WESTWOOD, Mass. – A smile glowed on Carolyn Harper’s face and she raised her hands in the air as she ran the final strides toward Powissett Lodge. Friends cheered for her as she rounded the corner of the building, strode up the stairs and stepped through the door to check in.
One hundred miles were done. But was she?
It was Sunday morning, Feb. 3, and Harper had already spent the past 27-plus hours circling a 15-mile clover-leaf loop course at Hale Reservation 6 2/3 times during the inaugural TARCtic Frozen Yeti 30-Hour Ultra. The clock was still running; Harper could, too. The choice was hers.
Josh Katzman was the only other runner to finish 100 miles by that point, and he’d decided to stop. He hoped Harper would make a different decision and suspected she might.
“All I have to say is before you say you’re done …,” Katzman told Harper as she entered the lodge to formally check in after 100 miles. “You can win the race outright, the entire race. One more, that’s all you need.”
“No! Stop it!” Harper responded, laughing as her smile grew brighter.
She took a sip from a soft bottle on her hydration pack, and the smile quickly faded. Her face grew serious.
She’d made her decision.
When Harper registered for the Frozen Yeti a few months ago, she did so with some ambitious but realistic goals in mind. She already knew she could run 100 miles; she’d done that a few months earlier when, in July 2018, she finished the Vermont 100 in 25:15:04. The logical time goal was to try to finish in less than 24 hours.
“I had a few goals in mind ranging from the probably to the unrealistic,” said Harper, 27, of Somerville, Mass. “My first priority was to try to move for 30 hours. My reaching goal was to get to 100 miles. My true desire was to run a sub-24-hour 100-miler and then continue on to run additional miles, but the course was too challenging for me to run that fast.”
Battling the Yeti
Sure enough, the conditions Harper encountered on race day at Hale Reservation were vastly different from the mid-summer, mostly-dry trails and hard-packed dirt roads that she’d run on in Vermont. Instead, the Frozen Yeti challenged her with below-freezing temperatures, plenty of rocks and roots, and a thick layer of ice glazed with a dusting of snow on top.
“I ran the first 15-mile loop in just my Hoka shoes without any additional traction and just tried to be careful,” she said. “I didn’t run with traction often so I was hesitant to put some on, but decided to give it a shot for the second 15-mile loop. I wore my Yaktrax and they were awesome! There was so much less slipping and I was way more confident when landing.”
Harper made good time with the traction, passing through 30 miles in 7:29:47. She cruised through her third loop still enjoying the benefits of her Yaktrax, but the pounding on rock and ice eventually wore them down and they broke around mile 50. Harper wore the busted Yaktrax for another 10 miles, taking advantage of whatever traction they might still provide in a damaged state. That allowed her to finish her fourth loop, reaching 60 miles in 15:54:40. By that point she was nearly two hours ahead of her closest competitor in the women’s field, and she would be the only one to head out for a fifth loop.
Harper tried a new form of traction on her fifth loop, again to no avail.
“I borrowed a pair of nanospikes from a friend, but they kept falling off my feet despite my best effort to secure them with duct tape,” she said, adding that she eventually ditched the supplemental traction.
Despite the challenges that the course and the equipment failures threw at her, Harper stayed focused and took to heart the advice of her crew, Erin McNulty: stay positive.
“I generally did have a positive attitude throughout the race because I love to run!” Harper admitted. “I also really enjoy running with other people and there were plenty of awesome runners that I got to chat with throughout the race. I also cannot stress enough how the optimism of the volunteers and my crew, Erin, encouraged me to remain positive throughout the race. It’s hard not to have fun when you are surrounded by good people, good food, and you get to run all day, and night, and the next day.”
Harper’s positivity was contagious, several runners noted. That included Richard Langevin, 61, of Biddeford, Maine. A veteran ultrarunner who earned a 60-mile finish at the Frozen Yeti, Langevin tipped his cap to Harper on Twitter.
“Had the honor of being passed by Carolyn. Absolutely stunning performance and great attitude,” Langevin wrote.
It Takes a Village
While Harper was digging deep, battling the course conditions and struggling with her sources of traction, she found support from the Trail Animals around her. In addition to the warmth of the aid station volunteers and the advice from McNulty about staying positive, Harper found strength from friends and strangers alike. First it was her fellow runners who shared miles with her during the daytime hours. Then it was the camaraderie of five pacers who collectively chipped in to provide 60 miles of companionship and encouragement. Some she knew prior to the race; others were strangers who – in the true spirit of the sport – saw a runner in need of support and stepped up to help.
Harper had planned to have pacers accompany her on the course Saturday evening and through the night into Sunday morning. Her initial pacer, Valerie Lalancette, was taking her from miles 45-60. About five miles into that loop, Harper found out her next pacer had fallen ill and had to withdraw.
“Finding out I was going to have to run through the night by myself definitely challenged my mental game, but luckily my current pacer was able to talk me through it,” Harper recalled. “Even better, my crew, Erin McNulty, was able to talk to the TARC volunteers and between all of them, they were able to find me someone to run with for the rest of the race!”
When Harper and Lalancette arrived back at Powissett Lodge 60 miles into the race, Sasha Raikhlina was waiting for Harper. They’d never met, but they would spend the next 10 miles together.
“She was helping crew a friend and decided to jump onto the trails to help me out,” Harper said.
After their 10 miles were done, another stranger at the time, race volunteer Kevin Murphy, hopped in to help. Ultimately, those five miles – mostly in silence save for the sounds of their footsteps – were transformative for Harper’s race.
“By that point in time, I just didn’t feel like talking and I didn’t particularly want to waste the energy of doing so. Kevin seemed to naturally understand, and we set off on the loop in silence,” Harper recalled. “We exchanged a few words here and there, but mostly we just ran. I was able to get into a flow that I had yet to experience in the race, and Kevin matched my pace perfectly. At the end, we both remarked how interesting it was to run together without words, yet still feel as though we were working together to finish the loop. I learned that support from a pacer doesn’t have to come in the form of distraction through conversation, simply a person’s presence can be what is necessary to accomplish a goal. I ran that loop faster than any others.”
With her fifth loop complete, Michael Barrett stepped in and provided wisdom and moral support for the next 20 miles while keeping Harper on track to accomplish her goals.
“He is an experienced 100-miler so he did a great job of checking in on my nutrition and race strategy to make sure that I could last for 30 hours,” Harper said of Barrett, a Grindstone, Vermont 100 and TARC 100 finisher.
Ninety-five miles behind her, Harper stood inside Powissett Lodge preparing to go for five more miles. Another runner, Brandon Sweet, had completed 50 miles hours earlier in the race before stopping. He had decided to stick around through the night to support other runners and thought he was done running until hearing Harper needed one more pacer. In an instant, he was back in the race for a few more miles.
Together, Harper and Sweet completed the next five miles and trotted back to Powissett Lodge where cheering friends awaited. Harper strode up the stairs and through the door; 100 miles were done.
More to Give
The door to Powissett Lodge opened and Harper marched through it; back into the cold; back onto the ice and snow. She wasn’t alone. Sweet was still with her. The clock was still running, and so were they.
Harper was going for the overall win; Sweet was going to make sure she got there.
“I knew that I was the only runner going beyond 100 miles and earning the outright win was a huge part of why I decided to go back out,” she said.
Harper noted that she was also motivated to complete the additional miles because it would boost a fundraising campaign she organized. Prior to the race, she set up a website inviting supporters to donate minutes of community service or money per mile that she completed at the Frozen Yeti.
“I knew that it meant about 500 extra minutes of community service and about 200 extra dollars donated to charities around the world,” she said of the positive impact that could result from running five more miles.
Similar to her miles with Murphy, she and Sweet ran together mostly in silence, quietly winding their way through the forest, up and down the rolling hills, dodging rocks and navigating through the iciest spots. Finally, they ran up and down the final hills and wound their way back to Powissett Lodge. Cheers rang out from the lodge deck as they approached; once again a smile glowed on Harper’s face. Back up the stairs and through the door she went to check in for one last time.
After 105 miles and 28:44:48, she was done.
“The beauty of what she did I think lies in the fact that very often we set preconceived limits on ourselves,” Katzman said. “I definitely felt the pull of the 100-mile ceiling. Carolyn just smashed those limits out of the woods, though. That is something we can all take away from what she did. I feel incredibly fortunate for having been witness to it.”
Indeed, Harper had smashed her limits. The feeling was gratifying. She set some lofty goals for herself, battled through a difficult course and challenging conditions, overcame several obstacles, and felt the embrace of her Trail Animals community when so many people stepped up to help her achieve her goals. She was ecstatic, exhausted, and extremely thankful.
“I believe my exact words as I broke from the trail and rounded the corner of the lodge were ‘This is so cool!’ And it was!” she said. “I’ve never run for that long of a period of time, never run for that long of a distance, and never won an ultra before. To accomplish all three of those feats in one race was very unbelievable. I was excited, I was proud, and mostly, I was ready to stop running.”