Reflections on the Frozen Yeti: Low on Heat, High on Heart

In the more than a month that has passed since the inaugural running of the TARCtic Frozen Yeti, the snow and ice on the trails has melted, disappeared, refallen and refrozen, and is in the process of melting once again.

Winter is beginning to release its grip on New England, so we’re taking one last look back at a first-year event that lived up to its name.

The idea of a 30-hour race … in New England … in the middle of winter … seemed a bit bold at the time, but that didn’t dissuade Surjeet Paintal and Carolyn Shreck. The friends and longtime runners and volunteers at Trail Animals Running Club events had spent the previous few years dreaming of ways to revive the TARC 100 after the first 100-mile trail race in Massachusetts was mothballed after the 2016 event. They identified February as an open gap on the Trail Animals’ race calendar and solicited others to gauge interest. Would enough runners be interested in a winter ultra during what would certainly be cold – and likely snowy – conditions? Was there an appetite for such an event?

It turned out the answer was a resounding yes.

Ultimately, more than 160 runners turned out for the 30-hour or 15-mile race options in weather conditions that gave credibility to the event’s “Frozen” moniker.

“A Bold Winter Statement”

When Feb. 2-3 was identified as the weekend that the TARCtic Frozen Yeti would take place at Hale Reservation in Westwood, Mass., Paintal and Shreck were under no illusions that they would be race-directing an easy event. In fact, on the registration page they cautioned runners that a mandatory gear list would be required due to the potential for nasty, dangerous winter weather conditions. That warning proved prescient.

“We wanted a frozen event,” Shreck reflected, “and we sure got one.”

Indeed, a polar vortex blitzed the United States during the week leading up to race day, and that produced multiple days of below-freezing temperatures in Massachusetts in the final 60 hours before the race began, starting with rain and then a brief blast of snow that dusted the trails before the deep freeze set in and turned Hale Reservation into a hockey rink with rocks and roots stuck in the ice.

“When we didn’t get dumped on with show, I thought (Mother Nature) had taken a pass,” Shreck added. “Boy was I wrong. The unforgiving ice, covered in the deceptively unstable dusting of snow, compounded with frigid temps was her way of making a bold winter statement.”

When the 30-hour racers gathered at the starting line at 8 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 2, the temperature was a bitter 9 degrees. It would later climb into the upper 20s thanks to a few hours of mid-day sun, but runners still needed warm layers and foot traction while tackling multiple trips around the 15-mile loop course. The temperature didn’t climb above freezing until mid-day Sunday when most of the ultrarunners had already stopped.

A Well-Organized Event

The weather may have been beyond the race organizers’ control, but they were prepared for it thanks to well-thought-out planning. In addition to the mandatory gear list that would ensure runners had the necessary supplies to survive for several hours if lost or injured in the woods, they also made sure runners had a safe place to warm up, refuel, and stash extra supplies. That came in the form of the course design.

Few runners know the Hale trails as well as Josh Katzman, and he helped craft a course that consisted of five mini-loops that each started and finished at Powissett Lodge. The lodge served as race headquarters, as well as its lone aid station, meaning runners could seek refuge in the heated building every five miles to refuel, rest, and change into warmer or drier gear. That also allowed the race directors to keep track of each runner’s general location for the duration of the race in case an emergency arose.

It also allowed them to staff a major event with fewer volunteers by having just one highly efficient aid station that was staffed with volunteers who were experienced ultrarunners and/or experienced volunteers at ultras.

“I don’t think we had any big hiccups,” Paintal noted. “And any small hiccups were dealt with deftly by our troupe of volunteers. While we were still in the planning process, my mind immediately went to ‘what could go wrong and what will we have to do to solve it?’ For most everything under our control and the mechanics of the event itself, I was pretty happy with how we prepared.”

One of the few hiccups that arose was beyond their control. It came during the week leading up to the race when ribbons on multiple parts of the course were taken down by unidentified vandals. The vandalism was discovered in time, however, and Katzman and volunteers Chris Lay and Chris Martin remarked the course in the nick of time. Lay and Martin, in particular, were on the course well into the night just hours before the race began to make sure the new markings were in place and ready for the runners.

Cold Temperatures; Warm Hearts

While the weather conditions were beyond anybody’s control during the Frozen Yeti, it was up to the Trail Animals to decide how well-supported an experience they could give the runners. For Paintal and Shreck, the response of their trail community was heartwarming.

They sent out a call for volunteers, and that call was answered above and beyond their expectations.

“We had 50 volunteer slots to fill, and not only did we fill all those slots, but other folks showed up to help out that were not signed up,” Paintal recalled. “And we had quite a few crew members and pacers pitch in where they could at various points throughout the event. It really does take a village.”

From the efforts to Katzman, Lay and Martin in remarking the course at the last minute, to the steady flow of volunteers pouring into and out of Powissett Lodge throughout the weekend, the aid station was never short-handed. In fact, some runners pulled double-duty, logging miles during the early hours of the event and then sticking around the help out after they were done running. Additionally, some who were there to crew for individual runners passed the down time by assisting other runners in the lodge.

“We staffed for the bare minimum volunteer numbers, but people just kept showing up and helping out,” Shreck said. “People showed up early to volunteer before they ran their own race or before they paced someone, or hung around after they were done running to cleanup. Crews chipping in for other runners definitely exemplified the true ‘trail family’ feel of TARC events.”

One specific example of a volunteer stepping up to support a runner was particularly memorable for Shreck, and it emblematic of that “trail family” attitude that was on display throughout the weekend.

“In the dark hours a runner, rummaging through her drop bag, just collapsed on the cardboard flooring sobbing uncontrollably,” Shreck recalled. “A teenager, who had come to volunteer with her dad, went right over, sat down on the floor, and the two had a whispered conversation. Minutes later the volunteer grabbed her had and jacket and paced the runner through another loop.”

“As the night wore on and folks were really spreading out in miles, there was something electric about having everyone commune at the same location for aid or rest,” Paintal added. “Our volunteers were running the show pretty efficiently so I mostly got to walk around asking folks how their volunteer stations were doing and if they needed anything, and then asking runners how they were doing. And everyone, regardless of how far along they were, seemed to be having a positive experience. Some barely able to crack a smile, some full on belly-laughing, but everyone seemed to be taking the winter challenge head-on and conquering something.”

Plenty to Celebrate

The numbers didn’t lie: the Frozen Yeti was a resounding success for the runners.

More than 100 runners in the 30-hour ultra completed at least two loops of the course — many of them becoming new ultrarunners in the process — and 28 of them finished at least four loops for 60 miles. At least a dozen ran through the frigid night and saw the sun rise over Noanet Pond, including four gritty runners who achieved 100 miles or more.

“The Frozen Yeti felt like a celebration of New England hardiness,” said Brian Burke of Somerville, Mass., one of the 100-mile finishers. “I’m always amazed by how many of us choose to run through the winter. It’s not easy, yet we keep finding reasons to lace up the shoes regardless of temperature. I’m proud to have shown myself I can run 100 miles, but I’m equally impressed by the number of people who read the race description and thought that sounded like a good time!”

While Burke, Katzman, and William McElroy Jr. of Malden, Mass., all completed 100 miles, the overall champion with 105 miles was a woman — Somerville resident Carolyn Harper.

“I think the fact that two of the race directors and the overall winner were all female is a pretty cool stat,” Shreck said. “But the stat I’m happiest with is the 90-percent finisher’s rate of both races. That’s pretty high for any ultra – especially a winter event.”

Among the notable numbers that stood out was the number two.

“The final ‘garbage’ stat was notably low,” Shreck said. “(We had) two black trash bags, two bags of recyclables and a pile of recyclable cardboard. Being cupless really makes a big difference.”

Additionally, runners consumed 224 tortillas, 30 pounds of cheese, 10 pounds of bacon, 108 eggs and went through enough Starbucks to produce four pounds of grounds.

Will the Frozen Yeti Return?

With the inaugural Frozen Yeti in the books, some runners were quick to ask if the event would return for a second year.

“All signs point to yes,” Shreck said.

While Shreck, Paintal and Katzman will spend some time reviewing notes from the 2019 event and make adjustments based on lessons learned, the plan is to bring back the Frozen Yeti in 2020. In fact, Shreck has already begun some initial coordination with other races to ensure there are no schedule conflicts.

“We’ll probably keep it on Groundhog Day, because that’s just funny,” Shreck said, “ and we’ve already confirmed again that there won’t be a conflict with the Cape Cod Frozen Fat Ass’s date so everyone can run both events.”

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