After a seven-month drought of in-person ultramarathons in Massachusetts due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, runners were finally able to gather for a socially-distanced, time-based race at the fourth annual Village Ultra on Sept. 5-6 on the Town Common in New Salem, Mass.
The pandemic made its presence felt on the event in several ways, including a limit on runners and volunteers allowed on-site, elimination of the traditional aid station smorgasbord of food offerings, and modifications to some of the race’s unique traditions. Still, it didn’t prevent 26 runners and walkers from gathering to log miles and enjoy camaraderie during the 12- and 24-hour race options, as well as two others who completed their runs virtually.
“This race ensured runners’ safety, and social distance and mask use was observed and adhered to by all,” noted 24-hour runner Rob Breckenridge. “I think we were all just glad to be doing a real live event!”
For Carla Halern, a New Salem resident, the experience of bringing the running community back together after several months apart during the pandemic was rewarding.
“As a Jewish mother, it makes me sad not to be able to feed people, but other than that, things went very well,” said Halpern, who was the co-Race Director along with Nancy Mead. “Participants seemed delighted to be outside with other runners and walkers, even while being respectful and keeping distance and by wearing masks when they couldn’t keep six feet apart.”
“I had zero problems regarding people respecting the rules regarding masks, distancing, temp taking (I took temps with a no-touch scan thermometer), sanitizing,” Halpern added. “One participant from out of state self-quarantined for two weeks prior to the event so that he could participate.”
Unlike previous years when a central aid station was the hub for snacking and socializing, runners set up their own aid stations on the grass or in their cars so they could refuel when not out on one of the course’s four mini-loops that were 0.25 miles (White loop), 0.6 miles (Blue loop), 2.2 miles (Silver loop) and 2.4 miles (Gold loop), respectively.
One of the Village Ultra’s traditions is that runners create their own course by selecting which of the loops they want to run and in what order, keeping track of their course and distance by affixing the appropriate colored bead to a shoelace upon the completion of each mini-loop. A “touch here for power” sign is typically placed next to the bowl of beads, encouraging runners to power-up for another loop. In the COVID-19 era, that creative tradition required some creative modification.
“This year, due to COVID-19, we gave participants pre-packaged bags of beads so we didn’t have everyone’s sweaty hands dipping into the bead bags,” Halpern said. “Participants could get more prepackaged beads if they wanted, and some did! It was a little more unwieldy, because participants had to carry beads with them or remember to put them on later, but hey, worth it to be safe. We also changed the ‘touch here for power’ signs to ‘stomp here for power’ signs on the ground, and I think people had fun with that.”
As it turned out, several runners needed additional bags of beads to track their mileage because the strings of beads grew long as the hours ticked by and the mileage counts rose.
Seven runners took part in the 24-hour race, including two who worked together to surpass the 100K milestone. Lain Coryell and Breckenridge logged many miles together, including during the overnight hours, and each surpassed the 62-mile mark. Coryell has been running ultras since 1990, and the 57-year-old resident of Roslindale, Mass., finished the race with the top tally of 66 miles. Breckenridge, 49, of Keene, N.H., wrapped up the weekend as a close second with 63.2 miles.
Coryell was thankful for the opportunity to run with others after so many months of separation during the pandemic, and he also enjoyed the variety of options that the course presented.
“I shared a lot of miles with Rob and he pushed me to stay awake … thank you!” Coryell noted of the experience. “I had a lot of fun and was thankful the white loop around the village square was available for conversations and zoning out during the night. The soft grass path on the blue loop was a welcome relief from the pavement. The silver out and back seemed to get longer and longer … and I thought at one point the smashed snake had come back to life. Notice I didn’t run the gold loop … no way!”
Breckenridge was equally grateful to share so many miles with Coryell and others, as well as to see so many runners push their limits and support each other.
“This event did wonders for my spirit,” Breckenridge noted. “I enjoyed seeing so many people hit PRs, accomplish goals and support each other – this is what the Ultra Running Community does. I was able to run with a lot of folks and enjoyed my miles with each and every one of you.
“We all have a story to tell in these events,” he added. “I find I have an opportunity to really listen and connect. Lain was a fantastic running companion and we helped push each other through some lows, (and) Carla was amazing and did several late night loops with me. In hindsight, the gold loop at 2 a.m. was not a good idea. However, her unbridled enthusiasm is contagious and she kept us all going. I love my bracelet with all the beads, a very fun and unique finishers medal that I will always look at fondly.”
In addition to Coryell and Breckenridge’s big efforts, Halpern, 51, took a break from her race-directing duties to log 40 miles in the 24-hour race; Damien Pinault, 48, of Belmont, Mass., logged 38.25 miles in a final tune-up run before October’s Midstate Massive 50-miler; Kym Lewis, 56, of Athol, Mass., completed 32.5 miles; and co-RD Nancy Mead, 55, of Wendell, Mass., finished 32.2 miles. The event’s youngest participant, 12-year-old Sonya Gordon-Halpern, also took part in the 24-hour event. She logged 16 miles, many of them during the late-night hours before logging a few more after sunrise.
In the 12-hour race, 36-year-old Boston resident Laura Ricci threw down a 62-mile performance and secured top honors. The second-most miles came from Aura Mauricio, 48, of Westport, Mass., who logged 50.5 miles. She was followed closely by a trio of runners – Jeff LeBlanc, 34, of Woburn, Mass.; Kristin Loiko, 40, of Merrimack, Mass.; and Julie Corey, 42, of Holyoke, Mass. – who each completed 50 miles apiece. For LeBlanc, the run marked his longest training run in advance of his second running of the Midstate Massive 100-miler in October. For Loiko and Corey, it was their first time completing 50 miles. Johanna Fawcett, 40, of Lawrence, Mass., also had a big day, finishing 40.5 miles. Additionally, Heather Rogers Murphy of Turners Falls, Mass., finished her first 50K with 31.15 miles; Deanna Leedy-Androzzi of Sudbury, Mass., completed 31 miles; and Danika Tyminski, 44, of Bernardston, Mass., notched an ultra finish with 28 miles.
As a Race Director, Halpern said she takes great joy in seeing people achieve personal-best feats at the Village Ultra. Tyminski’s effort was one of the most memorable for Halpern as she watched the Swift River School sixth-grade teacher and Village Ultra regular push her limits.
“Danika has attempted 12- and 24-hour events before, but had been plagued by injuries in the past,” Halpern noted. “Her prior PR was 19.1 miles. This year, she was determined to beat that. And her head was in the game! Danika had been working hard to get in shape for this year’s TVU. Before midnight, she had beaten her PR. Normally I would say ‘push to 20,’ but Danika needed no encouragement to keep going. She was in the proverbial zone. As the night went on and Danika reached 23 miles, she knew she would complete a marathon. And then she kept going! Danika ended the night with a total of 28 miles! She walked the entire way, often alone, mostly in the dark, sometimes on the more remote ‘blue loop,’ which goes through trail and grass and the town cemetery.”
Eight runners took advantage of the drop-in option, including Woburn’s Samantha LeBlanc, 32, who logged 10 miles while pacing her husband during his 50-mile effort, and Carol Diesel Ratcliff who completed 10 miles in addition to volunteering at the event. Two more runners ran the event virtually and had big performances. Bill Odendahl, 55, of Trumbull, Conn., logged 79 miles in 24 hours as part of a longer 100-mile solo effort. Meanwhile, David Colburn, 57, of Worcester, Mass., tackled the 12-hour virtual option and completed 49.4 miles.
The Village Ultra was founded as a fundraising event, and it has adopted a new cause or organization to support each year. Funds for the 2020 edition were designated for Swift River School in New Salem. Halpern is still tallying the total funds raised, but she said the number has surpassed $1,600.