IPSWICH, Mass. – When Cori Nawn stepped to the starting line of the Stone Cat 50K on Saturday morning, she didn’t know what to expect of the competition around her. Then again, it wasn’t of much concern to her. She was just happy to be there.
“I recently moved back to the area from Texas,” Nawn said. “I lived in San Antonio for five years and I moved back up here after getting my Ph.D. I’m really happy to be back, and I just wanted to run a fall race because fall is my favorite season.”
A New England native and graduate of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Nawn earned her Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Texas at San Antonio. It was there that she began racing road marathons and started trail-running. She enjoyed some early success on the trails, finishing third at the Brazos Bend 25K and Alamo City 10K in 2018 before running her first ultra in March 2019 and placing second at the Tinajas Ultra 50K in Bend, Texas.
Stone Cat was Nawn’s first race since moving back to Boston, Mass., and it provided her with all of the fall sensory overload she could ask for. From the 31-degree temperature at the start and the frost glistening on the grass, to the golden leaves blanketing the ground and the earthy aroma of the forest, she was ready to savor the day and enjoy her run.
The positive vibes that Nawn felt on the chilly fall day fueled what would ultimately be a memorable homecoming race against a talent-laden field. After 18 years of offering both 50-mile and marathon distances, the Stone Cat organizers merged the two into one 50K race this year. The new distance meant a course record was up for grabs, and it also meant the fastest runners were pooled together in a single race.
Nawn was one of 85 women at the starting line, and she was surrounded by an accomplished field that included Amy Rusiecki, a winner of more than 35 ultras; Yvette DeBoer, the two-time defending champion of the New York Monster Marathon and fourth-place finisher at the 2018 Stone Cat 50-miler; Lori Wetzel, a finisher of 20 100-milers with dozens of podium finishes to her credit; Greeta Soderholm, the runner-up at the 2018 Stone Cat marathon and top-10 finisher at the Catamount 50K three years straight; Leah Jacobson-Hardy, who finished second at the Chesterfield Gorge 50K and fourth at the North Face Endurance Challenge-Wachusett Mountain 50K in 2018; Jennifer Boshco, the fourth-place finisher at this year’s TARC Summer Classic 40-miler; and Gretchen Funk, the 2018 Mountain Lakes 100-mile runner-up who recently moved to Massachusetts from Oregon where she earned several top-10 finishes.
The race began and ended on the sports fields behind Doyon Elementary School. The first mile of the course consisted of two laps around those fields. From there, runners headed into the woods of Willowdale State Forest for three trips around a 10-mile singletrack and doubletrack trail loop. The course had several sections with rocks and roots, but it was highly runnable terrain with rolling hills and no major climbs. After each loop, runners raced back across the sports fields and across the timing mat at the start/finish before heading back into the forest.
Runners could see their breaths as they made their two trips around the sports field during the first mile before heading into the forest. Much changed during the next 30 miles, however, from the temperature rising into the upper 40s to the positioning at the front of the pack. No fewer than four different women led the race at various points. De Boer, 56, of Ithaca, N.Y., was the early leader as the runners headed into the forest. By the end of the first loop at mile 11, Rusiecki had moved to the front. The 40-year-old from South Deerfield, Mass., had a three-minute lead on the pack, with De Boer 14 seconds ahead Soderholm, 43, of Underhill, Vt., and 21-year-old Sylvia Baeyens of Stirling, N.J., who was making her ultramarathon debut. Another first-time ultramarathoner, 26-year-old Rachel Peck of South Portland, Maine, was 41 seconds behind them in fifth. A four-minute gap separated first from fifth.
Nawn was in sixth at that point, three minutes behind the pack and seven minutes off the lead. Unaware of the action at the front, she focused on running her race and enjoying the foliage that had enticed her to sign up for Stone Cat.
“I was really happy that all the leaves were on the ground so I didn’t have to look up to see the colors – I could still look down,” she said with a laugh.
Rusiecki continued to set the pace for most of the second loop, but Soderholm was steadily closing in. So was Nawn. She gradually picked off runners as she zipped through the switchbacks and up and down the rolling hills. Rusiecki was the first runner to emerge from the forest at the end of loop two, but Soderholm was a stride behind her. As they crossed the sports field, Soderholm took the lead. She didn’t stop at the aid station, opting to head straight back to the forest and build a small cushion as Rusiecki took a break. Nawn was the third runner to finish the loop. Once seven minutes back, Nawn was now a minute off the lead and had both Rusiecki and Soderholm in her sights. She was feeling good and still sporting the smile she’d worn during the early miles.
“I’m a Ph.D. biomedical engineer, so I’m a huge nerd and I just know that if I smile at other people they’re going to smile back,” Nawn said. “Psychologically, I know that’s going to give me a boost, so it pays dividends to be happy.”
De Boer was now in fourth, followed seconds later by Jacobson-Hardy. The 28-year-old from Florence, Mass., had moved up from eighth after passing Baeyens and Peck, and she wasn’t done climbing.
Nawn passed Rusiecki as they entered the forest for the final loop. Shortly thereafter, she caught Soderland and moved to the front. She didn’t realize she was now in the lead, so she kept pushing.
“The whole time I was convinced that there was this girl way ahead that everyone was missing,” Nawn said. “People said ‘I think you’re first female,’ and I kept thinking, ‘Nope, there’s another girl and she’s way ahead.’”
That worked to Nawn’s advantage. After running 1:42 for the first 11 miles and 1:29 for the next 10, Nawn pushed hard during the final 10 miles and closed with a 1:28 final loop – her fastest of the day – to win in 4:39:46.
“It was perfect conditions out there today,” Nawn said. “I was going to run the Bay State Marathon a couple weeks ago, but I thought, ‘I can’t not run a fall ultra!’ It’s gorgeous, and I’m so happy I did.”
Soderholm finished second in 4:48:16, and Jacobson-Hardy surged to third place in 4:55:24. Rusiecki was the final runner to break five hours, finishing fourth in 4:58:32. De Boer was a close fifth in 5:01:52, followed by Peck in 5:09:01 and Baeyens in 5:09:36. Rounding out the top 10 were Funk, 28, of Charlestown, Mass., in 5:12:58; Boshco, 35, of Billerica, Mass., in 5:17:45; and Wetzel, 46, of Beverly, Mass., in 5:26:41.