Demand for big mileage opportunities has grown in western Massachusetts in recent years, and the Berkshire Ultra Running Community for Service (BURCS) responded first with the expansion of its BURCS Badass Race Series to include additional events, and then this year with time extensions for the organization’s annual Summer Fat Ass Run.
The Summer Fat Ass was a six-hour event during its first two years, and last year both runners and organizers discussed the possibility of doubling – and maybe even quadrupling – the time limit so runners could try to achieve 50- and 100-mile goals. That conversation laid the foundation for the third annual Summer Fat Ass, which expanded into a two-day affair on July 8-9 at Notchview Reservation in Windsor, Mass. In addition to the standard six-hour event, runners could also choose to run for 12 hours or 24 hours. The result was that dozens of new faces turned out for the event, and many people set personal milestones, all of which pleased race director Benn Griffin.
“One of the goals I’ve had since helping establish BURCS with Michael (Menard) and Ana (Wolf) in 2013 is to grow our BURCS Family. We know that with each passing year there are more opportunities to race in the area, more races and directors competing for runners’ attention and time. The fatass is unique and runner-friendly in that there is only a commitment in time and energy, and not a financial requirement. This has allowed us to broaden our area,” Griffin said. “We saw runners from all over New England and as far as Illinois, Pennsylvania, Maine and New Hampshire come out.”
“I think we have helped many runners push their ‘reach’ goals,” he added. “For many, the 12-hour and 24-hour was their first attempt at an event longer than a marathon.”
Just 13 runners logged miles at the inaugural Summer Fat Ass in 2015, and participation grew to 33 runners last year. This year with the extended time offerings, 64 runners took part and 46 ran beyond the marathon distance.
Although the loop course measured just 1.9 miles, runners experienced a nice variety of surface – a little bit of singletrack, a little bit of doubletrack, and even some cross country-style grass. A heavy downpour rolled through the area three hours before the start of the 24-hour event at 7 p.m. Saturday, and a few inches of rain soaked the course. That created some muddy downhills mid-loop, which was an additional challenge on top of the course’s roots and rocks. The course dried out a bit by the time the 12-hour event started at 7 a.m. Sunday, and footing was good for the half-day runners – as well as for the six-hour runners who started at 1 p.m. Sunday.
Twenty-two runners took part in the 24-hour all-night/all-day run, and all surpassed the marathon distance by completing at least 14 loops (26.6 miles). In fact, 18 runners completed at least 27 loops (51.3 miles), but nobody went farther than Dietmar Bago and Ann Alessandrini.
Bago, a 49-year-old resident of Andover, Mass., made a lasting impression during his first appearance at a BURCS event as he circled the course 48 times for 91.2 total miles.
“Dietmar I had never had the pleasure of meeting before, but he was a steadfast, persistent runner,” Griffin said. “He hails from Romania and seemed to have a goal of just enjoying each lap. He always stopped to check in at the end of each loop. I do not recall seeing him sit down once. He just persisted and plodded along lap after lap. He and Ann were within one lap of each other for the majority of the race. In the last 12 hours, his wife and daughter switched on and off logging laps with him as he came through.”
Alessandrini, 57, of Johnsonville, N.Y., is a well-known presence at BURCS events. She earned BURCS Badass status in 2015 for completing all three of the group’s signature races that year; in 2016, she was the first runner ever to finish all five BURCS races; and she has numerous top-three finishes to her credit at BURCS events. Alessandrini was the first-place female finisher and second overall in the 24-hour event by completing 45 loops for 85.5 miles.
“She claimed that she was not going to run the races as much this year, but would be around when she could. So far she is killing it,” Griffin said. “Ann had never ran more than 56 miles (from last year’s 12-hour at HamsterWheel) before, but she hit 50 miles in exactly 12 hours. She knew the second half would be harder, but she rarely took a break for more than five minutes. She became a friend of all on the course, and she never failed to throw the timing crew a one-liner when she was coming in.
“If you ask her she will tell you that she has ‘the best crew.’ Her son, Frank, floated effortlessly around the aid station prepping plans A, B, and C so that Ann only had to work on ‘just running.’”
Bago and Alessandrini weren’t the only 24-hour runners to log big performances. Billy Jenkins, 29, of Malden, Mass., and Patrick Volker, 27, of Portland, Maine, each finished 70.3 miles to round out the men’s podium, while 35-year-old Tek Ung of Cranston, Mass., and 44-year-old Ella Lombardi of Cedar Grove, N.J., completed the women’s podium with 66.5 and 64.6 miles, respectively.
“Inspiring performances from Tek Ung, who despite a sore ankle, hit over 66 miles, (and) Patrick Volker and Billy Jenkins who each hit 70.3 miles which I believe were lifetime distance PRs,” Griffin noted.
Four additional runners – Chris Casey, 38, of Keene, N.H.; Carla Halpern, 47, of New Salem, Mass.; Meredith Pinault, 40, of Belmont, Mass.; and Shari Yard, 51, of Litchfield, Conn. – earned 100K finishes as they posted 62.7 miles.
“Carla Halpern, who has been running with BURCS for two years, set a lifetime distance PR, hitting 100K in the 24-hour event and is already talking about next year and beating that,” Griffin said.
Amy Sternheim, 49, of Amherst, Mass., finished the 24-hour event with 53.2 miles, and seven others ran 51.3 miles. Included among them was 82-year-old Eugene Bruckert of Arlington Heights, Ill., who surpassed the 50-mile mark for at least the ninth time in 2017.
“Gene is actually working right now on trying to set an age group record for the 100K distance,” Griffin noted. “He saw that we were offering this ‘cross country styled’ course, and signed up. By the third lap though he said that his definition of ‘cross country’ being a Midwesterner was much different than the courses we have here in New England. If you talk to Gene, he is much younger than his age on UltraSignup suggests. He is genuine, charismatic, and so very humble. I might have convinced him to come back for next year, and we agreed that if I move to a 24-hour option on Clapp Park he’s in it for the long haul.”
Fifteen runners competed in the 12-hour option, and four Connecticut residents surpassed the 50-mile mark within the time limit. Andrew Orefice, 39, of New Haven, and Brian Roccapriore, 38, of Clinton led the way with 55.1 miles apiece, followed by first-place woman Rebecca Burke of Portland. Burke, 41, notched the third-most total miles in the half-day race with 53.2 and easily outdistanced the other ladies in the field. Simsbury resident Russell Stroud, 47, also surpassed the 50-mile mark with 53.2 miles.
“The 12-hour was the closest race by far,” Griffin said. “We had Russell Stroud who was in front and built a lead by two laps over Brian Roccapriore and Andrew Orefice, before he left early. Brian and Andrew dug deep and squeaked out enough miles to overtake him with minutes to go, hitting 55.1 miles each. We were waiting that last hour to see if Russell would reappear to make another lap. Rebecca Burke took the women’s race, finishing up her last lap with 53.2 miles.”
Burke was joined on the 12-hour women’s podium by a pair of Massachusetts ladies. Salem’s Karen Giroux, 51, and Wendell’s Nancy Mead, 52, both ran 39.9 miles, as did fourth-place female Christine Morin, 53, of Orange, Mass.
Of the 26 runners who took part in the six-hour event, nine went farther than a marathon distance during the allotted time limit. David Olson, 34, of Keene, N.H., logged the most miles with 32.3, while overall runner-up and first-place female Audrey Witter, 52, of North Adams, Mass., finished with 30.4 miles in six hours. Seven runners narrowly eclipsed the marathon distance by recording 26.6 miles. Additionally, although not an ultramarathon distance, 13-year-old Noah Bourassa – a cross country at BART College Prep Charter School in Berkshire County – logged his first-ever half marathon while his mom, Jessica Bourassa, 35, of Adams, Mass., logged a personal-best mileage day with 17.1 miles.
Reflecting on the BURCS’ longest event so far, Griffin was pleased with the successful weekend and optimistic about the future.
“So many runners had lifetime PRs for distance. For many of the runners it was an odyssey and they were apprehensive about what to expect. But they persisted, they supported one another, and the entire community came together to make a really great atmosphere,” he said. “I think you will see the 24-hour field grow up 50 or more for next year. Many people are already inquiring about options to ‘run long.’ This is an amazingly inspiring thing. I’m excited to see what BURCSters do next year!”
Support for non-profits and other charitable organizations is a hallmark of all BURCS events, and the Summer Fat Ass was no exception. Proceeds from the event funded a $348 donation to the Trustees of Reservations at Notchview to support the race venue, as well as a $307 donation to the Eleanor Sonsini Animal Shelter, a no-kill animal shelter in Pittsfield.
“BURCS prides itself on donating 100 percent of profits to charity, Griffin said. “Over the last four years we have raised more than $40,000, so whenever possible I love to give back. The Trustees of Reservations was so accommodating and understanding of our event. They love us and worked with us to make it a great event. The Eleanor Sonsini Animal Shelter is Pittsfield’s only no-kill animal shelter and it has struggled to make ends meet at times. Actually, during the week leading up to the event, they had a break-in where two robbers stole a kitten from its cage.
“What I love about our BURCS runners is that they are humble and selfless, just like our mission. It was an entirely free event and donations were completely optional, but we raised nearly $400 for the Trustees to donate towards Notchview and over $300 for the animal shelter. Every donation helps and both organizations were so excited and thankful for our help.”
Griffin noted that the BURCS is always looking for new ways to make a positive impact on local communities, and the running group continues to seek out new organizations to support.
“One thing I think that BURCS does well with is building connections between runners and organizations,” he said. “We are actively seeking out more local organizations that need help raising awareness and, when possible, financial resources. So as a director, if I can accomplish that, it is a very gratifying experience to see both organizations and runners alike succeed.”
BURCS Badass Race Series
The Summer Fat Ass Run was the second event in the annual BURCS Badass Race Series, which is a points series built upon all five BURCS races. The Vegan Power 50K was the first race of the year. The group’s original three events – Vegan Power, the Sweltering Summer 8-Hour Ultra and the Free to Run 50-miler – are worth double points, while the Jug End Loop 6-Hour Ultra and the Summer Fat Ass are worth single points. Top-three finishes at each event earn bonus points.
Three events remain in the series –Jug End on July 29 in Egremont, Sweltering Summer on Aug. 12 in Pittsfield, and Free to Run on Sept. 16 in Pittsfield. Alessandrini currently leads the standings through two events with 382.04 points, followed by New Yorkers Joe Del Conte and Hillary Johnson with 300 points apiece, and Pinault with 296.73.