When Carla Halpern organized the first edition of the Village Ultra back in 2017, the goal was simple: help a family in need.
That year, a local family had a child needing treatment for Pediatric Acute-onset Neuropsychiatric Syndrome (PANS), so the race sought to raise funds to help cover the cost of treatment while also increasing awareness of PANS and Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorder Associated with Streptococcal Infections (PANDAS).
A year later, Halpern modified the format from a 10- and 6-hour race to a 24- and 12-hour event to accommodate the interest of more ultramarathoners to run longer distances. That time, the revamped event raised funds for R.C. Mahar Regional Middle School and High School. In the two years that followed, the Village Ultra raised several hundred dollars for the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that provides low-cost or free legal services to immigrants and refugees, and more than $1,600 for the Swift River School in New Salem.
While the course options and race beneficiaries have changed through the years, the mission of making a difference has remained the same. In keeping with its founding spirit, the 2021 edition of the Village Ultra once again selected an organization to support: The Trevor Project, which provides mental health and suicide prevention services to LGBTQIA+ youth.
“I chose The Trevor Project because being a teenager is hard enough without homophobia and transphobia added to the mix,” Halpern said. “The rights of people who are LGBTQIA+ are under attack even more this year. There are so many laws and bills limiting the participation of trans or non-binary people in sport; I wanted an athletic environment that supports everyone.
“I am also angry about the laws and bills designed to deny young people who are LGBTQIA+ life-affirming care, including ripping them away from their parents if their parents are supportive of them. I am grateful to the Trevor Project; we need support and mental health treatment for teens and young people who are LGBTQIA+ more than ever. These youth need to know that THEY MATTER.”
Runners and supporters of the fifth annual event — which took place Oct. 5-6 on the New Salem Town Common — sent a strong message that the youth matter. That support came in the form of record-setting mileage and — even more important — a record-setting fundraising effort. The Village Ultra had its first-ever 100-mile performer at this year’s event, and it also amassed more than $2,300 for The Trevor Project. Included in that haul was a $1,051 individual fundraising effort by Jamie McCusker as the 44-year-old from Burlington, Conn., who set up her own fundraising page for The Trevor Project prior to the race and then used that as motivation to set a personal-record for miles run at her inaugural 24-hour event.
“Jamie’s fundraising was unprecedented,” Calpern said. “We have never before had someone set up their own fundraising page and bring in that much money. I am still in awe.”
McCusker, who is the Race Director for the Tunxis Trail Ultramarathon, logged the second-most miles of any runner during the weekend as she hammered out 75.5 miles while mixing and matching the four mini-loops of the Village Ultra Course that make it a choose-your-own-adventure-style run.
The only runner to cover more ground than McCusker during the race was Eric Ciocca. Since winning Seth’s Fat Ass 50K in December 2017, Ciocca has been a force on the New England ultra scene, logging numerous podium finishes, at least a half-dozen victories and a more than 104.81-mile performance at the 2020 Forbidden Forest 30-Hour Ultra. Ciocca made sure his Village Ultra debut performance was a memorable one. The 43-year-old resident of Northampton, Mass., raced into the history books as the first Village Ultra runner to hit the 100-mile mark, finishing his day with 100.1 miles officially. A week earlier, Ciocca threw down a 3:10 marathon at the Green River Marathon, making his Village Ultra performance a lengthy recovery run.
Both Ciocca and McCusker’s big performances came on a weekend where the weather was comfortable and dry until the final hours, making for mostly ideal running conditions.
“We were really lucky for most of the race,” Halpern said. “In fact, I commented several times how lucky we were. Stupid to tempt fate … the last few hours we got rain, and by evening it was cold. Jamie probably could have banged out another 10 miles if the weather had been better towards the end. Eric was in it to win it, and he got through the rain.”
During the 24-hour timeframe where the event took place, some runners — like Ciocca and McCusker — ran for the entire time while others opted to run for 12 hours. Some dropped in and ran for just an hour or two. In total, 19 runners logged in-person miles, with six of them surpassing the marathon distance. In addition to Ciocca and McCusker, Halpern blended running and race-directing duties to amass 45 miles on her hometown streets and trails. Additionally, Village Ultra regular Kym Lewis of Athol, Mass., set a personal best and finished fourth overall with 34.15 miles. Laura Ricci of Boston, Mass., followed up her 12-hour victory at the 2020 Village Ultra (62 miles) with a 27-mile drop-in performance. Dietmar Bago of Andover, Mass., also dropped in and ran 27 miles apiece. A week later, he would go on to log 47.5 miles at the Notchview Ultra. John De Sousa of Springfield, Mass., finished the day with 24 miles in what amounted to a successful tune-up for his 49.4-mile performance at Notchview a week later.
Among the other notable performances were personal distance records by New Salem, Mass., residents Sonya Gordon-Halpern (18.6 miles) and Su Hoyle (18.05 miles), and a 23-mile effort by Wendell, Mass., resident Sarah Vular that included some miles spent pacing Ciocca to his 100-mile finish.
“Just as exciting as Eric’s accomplishment (for me), was the fact that Sarah Vular paced him through the last five or so miles,” Halpern noted. “She walked and ran with him, slowing when he needed to, but pushing him when she could. Sarah burst into Sunday morning with her bright clothes and huge smile, camera at the ready. She picked up everyone’s spirits. Seeing her bring Eric through his hundo made my heart sing.”
Others who logged mileage included Nancy Mead (21 miles), Adriana Bago (20 miles), Ann Van Dyke (19.4 miles), Carol Diesel Ratcliff (13.8 miles), Sarah Richardson (13.2 miles), Jennifer Robbins Bell (11.6 miles), Beth Bone (9.45 miles), and Dan Cook (3.55 miles). A final runner, Holly Gardner, was visiting from Texas but dropped in and ran 9 miles.
In addition to in-person running, Halpern also offered a virtual runner option. Emily Griffin and Benn Griffin — both of Pittsfield, Mass., and organizers of many Berkshire Ultra Running Community for Service (BURCS) races in western Massachusetts — led the virtual runner contingent with 40.5 miles apiece. Local runners Jay Durand and Swati Joshi also logged virtual mileage, as did Kimberly Kliman of Flagstaff, Ariz. Two others — Fee Cosham and Shannon Plesh — registered but were unable to run, but collectively the virtual entrants amassed $300 in donations to The Trevor Project.