When Jeff LeBlanc arrived at the Middlesex Fells Reservation on Saturday morning, Dec. 7, he knew a difficult but rewarding day awaited him. As race director for the Trail Animals Running Club’s Fells Winter Ultra, he was responsible for putting on one of Massachusetts’ original and toughest trail ultramarathons. Runners in the 40-mile race had to circle the reservation’s rocky, root-covered Skyline Trail five times; competitors in the 32-mile race had to complete four loops. Some would achieve their goals and others would come up short, but LeBlanc hoped to do everything in his power to enable them to succeed.
This year proved more challenging than usual, however. The race has had plenty of cold years – it takes place in December, after all – but this was the first time in Fells Winter Ultra history that the entire course was blanketed with snow. Many runners screwed their shoes or wore Yaktrax to stay upright on the slippery course, but traction was the least of LeBlanc’s worries. Keeping the runners well-fueled and non-hypothermic were of greater concern on this 28-degree morning as a steady wind whipped through the woods.
Fortunately, LeBlanc knew he had plenty of help. As hard as the day was for the runners, a crew of volunteers dug deeper to support them on this frigid day. Some literally dug out an aid station; others made crafty, tactical decisions throughout the day to keep the runners hydrated and fueled; all of them endured the cold to take care of the runners on a day where aid was critical.
“The Winter Ultra has a great community of volunteers, many of whom come back year after year, and for some of them the Winter Ultra is the only TARC race they volunteer at each year,” LeBlanc said. “Because of their experience, they know exactly what to expect and how to execute. I joke with them each year that all I do is drive the UHaul full of race gear to a sketchy industrial parking lot and they make the race happen from registration until the last runner comes down out of the darkness of night to cross the finish line.
“The cold conditions made for some difficulty, but they all made the best of it. Sodas froze as soon as they were opened so they put them next to the stove to warm up. The water dispenser spigots froze so they ladled hot water on them. Getting the tablets to register our finger-presses was impossible with thick gloves on. Our early-morning volunteers even had to shovel spots for the timing tables and drop bag area.”
In addition to the experienced TARC volunteer veterans, LeBlanc lauded the crew from Trail Tribe who stepped up and organized an aid station at the midpoint of the loop, providing a critical second source of support for runners.
“This year we collaborated with Trail Tribe to have them put on the halfway aid station,” he said. “This is a difficult location because the volunteers need to be self-sufficient. It was awesome to have their energy and include them in the TARC family. I’m hoping they continue to come out and make this a yearly engagement.”
With aid stations dug out and set up, 33 runners headed into the woods to attempt the 40-mile race while another 79 set out to tackle the 32-mile distance. The temperature and the trail conditions took their toll on all of the runners, and ultimately just 17 completed the 40-mile race while another 53 finished the 32-miler.
Smith, Santiago Prevail in 40-Mile Race
Jason Smith set a fast pace early in the 40-mile race, and the 29-year-old resident of Cambridge, Mass., led nearly wire-to-wire. He built a 10-minute cushion midway through the race, but unlike his victory a month earlier at the Stone Cat 50K, Smith faced a late challenge this time.
Marek Telus reeled in Smith during the fourth loop and ultimately pulled even around mile 31 before Telus realized he’d dropped a glove. Forced to retreat and retrieve it to avoid frostbite, the 44-year-old from Hopkinton, N.H., was unable to regain that ground. Smith clocked a 1:21 final loop – his second-fastest of the day – to close out the race and win in 7:05:57. Telus finished a close second in 7:13:30, followed by 34-year-old James Turitto of Somerville, Mass., in 7:29:56. Brian Amaral, 25, of Tewksbury, Mass., also had a strong day, finishing fourth overall in 7:58:05.
While a seasoned veteran won the men’s race, the women’s victor was a first-time ultrarunner. Marina Santiago picked the Fells Winter Ultra to make her ultramarathon debut, and the 31-year-old Cambridge resident endured the snow-covered trail and bitter cold as other runners succumbed to the conditions. Ultimately, Santiago won the race in 8:40:13. Mindy Lipsitz, finished a distant second as the 34-year-old Boston resident crossed the finish line in 9:59:10 for a hard-earned finish.
A notable trend in the 40-mile race was that a majority of the finishers were first-time competitors at the race, including two – Santiago and 25-year-old Cambridge resident Evariest Callens (8:10:40) – who made it their first ultramarathon. Just three 40-mile finishers had raced the Fells Winter Ultra before. Telus was the runner-up in the 32-mile race in 2017; 32-year-old Michael Latham Jr. of Brockton, Mass., finished the 40-miler for the second time (9:29:40 this year; 9:28:40 in 2016); and 40-year-old Peter Lawry of Charlestown, N.H., finished the 40-miler for the third time (9:41:23 this year; 8:05:02 in 2017; 8:35:24 in 2014).
Subra Tops Men’s Field, Marin Edges Bainbridge to Win Women’s 32-Mile Race
The men’s and women’s 32-mile races both played out in similar fashion with the winners leading nearly start to finish.
In the men’s field, a New England newcomer – former Portland, Ore., resident Thaddeus Subra – set a fast pace with a 1:15:33 first loop. The 25-year-old now lives in Malden, Mass., right next to the Middlesex Fells. Subra held a two-minute lead on 23-year-old August Posch of Portland, Maine, after the first eight miles. Subra never relinquished the lead, but Posch was never far back. Subra had a six-minute lead at the race’s midpoint and led by less than 10 minutes after 24 miles. Ultimately, Subra won the race in 5:33:21, followed less than seven minutes later by Posch in 5:40:05. Nelson Knudsen, 29, of Roslindale, Mass., spent the day in third place and that’s where he finished in 5:50:39. Keely Boyer was a distant fourth in 6:11:54, a one-spot improvement from his fifth-place finish in the 2018 race.
In the women’s race, it was Kassandra Marin who claimed the early lead and never relinquished it. After setting the course record in the 40-mile race in 2018, Marin was well-acquainted with the trails of the Middlesex Fells. A native New Englander and resident of Merrimack, N.H., she’s also accustomed to running on snow. Marin, 30, spent the first loop building a five-minute lead on her closest competitor, 33-year-old Rachel Bainbridge of Arlington, Mass., then extended it to nearly 10 minutes by the midpoint before withstanding a strong challenge during the second half of the race. Bainbridge cut Marin’s lead in half during the third loop and trailed by less than 4 1/2 minutes entering the final loop, but Marin kept Bainbridge at bay over the course of the last eight miles.
Marin’s winning time of 6:11:59 was the second-fastest in course history, trailing only the 5:50:20 set by Nora Weathers on a dry course in 2018. Bainbridge finished second in 6:16:22 and posted the third-fastest time in course history. Katarzyna Kozik, 31, of Salem, Mass., was a distant third (6:54:20) in her ultramarathon debut, followed by 40-year-old Jenn Brooks of Gloucester, Mass., in 7:18:24.
As the runners of both distances battled the course and the weather conditions, LeBlanc watched with admiration. Some runners had spent all year planning for the race while others got off the WaitList less than 24 hours before the start. Some accomplished their goals and others came up short. For some, the goal may have been a certain time or even just to finish. Then there was Charlie Tillett, a 63-year-old from Wayland, Mass., who completed the 32-mile race for the fifth year in a row and sixth time since 2013.
“One person who really inspired me this year is Charlie Tillett,” LeBlanc said. “He did a fundraising campaign where he was able to raise $32,000 – $1,000 per mile – for Candorful, a nonprofit that assists Veterans’ transition to the workforce.”
Ultimately, LeBlanc said he was impressed by all of the runners who attempted the race on such a challenging day.
“Organizing and executing this race is a lot of work,” LeBlanc admitted, “but my payback is seeing folks cross the start line, regardless of finish. I was inspired by every single person that got out there and gave it a shot.”