STONEHAM, Mass. – For most of the 111 runners who took on either the 32- or 40-mile races at the Trail Animals Running Club’s Fells Winter Ultra on Saturday, Dec. 2, the most difficult part of the event was the four or five laps they ran around the rocky, rooty, leaf-blanketed Skyline Trail at the Middlesex Fells Reservation.
For one of them, however, the toughest part was simply getting there.
Runners in the two distance offerings represented all six New England states, as well as one from North Carolina and another from Indiana. And then there was Elizabeth Thompson, whose love of the Fells Winter Ultra compelled her to journey nearly halfway around the world.
“Ten thousand,” Thompson said matter-of-factly when asked exactly how many miles she traveled to join her fellow runners on the course. “It was about 24 hours on a plane.”
What was it that compelled Thompson to travel 10,000 miles from her home in Summer Hill, Australia, specifically to run this 32-mile race in Massachusetts? It turns out it was a homecoming of sorts for her, both personally and as an ultrarunner.
“I’m from Cambridge, and I met my husband in 2011 when he was studying here,” she said. “I stepped on his foot.”
So … it was love at first step?
“It was!” Thompson said with a laugh. “He said, ‘You must be doing that on purpose.’ Now we’re married. He’s from Sydney, and I moved over to Australia in November of 2013.”
Prior to moving overseas, Thompson became an ultrarunner in December 2012 at the Fells Winter Ultra. It was a much smaller event back then. Seventeen runners took on the 32-mile race; just eight finished. Thompson spent more than 10 hours in the woods that day, and she laughed while recounting some of the memorably painful adventures of her inaugural ultra.
“The first year I ran it I had a really bad spill, and it resulted in a partial rotator cuff tear,” she recounted. “The funny thing was that it didn’t actually start to hurt until I got home and the adrenaline wore off.
“It was the first ultra I ever ran, and I was dead last,” she added of her 10:34:00 time. “At the end, the only people left were the race director, a state police person because maybe they thought I was dead, and my buddy who was picking me up.”
The shoulder injury and extensive time alone in the dark didn’t discourage her, however. Instead, those experiences served as motivation.
“I just had it in my head as I got more experience as a runner that I wanted to come back and give it another try,” she said.
It took four years, but Thompson returned last year – yes, she has made the 10,000-mile journey for the race twice – for her second shot at the Fells Winter Ultra.
“My husband and I came out here for our honeymoon last year, which mean our honeymoon was my poor husband standing out here in the cold while I ran laps in the Fells,” she said, smiling at the memory.
She was one of 84 runners to start the 32-miler in 2016, and one of 59 who finished, which was a much different experience than her first time at the race. Thompson improved her time on the course by more than an hour and 45 minutes, finishing in 8:47:41.
“A few months ago, I go the bug again,” she said. “I said to Andrew, ‘What do you think if I went over to the States just to try to get my time down a little bit more … just to do it once more?’
“Hopefully I have a lot more ultras in me, I don’t know, but I want to be able to try to prove myself on this course while I still can.”
Her husband was supportive of the plan, so Thompson registered for the race, booked her flight, and made plans to crash with friends while in town. The low-cost $22 entry fee helped offset an expensive plane ticket, one of the sacrifices of traveling for a race.
After more than 24 hours in transit and multiple flights through nine time zones, she made it to the Fells’ Stoneham trailhead and ran into the woods with friends and fellow ultrarunners for a long, tough day on the trails
Thompson shared some miles with Kevin Mullen, Mike Maher, Scott Baver, and many others, and also enjoyed some solo time on the trails. She began the day with the goal of breaking eight hours, but reassessed as the day along and set her sights on finishing sub-8:30. She pushed ahead, and received a mid-afternoon boost from an aid station volunteer that propelled her down the stretch.
“I will highly recommend – and I really mean this; I’m not being silly – the shot of Fireball brandy at the aid station at about mile 28, I swear that got me through the last few miles,” she said with a laugh. “I was happy; I was in no pain whatsoever. I recommend doing shots moving forward.”
Ultimately, fueled by Fireball and the desire to achieve her goal time, Thompson ran the final miles and crossed the finish line in 8:22:05 – a personal record on the course by 25 minutes.
Shortly after finishing the race, Thompson chatted with a few friends and then sat down to relax and put on some warm clothes. She was exhausted, but a smile never left her face. She’d just spent more than eight hours running in the woods, at her favorite race, surrounded by supportive people who helped her accomplish her goal.
“I couldn’t have asked for anything more,” she said of her race experience. “This is exactly why I traveled here. I’m completely happy … content. Life is pretty good.”
After a few more days in town, Thompson would make the 10,000-mile return trip to Australia where she logs most of her miles these days. After back-to-back trips to Massachusetts to run the Fells Winter Ultra, she doesn’t know what the future holds. That said, she loves this race. There’s so much about it that she enjoys, so she isn’t ruling anything out.
“I’ll have to convince my husband!” she said. “’Just once more, honey!’”