Brian Burke has been To Hale and Back in 2019, and both times turned out pretty darn good.
It was just last month that Burke first went to Hale Reservation in Westwood, Mass., where he received an intense introduction to the reservation’s rocky, rooty, winding trail system through the woods. The occasion was the TARCtic Frozen Yeti, a 30-hour ultramarathon that took place in 20-degree temperatures while the trails were coated in a thick layer of ice and a dusting of snow.
Burke spent more than 28 hours on the trails that weekend in early February on a course that consisted of three five-mile mini-loops labeled Red, White and Blue. He was one of three runners to finish with 100 miles; one runner went farther.
After seven weeks away, Burke went back to Hale Reservation on Saturday, March 23. This time his stay was shorter. Rather than a 30-hour race, he was there alongside 112 other runners for the Trail Animals Running Club’s fourth annual To Hale and Back 6-Hour Ultra.
“The Frozen Yeti was such a surreal experience,” Burke recalled. “For 30 hours, your whole world was on those trails and coming back was like being at a reunion. I’m just glad I didn’t have to see any of the red loop.”
Indeed, rather than running the Red, White or Blue loops, To Hale and Back featured one 3.5-mile loop that runners completed as many times as they could within the time limit. The loop included some of the trails from the Frozen Yeti course, although for shorter segments or completed in the opposite direction. It was familiar, yet different.
The course also wasn’t covered in snow and ice. A dusting of snow blew through the area the day before the race, but it didn’t blanket the trails. Instead, runners were greeted with sun and temperatures in the 40s, making for the best trail conditions To Hale and Back has ever had.
Burke took full advantage.
“In the weeks leading up to the race, I’d been avoiding trails,” said Burke, 37, of Somerville, Mass. “Mentally, I was through with winter and done with running on ice. When I woke up and saw the snow I said, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me.’ Thankfully, the sun broke through and we got to enjoy some real spring weather. With the ice gone, this was my first sure-footed trail run in months. Maybe I was just making up for lost time.”
Burke had company for the first loop, racing in a small group with Kyle Bergemann, Beau Langevin and Aaron Meberg. Meberg, 36, of Marshfield, Mass., was the first runner through loop one, though he soon fell off the pace and stopped after 14 miles. Bergemann and Langevin hung close for a little while longer, though.
“I went out in a pack of four, and we hung together for most of the first loop,” Burke said. “It was only a matter of time before one of us pushed ahead and set the pace. My legs felt good, so I went for it. Beau and Kyle are strong runners. I had to hit the second loop hard to create a little separation.”
Burke rolled through seven miles in less than an hour, opening up a three-minute lead in the process. He gradually expanded his lead as the hours ticked by. Burke finished his ninth loop in 4:41:10, giving him 31.5 miles, but he wasn’t done. He knocked out a 10th loop in 33 minutes, for a 9:28 mile pace. At that point 5:14:21 was expired, but Burke knew he had plenty of time for one final trip around the course. Rather than coasting, however, he dropped the hammer one more time. Burke pushed a 9:03 pace for the final 3.5 miles en route to a winning performance of 38.5 miles in 5:46:02.
Only one other runner joined Burke in completing 11 loops of the course for 38.5 miles. Bergemann, 27, of Boston, Mass., finished his last lap with less than two minutes to spare for a final time of 5:58:20. Bergemann knew the course well, having finished 28 miles at the 2017 race and 28.8 miles at the 2018 race. Both times he finished just outside the top 10.
In terms of distance, both Burke and Bergemann tied the course record for mileage. Previously, three runners – Joe McConaughy, Patrick Caron and Eric Ahern – all ran 38.5 miles at the 2016 race.
Langevin, 39, of Biddeford, Maine, was the third-place male at this year’s race. He was the lone runner to finish with 35.0 miles, completing his run after 5:32:53.
Three more men – Victor Pereira, 40, of Foxboro, Mass.; Joshua Milich, 29, of Somerset, Mass.; and Craig Ela, 47, of Harpswell, Maine – all completed nine loops of the course for 31.5 miles.
While Burke and Bergemann placed their names among the best on the men’s course record board, Mindy Lipsitz did the same while taking top honors in the women’s field. A 33-year-old resident of Jamaica Plain, Mass., who recently moved to New England from Alabama, Lipsitz etched her name high on the women’s record board by delivering a consistent, well-paced performance that allowed her to outlast the field.
“I had pretty low expectations because this was my first long run back since I broke my foot last year,” Lipsitz said. “I just moved to the area and was excited about running with a group on trails!
“I really wasn’t out to race with others; it was more about being back on the trails and enjoying having two working feet … so really no pacing or timing strategies!”
Lipsitz ran her own race while others did, too. Sarah Aponte, 28, of Somerville, Mass., led the women’s field for most of the day, cruising through the first 3.5-mile loop in 31:55, a minute ahead of Tracy Schultz, 36, of Waltham, Mass., who was Aponte’s closest competitor at the time. Lipsitz was four minutes back. Aponte steadily motored away from the field, leading throughout until stopping after 24.5 miles in 3:47:00 with a 33-minute gap on the field. Soon Schultz took over the lead with Lipsitz running in second. Schultz completed her eighth loop for 28.0 miles after 5:01:37 expired and called it a day.
Lipsitz completed her eighth loop 14 minutes later, followed 22 seconds later by Kristen Smith, 33, of Danvers, Mass., who had been close behind Lipsitz throughout the race.
Lipsitz had averaged between 36 and 39 minutes per loop for her first five trips around the course before slowing to 43-, 45- and 42-minute loops. She had 44 minutes to attempt one more loop for the win, and she went for it.
“I knew I wanted to try and get a last loop in because that meant I got to do more miles on the dry, fantastic trails,” Lipsitz said. “At the start of the race it was mentioned that you had to start (the last loop) by a certain time, so I tried on the second-to-last lap to time it appropriately but was going to go out either way. I was happily surprised when at the end of the lap someone shouted that I had a few seconds left because I didn’t think I’d make it around on time.”
Pushing up and down the hills, winding through the woods and crossing slick wooden bridges, Lipsitz charged ahead as the clock ticked closer to the six-hour time limit. She had to finish the loop before time expired or it wouldn’t count.
At 5:59:05 – with just 55 seconds to spare – Lipsitz crossed the finish line for the victory. Schultz (5:01:37) and Smith (5:16:05) finished second and third with 28.0 miles apiece. Rebecca Burke, 43, of Portland, Conn., and Maria Bloom, 33, of Boston, Mass., were fourth and fifth, also with 28.0 miles, Burke in 5:48:43 and Bloom in 5:58:41.
Lipsitz’s 31.5-mile performance placed her in a tie for second on the women’s record board, joining Claire Gadrow and Issy Nielson who both ran that distance at the 2016 race. Only Elise DeRoo has had a better day at To Hale and Back. DeRoo hammered out a 35.0-mile performance in the snow to win the race outright in 2017.
Of the 113 runners who took part in the six-hour race, 111 ran double-digit mileage, 73 ran at least 21 miles, and 17 ran farther than a marathon. Just seven completed 31.5 miles or more.
Levandosky, Brekka are Fastest in 5K
While a majority of the runners took part in the six-hour race, an additional 17 raced a “heavy” 5K, completing one 3.5-mile loop of the course. Steve Levandosky took top honors among the men while Kathleen Brekka was the first-place woman at that distance. Levandosky, 48, of Hopkinton, Mass., posted a winning time of 25:00, outdistancing men’s runner-up Jerry Hughes, 44, also of Hopkinton, by 3:37. Brekka, 27, of Boston, Mass., logged a winning time of 33:16, just 28 seconds ahead of women’s runner-up Abby McCabe, 37, of Framingham, Mass.