STONEHAM, Mass. –Barely two minutes had passed since Michael Pulli finished the Fells Winter Ultra 32-miler on Saturday, Dec. 2, at the Middlesex Fells Reservation, and Pulli stood near the finish line applauding as his closest competitor blazed across the finish line.
“That guy was coming on strong!” Pulli said, praising the performance of Marek Telus.
Pulli, a 41-year-old from Medford, Mass., led the race for its duration, but Telus, 42, of Hopkinton, N.H., was never far behind. They were never separated by more than four minutes at any point during their four loops of the rocky, rooty, leaf-covered Skyline Trail, and their battle culminated with a dramatic final loop that played out like a game of cat and mouse.
Pulli finished his first loop in 1:09:50, followed two minutes later by 28-year-old Jonathan Parker of Foxboro, Mass. Telus and 35-year-old Marc Almanzan of Jamaica Plain, Mass., were right on Parker’s heels. Robert Blakemore, 31, of Watertown, Mass., and Austin Ranz, 31, of Cambridge, Mass., were a few minutes behind them to round out a speedy first six.
The lead pack remained close throughout the second loop as Pulli maintained a three-minute edge on Parker, a four-minute lead on Telus, and a six-minute advantage on Almanzan at the halfway point.
From there, it was a two-man race between Pulli and Telus as Parker and Almanzan slipped a few minutes off the pace.
Pulli rolled through the aid station for a lead of 4:03 after 24 miles, but he didn’t feel comfortable as he headed out for his final trip around the course.
“I saw him coming in as I was going out on the fourth loop, so I estimated I had about three or four minutes on him,” Pulli said.
Runners are allowed to choose which direction they want to run their loops of the course, but both tackled their final loop in a clockwise direction beginning with a few rocky climbs that lead toward the panoramic lookout point at Wright’s Tower.
“I was keeping my eyes open (for Telus),” Pulli recalled. “Going up and over by Wright’s Tower is always a struggle, so I did my best to kind of grind that out. And then when I got to the aid station midway through (the loop), I took a look back and I could see him coming.
“I was like ‘Oh, no!’ So I just grabbed something to drink real quick, a couple pieces of watermelon, and carried on. I kept looking back every chance I could. I could see him, and I could see he was about 20 seconds behind me at one point – and he was coming on fast!”
Pulli’s legs were starting to knot up on him just as they had done on the final lap in 2016 when he placed second. He was determined to battle through it this time, and he pushed onward through the discomfort while constantly glancing over his shoulder where Telus continued to hunt.
“I just put my head down and tried to grind it out,” Pulli said.
Finally, Pulli hit the final downhill stretch of singletrack, hopped onto the fire road and raced the final quarter-mile to the finish line. His winning time of 5:10:43 was just enough. Telus sprinted through the finish two minutes later with a runner-up time of 5:12:53.
Almanzan placed a distant third in 5:32:02, followed by Parker in 5:47:45. Andy Illidge, 50, of Winchester, Mass., rounded out the top five in 5:49:44. Blakemore (5:56:43) and 45-year-old Tony Bargardo of Dover, N.H., (5:58:51) also finished in less than six hours.
Forty-four men finished the race within 10 hours.
Pulli’s performance was the third-fastest time in the seven years that results are available for the race. Only Kyle Pietari (4:43:52) and Ben Eysenbach (4:47:32) have run faster on the course during that time. Telus logged the fourth-fastest time on the record board, and Almanzan posted the 10th-fastest time.
For Pulli, the win was special for multiple reasons. For one thing, he’s still bouncing back from being sidelined after developing an abscess in his lung following oral surgery, an event that landed him in the hospital for a few days. Additionally, he lives just a few blocks from the Fells, so he hoped to win on his home turf.
“I was really looking forward to this; this is a well put-on race, and I always train here,” he said. “I’m out here five, six days a week, so I wanted to win in my own backyard, so to speak.”
Pulli admitted that his familiarity with the trails and the terrain was an advantage, especially when the leaves are off the trees.
“This isn’t the easiest course to follow, mostly because it’s pretty gnarly on the ground,” he said. “You’re always needing to watch your feet so you can miss your markings and the blazes on the trees pretty easily, so that’s definitely an advantage (to train on the course).”
Pulli enjoyed a strong ultramarathon season in 2017, collecting a third-place finish at the North Face Endurance Challenge 50-miler in June at Wachusett Mountain and a second-place finish at the TARC Summer Classic 40-miler in August prior to winning the Fells Winter Ultra. As he looks ahead to 2018, he knows plenty of training miles await him at the Fells. He is planning out his race calendar, but he’s eyeing his most ambitious race yet.
“If I get in, I’m planning to run the Vermont 100 in July, so I’ll be signing up for that in January,” he said. “I hear nothing but good things about it, so I want to do that, and I’m still working out what’s going to lead into that.”
For a recap of the women’s Fells Winter Ultra 32-mile race, click here.