WESTWOOD, Mass. – The To Hale and Back 6-Hour Ultra was born of the best intentions. Specifically, those intentions were to avoid the snow.
Originally known as the Spring Thaw and held in mid-March, the Trail Animals Running Club’s season-opening event enjoyed a few years of seasonably good weather. In 2015, however, a late-winter snowstorm pummeled Massachusetts for weeks on end. When all was said and done, more than seven feet of snow had fallen, and runners at the Spring Thaw found themselves at times a foot or two above the actual trail because the snowpack was so thick. Following that year, the Trail Animals pushed the race back a few weeks, changed venues from Andover to Hale Reservation, and rebranded as To Hale and Back with hopes of benefitting from a legitimate thaw.
Despite the change, the New England winter has had the last laugh. Snow has remained a staple of the event. The course was dry in 2016, but both the 2017 and 2018 races featured plenty of snow-packed trails. In fact, this year’s race – which took place on Saturday, March 24 – had enough of the white stuff that it had a major impact on how many miles the runners could muster within the time limit. Only 12 runners surpassed the marathon distance out of 93 participants, and 47 completed more than 20 miles.
While Mother Nature may not have been kind to the course conditions, Race Director Josh Katzman preached a different message to runners as they toed the starting line.
“Be your best version of yourself today,” Katzman encouraged the runners, “and do something nice for someone else today.”
With that, the smiling pack of runners unleashed a traditional TARC yeti howl and headed onto the trail.
Runners mostly stuck together during the early going as they figured out their footing, navigated slick hills and slippery wooden bridges, and packed down the snow into a clear, foot-wide path. The first 10 runners were just seconds apart when they completed the initial 3.2-mile loop, and small packs of runners soon followed them across the timing mat. The leaders began to push the pace and distanced themselves from the crowd during the second and third loops; others settled into a comfortable stride, and some opted for an easy pace that allowed for miles and miles of conversation with friends.
Up front, Sylvain Olier set the pace among the men for the first three trips around the course while Joe McConaughy lingered a few seconds behind and Scot DeDeo followed a few minutes back. McConaughy surged into the lead midway through loop four, however, and steadily pulled away. He maintained a consistent pace of 30- to 32-minute loops through seven laps before slowing a bit.
“I haven’t had a lot of good long runs this year, especially on trail,” McConaughy said, referencing the four nor-easters that have hit New England in the past two months. “I was feeling it today, especially after six laps.”
Among the women, Elise DeRoo – the overall winner in 2017 (35 miles) – shook off some medical school stress by attacking the snow-covered hills with a smile on her face. She was the front-runner from the start, and her lead was never threatened.
“All things considered, I felt better than I thought I would,” said DeRoo, who admitted that her training had suffered of late due to rigorous academic and travel demands. “It was rough conditions out there; it was pretty sloppy at a lot of points. I feel like a ran a lot more than 31 miles even though my Garmin says I didn’t.”
The temperature rose from the 30s to near 50 degrees as the race entered its final hours. The combination of warmth, occasional sun, and the steady patter of feet began to thaw the trail. The trail devolved into a churned mixture of snow, mud, and ground-up leaves as runners logged their final miles. A sloppy mud pit developed at the aid station, and volunteers Rob Rives and John Fegyveresi shoveled snow into it to improve the footing for runners passing through.
“This was so much muckier,” McConaughy said, comparing Saturday’s course conditions to what he experienced in 2016 when he set a course-record with 38.5 miles on dry dirt. “It started off with snow, and then about four hours into it you’re covered head to toe in mud.”
Ultimately, McConaughy closed out the day with 11 loops for a winning tally of 35.2 miles on a day that served as training for an upcoming attempt at the Wicklow Round in Ireland. Olier finished second among the men with 10 loops for 32 miles, followed by DeDeo in third with 28.8 miles.
Joshua Riedinger, Tom Dmukauskas, Scott Deslongchamps, Evren Gunduz, Ron Woolley, Art Beauregard, Daniel Larson, and Kyle Bergemann also finished with 28.8 miles.
For DeRoo, a busy week that began by finding out she’d secured a medical residency in Madison, Wisc., concluded with a hard-earned victory. DeRoo closed out her day with nine loops for 28.8 miles to lead all the women and secured her second straight win on the course. She’s hoping it’ll serve as a springboard to her into the Don’t Run Boston 50K/50-mile, which she won in 2017 with a course-record performance.
“I know there are things I’d like to work on before DRB; I’m hoping I can put in some quality training between now and then,” she said.
As was the case with DeRoo in the lead, the second- and third-place women held their positions throughout the day as Kara Spera Olivito cruised to a second-place finish with 25.6 miles, followed by Jill Lizotte with the same mileage tally.
In addition to the 6-Hour race, a 5K was also offered. Christopher Knighton, 29, of Boston finished first among the men in 27:28 while Krysta Ambruson, 25, of Cambridge was the women’s winner in 48:30.
UP NEXT: DRB AND THE SPRING CLASSIC
Now that To Hale and Back is on the books, the TARC Trail Series will ramp up with a busy April. Up next is the Don’t Run Boston 50K and 50-mile races Sunday, April 15, at the Blue Hills Reservation in Milton, Mass., followed by the TARC Spring Classic 50K, marathon, half marathon and 10K on Saturday, April 21, in Weston, Mass.