14-hour time limit.
The 50-mile race began with two ascents up rocky, boulder-strewn trails to the summit of Wachusett Mountain, followed by equally technical descents. Other than a few stretches of fire roads and winding singletrack, runners were slowed to a hike for much of the early miles. They would revisit that stretch of the course later by repeating the double-ascent and double-descent of Wachusett Mountain during the final 12 miles – although most runners didn’t last long enough to make those final climbs.
Swenson wasn’t caught off-guard by the difficulty of the climbs to the top of Wachusett Mountain. He had done his homework.
“Joe Loureiro and I sampled the first 12-mile loop a week before the race,” Swenson said. “I’m glad, because it helped us set expectations that it was going to be a long day.”
While Swenson held back early and was the seventh runner to reach the first summit of Wachusett Mountain, Patrick Heine of Emmaus, Pa., set off on a blistering pace and reached the summit a few minutes ahead of the rest of the field. A little further back in the pack, Kassandra Marin – a former resident of Beverly, Mass., who recently moved to Merrimack, N.H. – ran within a few strides of Gloucester, Mass., resident Jenn Brooks at the front of the women’s field. Both were part of a large pack of runners that went off-course about three miles into the race, but the two stuck together into the first aid station. From there, Marin moved into the lead and never looked back.
“We stayed together for the first five miles, but after losing time off-course it set a fire in me,” Marin said. “We got to the first aid station together, but I just grabbed some electrolyte mix and set off to make some more distance between myself and the other females that I had to catch again.”
As the race continued to unfold, the arrival of a heat wave tossed another obstacle at the runners. An afternoon high in the upper 80s on race day turned portions of the forest into a sauna and made patience and disciplined nutrition even more critical.
“When I realized how hot it was going to be I decided to take it easy, and if I felt good towards the end I could push myself a bit more,” said Kristen Smith, a resident of Salem, Mass., who used the 50-mile race as a training run in preparation for the Grindstone 100 in October. “I also knew that we summited Wachusett again at the end, so I needed to save some energy for that.”
Between the rising temperatures and toughness of the trails, runners began dropping from the race at a rapid pace. Forty-seven runners didn’t make it to Mile 15.5.
Sandwiched between the first two and last two trips up and down Wachusett Mountain was a 25-mile stretch of the course that featured less vertical gain but plenty of quick ups and downs, rocks, and areas of limited visibility due to overgrowth.
As the term “Endurance Challenge” implied, less elevation change didn’t necessarily mean “easier.”
“I had heard the mountain would be more runnable than Leominster and kept that in mind,” Marin said. “Leominster had less elevation but was pretty rocky and honestly the only spot I was a little frustrated in when I found myself hiking the flat.”
As the runners wound through the state forest, the positioning at the front shifted. David Stango of Aston, Pa. – who had trailed Heine by as many as 15 minutes early in the day – took over the lead while Heine slipped to third and Daichi Inoue of New York, N.Y., held his ground in second place. Meanwhile, Swenson overcame an early ankle roll and a bout of cramps and moved into fourth place by Mile 33. Another local runner, Michael Pulli of Medford, Mass., lingered just a few minutes back and was coming on strong.
Among the women, Marin held a six-minute lead on Brooks through 33 miles, and Marin was steadily climbing in the overall standings. Smith also was enjoying a consistent march through the field. She’d been in seventh place among the women after the early ascents of Wachusett Mountain, and now she was in fourth despite battling through a rough patch on the return section of the Midstate Trail.
“I thought the most challenging part of the course was the singletrack coming back from Leominster State Forest where the marathoners were coming the other direction as I lost some momentum,” Smith said.
The Mountain Road aid station at Mile 36.9 was a popular dropping spot for runners who didn’t finish the course. It was within a quarter-mile of the start/finish area and came right before the final two trips up and down Wachusett Mountain. For those who went forward, it was the time to dig deep.
Mountain Road was accessible to crews, and that provided the boost Swenson was looking for to finish strong.
“It really turned better when I saw my wife and kids at 37, got refueled, and gathered myself mentally,” Swenson said. “Overall, I’m pleased I stuck with it and finished.”
Smith salivated at the opportunity to push forward.
“I really enjoyed the course as I find technical terrain mentally easier,” she said. “I loved the hard climbing push to the summit.”
Stango continued to lead the overall field, and he expanded his lead considerably during the final climbs and ultimately raced back down the mountain and across the finish line in a winning time of 9:06:33. Inoue was a distant second in 9:38:47. They were the only runners to break the 10-hour barrier.
Pulli climbed from sixth to third during the final 17 miles. He capped the big finish by erasing a 26-minute deficit on Dave Braunlich of Portland, Maine, during the final 3 1/2 miles to take third overall in 10:11:44. Nicholas Cardwell of Moultonborough, N.H., was fourth in 10:31:05, and Swenson rounded out the top five in 10:32:48.
Other Massachusetts residents to finish in the top 10 overall were Neil Feldman of Boylston who placed ninth in 11:03:02 and Neil Martin of Waban who placed 10th in 11:04:28.
The next runner to cross the finish line was Marin. After putting together a gritty, confident performance, she closed out her ultramarathon debut with a first-place finish in the women’s field and 11th-place finish overall in 11:08:36.
Hannah Lippe of Cambridge, Mass., climbed all the way to second place among the women and placed 19th overall in 11:39:29. Meanwhile, Smith’s steady climb through the rankings concluded with her earning third-place female honors and taking 21st overall in 11:43:06. Brooks was four minutes behind her in 11:48:16. Sarah Pandiscio of Charlestown, Mass., rounded out the women’s top five and overall top 25 in 12:00:21.
Other Massachusetts residents who finished in the top-25 overall were Salem’s William Jackson (12th, 11:11:18), Somerville’s William Hafferty (13th; 11:21:51), Longmeadow’s Jack Bailey (14th; 11:23:53); Princeton’s Ralph Crowley (15th; 11:36:55); Needham’s Peter Christie (16th; 11:37:30); and Andover’s Joe Loureiro (17th; 11:39:04).
Another notable performance was turned in by Kara Spera. The resident of Lynn, Mass., signed up for the race when it fell during a short break halfway through hiking the length of the Appalachian Trail. Spera traded her hiking legs for running legs and was the eighth female finisher in 13:06:42.
While the 50-mile runners covered the most ground and had the longest day on the trails, the 50K racers tackled much of the same course with the absence of about 4 1/2 miles of trail in Leominster State Forest and the final two trips up and down Wachusett Mountain. More than 200 runners took on the 50K offering and, much like the 50-miler – the difficulty of the course between its 6,000 feet of gain and constant technicality ensured that fast times would not be the norm. While 185 completed the course, 175 did so within the stated 10-hour time limit. In fact, just five finished in less than six hours, and only the top 26 completed the course in less than seven hours.
Mathieu Dube of Terrbonne, Quebec, Canada, threw down the fastest performance and ran away with the overall victory in 5:01:14. Daniel Gay of New York, N.Y., was a distant second in 5:35:10, and Brandon Baker of Lebanon, N.H., was a few minutes behind in third place with a time of 5:39:21. The top finishers from Massachusetts – Watertown’s Matt Turnbull (5:45:06) and Medford’s Thomas Boland (6:00:04) – finished fifth and sixth, respectively.
Other Massachusetts men who broke the seven-hour barrier were Ashburnham’s Michael Bisbee (6:22:59; 11th overall), Cambridge’s Ari Ofsevit (6:30:20; 13th overall), Worcester’s Jesse Jakubiak (6:32:23; 14th overall), Northampton’s Andrew Palmer (6:37:15; 15th overall), Norwell’s Jacob Varekamp (6:41:35; 20th overall), Boston’s Palo Cvik (6:42:44; 21st overall), Framingham’s Arthur Beauregard (6:48:54; 23rd overall), Salem’s Gregory Esbitt (6:50:28; 25th overall), and Westminster’s Nathan Watts (6:59:33; 26th overall). Jim Sullivan of Sudbury missed the seven-hour barrier by seconds, finishing in 7:00:32.
While the race for first among the men wasn’t close, the women had a much more competitive battle at the front – thanks in large part to local standout Lori Wetzel of Danvers, Mass. Wetzel never threatened Holly Reiland of Saint Paul, Minn., who led the women’s field wire to wire, but Wetzel’s smart, consistent performance allowed her to bide her time early and finish strong. Wetzel spent most of the day in fourth place among the women, and she was 11 minutes out of third half way through the race. As others began to fade in the afternoon heat, however, Wetzel charged ahead. She moved into third place around the 25-mile mark and then erased a 10-minute gap on second-place during the final six miles. Ultimately, Wetzel surged to a runner-up finish in 7:11:21 and finished 34th overall. Reiland posted a first-place time of 7:01:15. Marjorie Dugas of St-Colomban, Quebec, Canada, was third in 7:13:50.
Two more Massachusetts women – South Hadley’s Kate Bust and Cambridge’s Catherine Marinac – joined Wetzel in the top 10 of the women’s field. Bust was fifth (61st overall) in 7:42:16 and Marinac was sixth (64th overall) in 7:43:48.
In addition to the ultramarathon distances, a marathon and marathon relay were held on June 10. Half marathon, 10K and 5K races took place Sunday, June 11.