IPSWICH, Mass. – The friendly banter, the anxious smiles, the fidgeting and deep breathing… all were on display in the minutes leading up to the start of the Stone Cat 50K, foreshadowing what was about to happen.
Yes, the runners were chilly – it was just 31 degrees on this sunny Saturday morning – but they were also nervous. This day was going to hurt, especially for those who hoped to contend for the win. After 18 years of offering 50-mile and marathon distances, the Stone Cat organizers combined the two races into a single 50K offering this year. That meant the fastest fellas were all in one race, and they all knew it.
The 2018 50-mile and marathon winners, Michael Pulli and Ben Schersten, were both there, as was 2018 50-mile runner-up Brian Burke and third-place finisher Will Swenson, who won the USATF 100K National Championship for his age group two years earlier at Bandera. Devin Jones was there, too, primed from his victory at the TARC Summer Classic 50K. So were four-time Stone Cat marathon top-five finisher Sean McDonough and two-time top-10 finisher Dustin Baker. There were a few potential wild cards in the mix like Jonathon Western who finished seventh at the 2017 Stone Cat 50-miler, Noah Vihinen whose speed earned him back-to-back top-10 finishes at the Catamount 50K, and George Aponte Clarke who was fifth at the 2017 Stone Cat marathon and fourth at this year’s Big A 50K. And then there was Brian Rusiecki, one of New England’s most accomplished ultrarunners of the last decade with several course records and more than 45 ultramarathon victories to his credit.
“It was a great decision to combine the distances,” said Pulli, 43, of Medford, Mass., who won the Wauppa 50K earlier this year. “There were probably 20 guys who could take it at any time, and that’s rare unless you go up to a big one in Vermont or out West. Everyone knew coming in that if you were going to do well you would have to take the punishment.”
It was the sort of lineup that puts the “Beast” in the “Beast Coast” moniker that runners from the region proudly embrace.
“You knew when you looked at the names that it was going to be tough,” said Burke, 37, of Somerville, Mass., whose wins this year include the TARC Spring Classic 50K, Vegan Power 50K and TARC Fall Classic 50-miler.
Jason Smith looked at the field of 126 other men he was about to race and saw the accomplished runners. He, too, had won his share of races – victories at the Wapack and Back 50-miler, Pineland Farms 50-miler and Jay Peak 53.1K are on his resume this year in addition to finishing fifth at the Tahoe 100K in California – but the 29-year-old resident of Cambridge, Mass., had some doubts about how he’d fare.
“It was a lot of really good folks, so I was kind of intimidated coming into it,” he admitted.
The race started and finished behind Doyon Elementary School in Ipswich. Runners started by completing two laps around the school’s sports fields before heading into the woods of Willowdale State Forest where they completed three trips around a 10-mile loop. 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. The course was fast and runnable throughout with a mixture of leaf-covered singletrack and doubletrack trails and rolling hills but no major climbs or super-technical sections. For a field this talented, that was a recipe for a competitive day.
Indeed, a tight race unfolded quickly. The lead pack formed while circling the sports fields, and it largely stuck together during the first loop through the forest. Less than five minutes separated the lead runner from the 14th when they rolled through the 11-mile checkpoint; less than two minutes separated the top eight. As he is known to do, Rusiecki pushed a hard pace during the first loop, and Pulli, McDonough and Smith stayed right with him. In fact, Pulli and McDonough were the first runners through the checkpoint in 1:20 as they banged out a 7:17-mile pace, with Smith and Rusiecki a couple strides behind.
“That first loop was really fast,” Rusiecki later admitted.
Smith withstood the aggressive pace of the first loop, patiently bided his time, and then moved to the front during the second trip through the forest.
“I like to think of my running kind of like a disease; it’s usually slow onset but it’s pretty persistent,” Smith joked after the race. “Normally I get behind at the beginning of really long runs, but then I just keep pace while people who go out fast fall off. I know if I can keep near the front of the pack at the beginning that I’ll do pretty well at the end.”
When Smith pushed to the front, he did so with authority and gradually built a two-minute lead over the next few miles. Smith crossed the 21-mile checkpoint in the lead, followed by McDonough two minutes back, then Pulli 30 seconds later and Rusiecki and Burke side-by-side a minute behind him. Four minutes separated the top five. Plenty of racing remained, but Smith would not relinquish control.
Thanks to some remarkably consistent pacing (1:20:13 for the first 11 miles, 1:13:33 for the second 10 and 1:15:48 for the final 10), Smith pulled away from the field and won in a sizzling 3:49:40. Behind him, the remaining podium positions were far from certain. The fast pace had taken a toll on McDonough and he was fading. Burke was on the move and climbing fast. Pulli and Rusiecki were still battling hard. All the while, Jones, Vihinen, Clarke and Schersten lingered just a few minutes behind them and were running well.
Ultimately, Burke nearly negative-split the final lap and surged all the way into second place, finishing in 3:54:29. Pulli had Rusiecki hot on his heels during the final lap and could see him on the switchbacks, but Pulli ultimately held on for third place in 4:03:18. Rusiecki, 41, of South Deerfield, Mass., was fourth in 4:05:27.
Less than three minutes separated fifth through ninth, with Western, 35, of Topsfield, Mass., placing fifth in 4:08:00; Jones, 39, of Beverly, Mass., taking sixth in 4:09:07; Vihinen, 41, of Wenham, Mass., finishing seventh in 4:09:45; Clarke, 51, of Portland, Maine, taking eighth in 4:10:00; and Schersten, 40, of Beverly, Mass., placing ninth in 4:10:40. McDonough, 36, of Littleton, Mass., rounded out the top 10 in 4:15:00.
Shortly after finishing, Smith, Burke, Pulli and Rusiecki gathered together, exchanged hugs and high-fives, and reminisced about the race as other runners finished and wandered over to join them. They all looked exhausted, but they all were smiling, laughing and enjoying the moment. They’d pushed each other hard and made sure that race hurt. They’d brought out the best in each other. Now it felt good to be done.
“That was a grinder,” Pulli said with a grin on his face. “You knew it was going to be that way.”