Masks, Miles, and Major Performances at the Midstate Massive Ultra-Trail

NEW IPSWICH, N.H. – Bob Keating crouched into a starting position as the final seconds counted down. Then, with the ring of the starting bell, the 73-year-old from Nashua, N.H., fired off the line with a strong knee-drive as though he were running a 100-meter dash.

But this was no sprint; far from it. This was the Midstate Massive Ultra-Trail 100-mile race, and there was a long way to go. After a few steps, Keating paused, had a quick laugh, turned and waved to the other runners.

“Good luck, everyone,” he said, and then headed on his way at a more relaxed pace to begin a journey on Saturday, Oct. 10, that would take him and his fellow runners from here at the Windblown Cross Country Ski Area to Douglas State Forest in Massachusetts. If successful, they would fully cross the Bay State from north to south and dip into Connecticut and Rhode Island, ultimately stepping foot in four states before reaching the finish line.

Bob Keating pretends to sprint from the starting line of the 100-mile race at the Midstate Massive Ultra-Trail on Saturday, Oct. 10. 2020. Runners started individually, a minute apart, as a safety precaution due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Keating was the first starter. Photo by Chris Wristen/MassUltra.

Sixty seconds after Keating started, it was Littleton, Mass. resident Dane LeBlanc’s turn to toe the line.

“We’re going to do the same thing for everybody,” Race Director Andy Marx said. “Dane gets his own personal countdown.”

Once LeBlanc, 62, was on his way, 62-year-old Norm Sheppard of Newton Mass., took his turn at the starting line, followed in succession by New Yorkers Kathleen Walker, 61, of Hyde Park; Kumiko Hart, 58 of Brooklyn; and Shuji Yabe, 56, of New York City. The routine continued with runners starting one by one, a minute apart, until all five waves of starters were on the course.

“It’s like airplanes on a runway being cleared for takeoff,” joked Michael Barrett, 49, of Arlington, Mass., who was a pacer at the 2019 race before taking on the course as a competitor this year.

The unusual starting technique was one of many protocols implemented for extra safety during a year where most in-person ultramarathons worldwide have been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. From individual starts to mandatory mask-wearing at the start/finish areas and aid stations, to pre-packaged aid station snacks and restrictions on crews and pacers, most didn’t seem to mind and were simply happy to have the opportunity to race.

A masked Justin Kousky gets focused before starting his 100-mile race at the Midstate Massive Ultra-Trail. Kousky finished in first place. Photo by Chris Wristen/MassUltra.

After starting one-by-one in mid-50s temperatures, the day grew unseasonably warm for the racers as they made their way over Mt. Watatic and onward toward Mt. Wachusett in 70-degree temperatures under a blue, cloud-free, sunny sky. By mile 22, it was clear that the unexpected heat was taking its toll on some of the runners, and it forced a few to ultimately withdraw.

The race truly took shape once night fell and cooler temperatures returned. By then, some of the anticipated top contenders were done, while those that remained let their nighttime running skills set themselves apart from the pack. 

Just a few months removed from setting the fastest known time on the Midstate Trail, Cody Cutler of Sterling, Mass., returned to race the Midstate Massive Ultra-Trail 100-miler on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020. Cutler dislocated his shoulder a few miles before this photo was taken, but he stayed in the race and finished second. Photo by Chris Wristen/MassUltra.

In the men’s field, that meant veteran ultrarunners Justin Kousky, 40, of Westport, Conn.; Brian Butterfield, 41, of Southborough, Mass.; and Ari Ofsevit, 36, of Cambridge, Mass.; and newer faces to ultrarunning Cody Cutler, 35, of Sterling, Mass.; and Keith Nadeau, 31, of Fairhaven, Mass., established themselves as the frontrunners.

Butterfield and Cutler started in Wave 4, and they spent several miles running together or separated by only a few minutes. Despite breaking a toe a few weeks before the race, Butterfield leaned into his experience from two prior 100-mile finishes (2017 Ghost Train, 17:32:32; 2018 Ghost Train, 16:41:02) and had his mental game locked in. So did Cutler, who ran his first ultra in 2019 and set the fastest known time on the Midstate Trail in May (21:40:34). Despite dislocating his shoulder after hooking his arm on a tree around 25 miles into the race, Cutler’s mental game was strong and his nighttime running experience from his FKT performance paid off as he stayed in the hunt.

Brian Butterfield of Southborough, Mass., was flying 27 miles into the Midstate Massive Ultra-Trail 100-miler on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020. He didn’t let up much the rest of the way as he finished in 22:04:12. Photo by Chris Wristen/MassUltra.

As Butterfield and Cutler pushed ahead during the night, Wave 5 starters Kousky, Nadeau and Ofsevit tried to make up the gap. Kousky — who has set 25 FKTs this year during the pandemic — ran solo throughout the race while Nadeau and Ofsevit shared some early miles before Nadeau — the winner of the 2019 Midstate Massive 50-miler — made his move forward.

After seemingly endless hours and miles of hunting the runners from earlier wave starts, Kousky finally caught Butterfield and then Cutler around mile 75, not long before the Sunday morning sunrise. Kousky stayed in front for the next 20 miles or so before Cutler caught and passed him. By then, however, it was too late for Cutler to overcome the time gap created by the waved and staggered start. Cutler reached the finish line first, but Kousky earned the victory.

Kousky posted a winning time of 19:39:06, followed by Cutler who capped his 100-mile debut in 20:18:44. Nadeau was the fourth runner across the finish line, but the waved and staggered starts meant that he placed third in 21:09:12 for his first 100-mile finish. Butterfield was the third finisher but fourth-place finisher in 22:02:49. Ofsevit was the only other sub-24-hour finisher, placing fifth in 23:49:50.

After winning two 100-mile races in 2019, Johanna Ylanen added another win to her resume with a first-place finish at the 2020 Midstate Massive Ultra-Trail 100. Photo by Chris Wristen/MassUltra.

In the women’s race, Johanna Ylanen spent the first half of the race tracking down runners from other waves and the second half working hard to maintain her lead. As a Wave 3 starter, the 38-year-old from Tolland, Conn., was one of the last women to start the race, so most of her competitors were already ahead of her. Some withdrew from the race early, while she passed others during strong climbs up and over Mt. Watatic and Mt. Wachusett. A veteran of several 100-milers, including the 2012 Headlands 100, 2013 Western States 100, 2014 Superior 100, 2015 Run Rabbit Run 100, 2016 TARC 100, 2018 Zion 100, and victories at the 2019 Antelope Canyon 100 in Arizona and the No Business 100 in Tennessee, Ylanen showcased her experience with a smart, gritty, dominating performance throughout her race at the Midstate Massive.

Trisha Ignatowski of New York, N.Y., charges up a hill near Wachusett Mountain during the Midstate Massive Ultra-Trail 100-mile race on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020. Photo by Chris Wristen/MassUltra.

Ultimately, Ylannen cruised across the finish line in first place in 24:20:00. She was followed an hour later by Wave 2 starter Molly Housman, 47, of Norwich, Vt., who earned her first 100-mile finish in 25:19:04. Ninety-seven seconds separated third and fourth place with Rika Nakamura, 43, of Astoria, N.Y., taking third in 25:55:38 and Trisha Ignatowski, 27, of New York, N.Y., following in 25:57:15. Xi Wang, 49, of West Windsor, N.J., rounded out the women’s top five in 26:33:17.

Forty-seven runners finished the 100-mile race with Ilya Bass, 46, of Weston, Mass., rounding out the field by successfully completing his first 100-mile race in 32:17:12.

Quatromoni, Bratica are Fastest at 50 Miles

Runners in the Midstate Massive 50-miler started in the dark of night from the Long Pond Boat Ramp in Rutland, Mass., and made their way by headlamp to the Midstate Trail where they began their journey south to Douglas State Forest. Most spent at least half of their race in darkness before having their spirits lifted by the sun. One runner in particular thrived with the nighttime running. Ben Quatromoni, 32, of Newport, R.I., steadily pulled away from the field and ultimately dominated the race, winning by nearly an hour in 7:47:22. Benjamin Pratt, 31, of New York, N.Y., was a distant second in 8:45:54, followed by Michael Obara, 44, of North Kingstown, R.I., in 9:03:03. Jason DeJoannis, 46, of Waltham, Mass., was a close fourth in 9:10:34, followed two minutes later by Donal Reynolds, 43, of Belmont, Mass., in 9:12:32.

In the women’s field, 36-year-old Robyn Bratica of Milford, Mass., turned in a strong performance and earned top honors in 10:46:58. Her closest competitor, 35-year-old Carolyn Wisnowski of Shirley, Mass., finished in 11:16:35, followed by Shayna Milstein, 24, of Somerville, Mass., in 11:24:07.

Forty-three runners ultimately finished the 50-mile race within 17 hours.

Sawada, Smith Cruise to 30-Mile Victories

The 30-mile race started Sunday morning, Oct. 11, at Bay Park Regional High School in Charlton, Mass. From there, the runners followed the same route as the 100-mile runners down into Connecticut and Rhode Island and then to the finish line at Douglas State Forest, stepping foot in three states during their race. The 30-mile race spent the highest percentage of time on pavement of the three distances, in part to enable runners to access the trail from the starting area and also because the Midstate Trail is connected by several road segments at its southern end. The extra miles on a smooth surface contributed to faster times for that distance’s frontrunners.

Miki Sawada took full advantage of the opportunity to go fast. The 33-year-old resident of Brighton, Mass., topped the women’s field and was also the overall winner in a speedy 4:37:13. She was followed closely by race runner-up and men’s winner Henning Smith, 45, of Northbridge, Mass., who clocked a time of 4:37:24. Five more runners joined Sawada and Smith in finishing in less than five hours. Stephen Bennett, 24, of New London, N.H., finished third overall in 4:39:42; Andrew Gusev, 28, of Shrewsbury, Mass., followed in 4:57:19; and women’s runner-up Jodie Davis, 28, of Boston, Mass., finished fifth overall in 4:57:31. Evan Kilgore, 41, of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Bob Collins, 60, of Wellesley, Mass., also broke five hours with Kilgore finishing in 4:58:08 and Collins in 4:58:40.

Thirty-three runners finished the 30-mile race within 7 1/2 hours.

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