STONEHAM, Mass. – Isaac Burleigh hasn’t lived in Massachusetts for very long – he moved to Somerville from Socorro, N.M., in September – but he spent his first two months in town exploring the trails of the Middlesex Fells Reservation.
Burleigh ultimately made the Fells his first trail race in Massachusetts. He joined 27 other runners in taking on the 40-mile race at the Trail Animals Running Club’s Fells Winter Ultra on Saturday, Dec. 2. The Fells has dozens of miles of trails winding throughout the more than 2,200-acre reservation. The race consisted of five eight-mile loops of the Skyline Trail and took runners over the reservation’s biggest climbs and some of its most technical sections.
“I run the Fells quite a bit,” Burleigh said. “The problem was that I always loop together weird little runs when I’m out there. I try to get lost and then find my way, so I really had only done the actual (Skyline) trail – the actual loop – once, and that was when there were leaves on the trees so it was a little bit different. You could see the trail a little bit better.”
Leaves are the wild card that makes the Fells Winter Ultra a particularly daunting challenge. By December, many sections of the trail are coated with leaves that hide the rocks and roots, forcing runners to focus on foot placement nonstop. That makes it easy to miss turns, especially for a first-time runner of the Fells Winter Ultra.
Race director Jeff LeBlanc allows runners to choose which direction they want to run each loop. Some alternate directions each time around the course for variety, while others – like Burleigh – pick a direction and stick with it.
“Today I followed some people for the first lap, and then decided I’d stick with what I know,” Burleigh said. “I just did the same thing (went clockwise). I did go off-course a couple times and had to backtrack, but that only happened on the first two laps.”
Burleigh stuck with a few of the faster runners from the 32-mile race (a four-loop race) during his first loop while quickly opening up a comfortable lead on the rest of the 40-mile field. He completed loop one in 1:09:15, hit the aid station, and then ran a nearly identical split on his second loop. Burleigh built a 20-minute lead on his closest competitor, Sylvain Olier of Andover, Mass., through 16 miles, and he continued to pull away as the race went on.
After two loops, Burleigh grew comfortable with the course and had identified every turn. The 27-year-old relaxed, settled in, and went on cruise control for the final three trips around the course. He leaped over rocks, dashed up and down hills, and even rapped to himself, matching the rhythm of his running.
“On laps three, four and five I checked out mentally,” he said. “It’s like I wasn’t even there … I was just rapping and stuff. I felt good!”
Burleigh ended his feel-good day in the Fells by posting a winning time of 6:21:58. His time dipped just below the winning mark of 6:23:03 that Needham, Mass., resident Patrick Caron clocked in 2016. Additionally, Burleigh’s 32-mile split (4:56:44) marked his first time going under five hours for a 50K. His previous best was 5:01:38 when he placed second overall at the Jemez Mountain 50K in New Mexico in May.
Burleigh was visibly tired as he relaxed with family and friends at the finish line, but he was also grateful for the experience of his first race on tough New England trails. He was particularly humbled by the large quantity of technical trail.
“One thing about New Mexico is if you’re going to do a 50K then you’re going to have almost 10,000 feet of climbing, but it’s going to be different,” he said. “There are sections of buffed (trail) and sections of technical, but it’s just different. A section of technical trail (in New Mexico) is like five miles here … I mean, here it’s like five miles of technical, where there it’s like ‘Oh shoot, technical section coming up!’”
While Burleigh was new to the Fells Winter Ultra, Olier is a seasoned veteran of the race. The 42-year-old placed fifth overall in 2015 (7:48:11) and third in 2016 (7:31:28) before delivering his best performance yet on Saturday. Olier spent most of his day dueling with 23-year-old Matthew O’Brien of North Reading, Mass. They were almost always a couple minutes apart, but Olier never gained much breathing room. That said, he held his position and earned his best finish and fastest time ever on the course while placing second in 7:23:42. O’Brien – a newcomer to the race – placed a close third in 7:26:52.
Chase Smith, 20, of Charlotte, N.C., came on strong on his final loop and surged into fourth place, finishing in 7:30:03. William McElroy, Jr., a 41-year-old Medford resident who enjoys the Fells as his neighborhood trails, placed fifth in 7:34:41.
Waban resident Dima Feinhaus placed sixth overall, and the 54-year-old made his third straight running of the 40-miler his fastest yet, finishing in 7:41:30.
Of the 28 runners who started the race, just 16 – 12 men and four women – finished.
For a related article about the women’s race, click here.