PRINCETON, Mass. – When The North Face Endurance Challenge—Massachusetts made its debut at Wachusett Mountain in 2017, it challenged runners in the 50-mile and 50K ultramarathons with more than just rugged climbs to Wachusett’s summit and technical, rolling trails through Leominster State Forest. On that day, the temperature soared to nearly 90 degrees and the woods were steamy. It was as though runners entered a sauna, and the scalding rocks from the heater were scattered on the floor for the tired, sweaty occupants to navigate through.
Year Two welcomed runners with ideal conditions on Saturday, June 9, as runners in the 50-miler began their race by headlamp, tackling dry trails in comfortable temperatures in the mid-50s. The day grew warmer as the race progressed, ultimately topping out in the mid-70s, but a consistent light breeze and shaded trails along the mountainside and through the forest created a comfortable environment that fostered some fast times.
The lead pack of men established itself early, with Bryan Kerl of Leadville, Colo.; Alexander Jinks of Montpelier, Vt.; Maximilliano Meza of Alameda, Calif.; Victor Zuniga of Escazu, Costa Rica; Michael Pulli of Medford, Mass.; Erik Lopez Juarez of Phoenix, Ariz.; Anthony Reimer of Wetaskiwin, Canada; Xavier Berruel of Montreal, Canada; and Noah Howard of Northampton, Mass., all dashing away from the field. Kerl and Jinks quickly claimed the top two positions, while the rest of the pack mostly stuck together and traded spots while passing in and out of aid stations during the two summits of Wachusett Mountain at mile 7.1 and 9.4, as well as during the pass along the Midstate Trail to Leominster State Forest.
For Pulli, the pack attack made for a fun approach to the day. He spent many miles running with Howard and Zuniga, and the company kept him in good spirits as he shook off a nasty right ankle sprain just four miles into the race.
“Noah’s a beast; We went back and forth all day,” Pulli said. “He and the guy from Costa Rica – he was a great guy – the three of us played seesaw for most of the day.”
After initially falling a few minutes behind Kerl, Jinks surged into the lead around mile 16 and took control of the race. He built a nearly 20-minute lead during the next 15 miles and continued to pull away down the stretch, never looking back in what became a dominant performance.
“I finally get to win a race,” Jinks said as he navigated the final stretch of rocky trail about a half-mile from the finish line which he ultimately crossed in a winning time of 7:54:48.
Kerl was a distant second in 8:37:34, followed by Zuniga who made a big push to break nine hours and secured third place in 8:58:09. Juarez finished fourth in 9:06:48.
After a day of trading places multiple times, Pulli passed Howard in the final miles and charged to a fifth-place finish in 9:24:36. It marked his second straight top-five finish at the event – he was third in 2017 in 10:11:44 – and capped his biggest mileage day prior to making his 100-mile debut in July at the Vermont 100.
“It was a grinder,” Pulli said of the race as he relaxed in the grass near the finish line. “It got hot that last hour.”
Howard followed less than a minute after Pulli, taking sixth overall in 9:25:12. Meza, Berruel and Reimer stayed among the leaders throughout the day and placed sixth through ninth, while Scot DeDeo of Belmont, Mass., climbed to a 10th-place overall finish in 9:54:56 and was the final sub-10-hour finisher.
The women’s race unfolded in similar fashion to the men’s, with the leaders establishing themselves early and a few of them trading places as the day went along. Katelyn Tocci of Santa Ana, Costa Rica, taking control early and keeping her challengers at bay the rest of the way. She built a three-minute lead by the time she summitted Wachusett the first time, and she tacked on another minute during the next 2.3 miles as she summitted for the second time. At that point, Kehr Davis of Pittsfield, Mass., was the closest runner in pursuit, followed a few seconds later by Deborah Livingston of Bolton, Conn., Stacia Broderick of Chilmark, Mass., and Karen Benway of Williston, Vt. None ever caught Tocci, but the pursuit pack traded places multiple times during the next 40 miles.
Broderick moved into second place within three minutes of Tocci as the runners headed to Leominster State Forest. Benway and Davis were right on her heels while Livingston slipped a few minutes off the pace. Broderick’s pursuit of Tocci continued for the next few hours. By mile 31 she had narrowed the gap to just two minutes and built a four-minute lead on Benway, but it didn’t last. Over the next nine miles, Tocci added three minutes to her lead while Benway gradually reeled in Broderick and eventually pulled even.
With five miles to go, a five-minute gap separated Tocci from her two closest competitors, and that was all she needed. Tocci never led by more than a few minutes at any point during the day, but she maintained a slight cushion throughout and held on for the win in 10:17:35. As they’d done all day, Benway and Broderick were close until the final mile with Benway ultimately taking second in 10:20:32 and Broderick finishing third in 10:23:45. Davis was a distant fourth in 10:53:20, followed by Krista Rynkowski of Ramsey, N.J., in 10:57:14, and Livingston in 10:58:58. Molly Karp of Natick, Mass., placed seventh in 11:19:18. Jeannette Brown of Cambridge, Mass., rounded out the top 10 in 12:19:56.
A notable course change from 2017 to 2018 was that 50-milers only summitted Wachusett Mountain twice – both within the first 10 miles – rather than four times as was the case in 2017 when they had two additional summits during the final 10 miles. This year, runners made a second loop through the rolling trails and fire roads of Leominster State Forest to replace the mileage.
The course change, as well as the more accommodating weather conditions, may have contributed to more finishers this year. There were 119 finishers within 15 hours, and 113 within the official 14-hour time limit at this year’s race. In 2017, just 75 runners finished within 15 hours, and 60 did so within 14 hours.
Meanwhile, the 50K course was unchanged this year, and the race featured runaway victories for the top men and women. Fabian Stocek, a Nordic skier at Dartmouth from Jilemnice, Czech Republic, took control of the race from the beginning. Stocek built a 10-minute lead by the time he summitted Wachusett Mountain the second time at mile 9.4, and he never looked back, cruising to the win in 4:54:16. His closest competitor turned out to be women’s winner and overall runner-up Margaret Lane of Bend, Ore. Lane was in eighth overall when she summitted Wachusett the first time at mile 7.1, and she gradually picked off the men ahead of her as the miles ticked by. A strong push in the final mile allowed her to climb all the way to second overall and secure first place in the women’s field in 5:26:36. Men’s runner-up and third overall finisher Scott Gregor of New Britain, Conn., finished 20 seconds later. Ralph Crowley of Princeton, Mass., rounded out the men’s podium and earned fourth overall in 5:52:05.
Only four of the 177 finishers completed the race in less than six hours, and 169 finished within the official 11-hour time limit.
Five more Massachusetts men joined Crowley in the overall top 10. Stephen Fleck of Mendon was fifth overall in 6:02:10; Zakarias Gomes of Quincy was sixth overall in 6:05:54; Matthew McKenna of Quincy was eighth overall in 6:09:06; Quinn Crawford of Milton was ninth overall in 6:09:24; and James Coletta of Wilbraham rounded out the top 10 in 6:09:31.
Cassy Aslani of Roswell, Ga., was a distant second in the women’s field in 6:54:55. Coleen Dever of Newton Square, Pa., rounded out the ladies’ podium in 7:03:53. The top women’s finisher from New England was Leah Jacobson-Hardy of Florence, Mass., who finished fourth in 7:04:07.
Rounding out Saturday’s races was a trail marathon that had 85 finishers within nine hours. A pair of Somerville, Mass., residents swept the victories with Ryan Lopes Woodhouse taking the top spot for the men in 4:35:13 and Sarah Pandiscio earning the women’s win while placing third overall in 5:25:36.
More than 750 Runners Tackle Sunday Races
Sunday’s festivities included three races at shorter distances. In the half marathon, Robert Coslick of Phoenix, Ariz. (1:50:56) and Lauren Perkins of Brooklyn, N.Y. (2:15:00) were the men’s and women’s winners in a field of 289 finishers. Additionally, Jonathan McInerney of New Ipswich, N.H. (51:15) and Alexandra Slayton of Ashburnham, Mass. (1:05:58) were the 10K winners in a field of 333 finishers, and Bryan Klein of Waltham, Mass. (23:01) and Beth Blendell of Newport, R.I. (27:08) claimed the men’s and women’s 5K victories out of 165 finishers.