WESTWOOD, Mass. — Brian Burke strode through the door of Powissett Lodge, checked in with the timekeepers, and was about to grab a snack when he spotted a familiar face: William McElroy Jr.
It was early Saturday evening, Feb. 2, and both Burke and McElroy had already run 50 miles apiece — most of them solo — during the past 11 hours at the TARCtic Frozen Yeti 30-Hour Ultra at Hale Reservation. The trail was covered in ice and snow, and the temperature hadn’t reached 30 degrees all day. Those 50 miles had been grueling.
This chance meeting in the event’s aid station was a game-changer. It was also uniquely appropriate.
Hydration Pack or Handheld Bottle?
The first time Burke ran into McElroy wasn’t at an aid station; it was at an REI. It was April 7, 2018. Burke had just run his first ultramarathon, the Runamuck 50K in Vermont. He’d thrown down a speedy 4:10:43 and placed eighth overall out of 101 finishers.
Burke was proud of his effort, and he was in awe of the ultrarunning community he was joining. Ultrarunners were his kind of people – friendly, supportive, fun.
“I remember showing up at the parking lot and not knowing a soul,” he recalled. “I saw license plates from Vermont, Maine, Mass, New Hampshire, and Quebec. I noticed how everyone was hugging and high-fiving their race friends, and realized there was a whole community of trail runners out there.”
He also noticed something else: the frontrunners like Brian Rusiecki of South Deerfield, Mass., and Michael Pulli from Malden, Mass., and race winner Remi Leroux of Candiac, Quebec, didn’t wear vests like Burke had done. He thought he’d carried too much gear and wanted to downsize a bit, so he stopped at REI on the way home to check out some other options.
When he got to the aisle with handheld bottles, another shopper was already there. He was tall, lean, and had the look of a guy who knew a thing or two about running ultras.
“When I stopped at REI and saw a big guy in a Territory Run Co. hoodie, I asked for his thoughts on using a handheld,” Burke recalled of his first interaction with McElroy. “Like most trail runners, he was more than happy to talk gear.”
Burke may have been new to ultras and eager to gain some knowledge from a veteran runner, but McElroy remembers the introductory encounter with equal enthusiasm. The 42-year-old resident of Malden, Mass., said he and Burke quickly connected on Strava. Then, since they live just a few miles apart, they began meeting up for long runs on weekends. They also shared a big weekend adventure last fall when they teamed up for a Belknap Range Traverse in New Hampshire.
A great friendship was forming, and it was all thanks to a chance meeting at REI and a shared interest in running trails.
Taking on the Frozen Yeti
McElroy planned on running 100 miles at the Frozen Yeti even before he signed up. He knew it was a realistic feat with the 30-hour time limit, and he’d gone that distance before. He ran the Vermont 100 in 2016 and finished in 22:45:33. That was a much different course than the Frozen Yeti, however. Vermont was a summer race with 17,000 feet of vertical gain, much of it coming on hard-packed dirt country roads with good footing. The Frozen Yeti had less climbing, but the course was a 15-mile loop broken down into three mini loops (labeled Red, White and Blue), and it was basically a sheet of ice with rocks and roots popping through.
The terrain would be tough, and he wasn’t fully healthy.
“I’ve had a nagging ankle injury that had me going into the race with big question marks,” McElroy admitted. “I figured I’d run 50 miles, and see how it felt. Nonetheless, I brought enough gear for 100. I knew if I got that far, I’d be done, no matter how much time last left.”
Burke’s road to the starting line was less certain. He’d spent weeks on the wait list and was a last-minute addition to the starting field.
“I went into the week unsure if I’d even be running,” he said. “Thankfully, I’d logged a lot of cold miles this winter.”
Both McElroy and Burke were targeting triple-digit mileage, but they also knew they needed to run their own races. They saw each other at the start, but once the race began they spent several hours running solo, focused on the task at hand.
“I didn’t give the conditions much thought as we started, but they were a big deal,” McElroy said. “I’ve only attempted one other 100, and this was so much harder. There was enough snow and ice that you really had to be careful — and that’s tiring! It really adds up over that many hours and miles. After the race started, there were a few times I thought I’d want to quit. It was the fear of slipping and pulling something that was ever present. It really was both mentally and physically exhausting.”
It was the kind of race where it’d be nice to have some company.
Strength in Numbers
When McElroy checked into Powissett Lodge after finishing 30 miles, he was surprised to discover that Burke hadn’t already been through. He had the same reaction 15 miles later when, at mile 45, he was still ahead of his friend. After all, McElroy admitted, Burke’s the faster runner.
After his next five-mile stretch, McElroy hung around the lodge for a bit to catch his breath and take in some calories. He was halfway to 100 and about ready to head back out when Burke strode through the door.
“I had been running solo for most of the day, so it was nice to see a familiar face,” Burke said.
McElroy waited a few more minutes.
“It was a no-brainer we were going out together,” McElroy said.
The toughest miles were still ahead, but they would be much more manageable with a friend.
“Since we happened to be at the same spot on the course, we just started moving and talking about the day,” Burke recalled. “I welcomed the distraction. Neither of us had a pacer, so it made sense to run through the night together.”
The teamwork played to the advantage of both of them.
“We had mutual accountability during the hardest miles,” Burke said. “Barring injury, I wasn’t going to let him stop short of 100, and I knew he’d hold me to the same standard. Whenever we approached the aid station, we came up with a plan for what we needed to do in there. If one of us started getting a little too comfortable, the other made sure we got back out the door.”
“In some ways, we just didn’t let each other think about falling into the trap of the warm comfortable seats of the aid station,” he said. “Brian was really good at asking me what my aid station goals were later at night. We’d try to go in with a game plan, so we didn’t get complacent, and more importantly, cold. I definitely started four or five loops in a row shivering, and I was worried I’d get to a point where I couldn’t warm up. Keeping moving and getting through the aid stations quickly really helped.”
Working together, they endured the darkness, conquered the cold, and kept putting one foot in front of the other. They were still moving as the sun rose, which afforded them the opportunity to watch a pair of coyotes move stealthily through the woods on their own cold-weather adventure at Hale Reservation.
Eventually they headed out for their final five miles, journeyed through the woods around Noannet Pond, listening to the croaks of the surface ice thawing, and ultimately made their way back to Powissett Lodge. Side by side they rounded the corner of the building, climbed up the stairs, and checked in at the timer’s table. They were done.
Minutes later, the two friends posed for a photo with their finisher’s belt buckles. After sticking together, keeping each other accountable and moving for the final 50 miles of a 28:48:19 effort, they were 100-mile finishers. It was just another remarkable moment for a friendship that began with a simple conversation about running gear at an REI.