STONEHAM, Mass. – Kassandra Marin spends most of her time crushing races at shorter distances. This year alone her credits include a victory at the Merrimack River 10-Mile Trail Race, a fifth-place finish among world-class competition at the prestigious Mount Washington Road Race, and the top spot on the podium for the USATF New England Mountain Running Series.
Her talent translates to longer distances, too, including ultramarathons. That much was clear when Marin won her ultra debut at the North Face Endurance Challenge 50-miler at Wachusett Mountain in 2017. She showed her prowess again when she finished fourth at the USATF New England Mountain Ultra Championships in August at the Ragged 50K.
On Saturday, Dec. 1, Marin raced her second Massachusetts ultramarathon at the Trail Animals Running Club’s Fells Winter Ultra. She was one of eight women and 31 total runners who toed the starting line for the 40-mile race consisting of five eight-mile loops of the Skyline Trail, the second-most technically difficult trail at the more than 2,500-acre public wildland seven miles north of Boston.
When all was said and done, just 19 runners completed the course including five of the women. Marin earned a prominent place among the finishers of this classic New England ultramarathon. The 29-year-old resident of Merrimack, N.H., won the women’s race, set a new course record, and finished third out of all runners.
Marin admitted that she entered the race with the course record in mind.
“I had about seven hours in my head,” she said.
The course record of 7:22:37 had been set by Kehr Davis in 2015, so a goal of seven hours gave Marin some buffer time to accommodate any fatigue, wrong turns, or race quirks that might throw her a curve. That was a good thing because Marin had only run at the Fells once prior to race day. That came during the summer when she made a spur-of-the-moment stop on a drive home from Logan International Airport. It was enough to give her a taste of the technicality of the trails, so the endless rocks and roots sneaky vertical gain (around 1,700 feet per loop) didn’t come as a surprise.
What did sneak up on Marin, however, was some competition. Runners are allowed to choose which direction they want to run each loop of the course, making it difficult to know if the competition is close unless they are running the same direction. Marin ran the course counterclockwise, so she completely lost track of Jessie Donavan who started in the opposite direction.
“I had no idea where she was!” Marin said after the race. “It was tricky because she went the other way the first loop. I didn’t know I was in second until I saw her ahead of me (on the fourth loop).”
Donavan comes from a triathlon background, but the 42-year-old from Cornwall, Vt., has made waves on the ultrarunning scene this year with her win at the Jay Peak 53.1K in early September and her fourth-place finish at the Vermont 50’s 50-miler four weeks later. Marin may have been running ahead of course record pace early in the day with her 1:17 and 1:24 splits on the first two loops, but Donovan was ahead after posting loop times of 1:13 and 1:23.
Not realizing that she was behind may have worked to Marin’s advantage. She was running faster than she’d planned to, but she was relaxed and had a smile on her face. She was having a good day and was running her own race.
“I went out a lot faster than I thought it was going to be,” she said. “I found a good pace and just stuck with it.”
Marin saw Donavan at the end of loop three as Donavan was departing the start/finish and Marin was arriving. They were 2 1/2 minutes apart, but Marin didn’t know which loop Donavan was on until someone told her the first-place runner was up ahead. Ultimately, Marin caught Donavan and built a 3 1/2-minute lead by the end of loop four with 5:35:39 expired. Both runners were at least seven minutes under record pace heading into the final loop, and neither fell off during their final trip around the course.
Marin cruised across the finish line with a smile on her face, winning with a new record time of 7:11:54. Donavan followed in 7:17:00 and notched the No. 2 spot on the record board with her effort. Kara Olivito, 36, of Medford, Mass., was a distant third in 8:27:28.
Weathers Wins 32-Miler in Ultramarathon Debut
While Marin and Donavan were engaged in a close battle at the 40-mile distance, a different story was unfolding in the 32-mile race. Nora Weathers was in the middle of her ultramarathon debut, and she was making a statement with her performance. The 23-year-old resident of Somerville, Mass., has always thrived at shorter distances – she was a two-time All-American in track and also ran cross country at Haverford College – but the Fells Winter Ultra was her first race beyond a half marathon. She was handling it with relative ease two loops in with a 40-minute lead on the closest woman and a comfortable advantage on all but four of the men. She looked like a veteran, something she credited to having done her homework on the course.
“I run these trails all the time,” she said. “It was my first time doing more than two (loops); I did two when I started thinking about this race in the summer, and I started doing back-to-back (loops). I always meant to do three in a row, but other things got in the way. Fortunately, it worked out today.”
It certainly did. In fact, most of the four loops went well for Weathers. She alternated directions each loop to keep the course feeling fresh. She started by heading clockwise and posted a 1:13 split. She followed it with a counterclockwise 1:22 and then a 1:35 clockwise lap. She headed out for her final lap in the counterclockwise direction with the knowledge that the toughest climbs would come at the end. Still, she dug deep during the final loop and posted a 1:40 split.
“The last half of the last loop I was walking every hill, definitely struggling a little bit, but nothing too dramatic,” Weathers said. “It was just walk for a bit and then I’ve gotta get going again.”
Weathers’ winning time of 5:50:20 established a new women’s course record as she surpassed Hannah Lippe’s time of 6:22:29 from 2015. The grin on Weathers’ face indicated that she was proud of her performance, but she noted that she didn’t set out to have a record-setting day.
“My goal was to come in smiling at the end of each loop and not be hating my life,” she said with a laugh.
While Weathers became a newly minted ultrarunner, the 32-mile runner-up was a seasoned veteran of the Fells Winter Ultra. Elizabeth Thompson made her ultrarunning debut at the Fells Winter Ultra in 2012 when she was a resident of nearby Somerville. Thompson now lives in Summer Hill, Australia, but the race remains close to her heart. She flew back to run the race in 2016, returned again in 2017, and once again found herself back at the starting line on Saturday – six years to the day of her inaugural ultra.
Saturday was Thompson’s best performance by far at the race. She was the second-place woman in 6:57:43, more than 3 1/2 hours than her 2012 time and a personal best on the course by 85 minutes. She was beaming from ear to ear following the race, and she did not rule out another return in 2019.
Sarah Brennan, 27, of Londonderry, N.H., finished third in 6:59:39. Of the 28 women who started the 32-mile race, 21 finished within 9 1/2 hours. That included a trio of runners – 20-year-old Cyrene Nicholas of Branford, Conn., 20-year-old Maleena Frazier of Ivoryton, Conn., and 22-year-old Beth Lamonte of Stamford, Conn. – who all became new ultrarunners by running the entire race together and finishing separated by just 13 seconds. It also included Laura McDonough, who traveled the second-farthest of any runner in the field. McDonough, 57, was visiting from Anchorage, Alaska, and the Fells Winter Ultra was her first race in Massachusetts since running the Stone Cat 50-miler in Ipswich in 2009.