The Trail Animals Running Club typically has evaded early-winter hibernation with the annual running of the Fells Winter Ultra during the first weekend of December at the Middlesex Fells Reservation. That wasn’t the case in 2020, however; the club was forced to cancel the event as the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the trail ultrarunning schedule locally and globally.
The Fells Winter Ultra made its return on Saturday, Dec. 4, as runners once again flocked to the trailhead in Stoneham, Mass., to tackle four or five loops of the reservation’s rocky and rugged Skyline Trail in 32- and 40-mile races.
Unlike recent years that experienced snow- and ice-packed trail conditions and/or below-freezing temperatures for the duration, the 2021 race was downright pleasant in many ways. A bitter 25 degrees but sunny at the start, the day warmed to 40 degrees by early afternoon which made for good racing conditions by Fells Winter Ultra standards.
The 40-mile “main event” required runners to circle the Skyline Trail five times, choosing which direction they wanted to go each time they passed through the course.
In the men’s race, 30-year-old Adam Ribeiro of Lowell, Mass., led from start to finish, though he had to fight mightily during the final miles to hang on. Most known for his obstacle course racing, Ribeiro deftly navigated the Skyline’s rocks and roots throughout the day. He amassed a nearly five-minute lead by the end of his first loop while August Posch gave chase. The 25-year-old from Portland, Maine, fell off the pace during the second loop as Ribeiro pulled away, and Posch was 16 minutes back by the 16-mile mark. He would eventually withdraw from the race after four loops.
After blazing through his first two loops in 1:11:43 and 1:17:46, Ribeiro slowed a bit during his next two passes through the course, 1:30:51 and 1:42:03, respectively. After 32 miles, his sizable lead had shrunk to just five minutes as Israel Agront closed hard. Agront, 27, of Arlington, Mass. had been in fifth overall after one loop, but his consistent pacing allowed him to methodically work his way through the field and move into second overall with one loop to go.
Agront continued to close hard, dropping a 1:25:31 final loop – two minutes faster than Ribeiro’s loop but not quite enough to overtake him. Ribeiro closed out the victory in 7:10:10, followed closely by Agront in 7:13:00.
Chet Hanscomb, 40, of Benton, Maine, ran one of the most consistently paced races of anybody and he steadily climbed the ranks, securing the third-place spot on the men’s podium and finishing sixth overall in 8:20:53. Anton Laptsenak, 32, of Stoughton, Mass., followed in 8:51:24.
The women’s field featured a trio of talented, fast-running women including two former champions and a newcomer to the race with loads of experience.
Kristina Folcik, 43, of Tamworth, N.H., won the 2012 and 2014 editions of the Fells Winter Ultra 40-miler, and 45-year-old Kehr Davis of Pittsfield, Mass., won the 2015 edition before finishing third in 2016. Davis was wrapping up a year in which she ran her first two 100-mile races (1st at Riverlands; 3rd at Midstate Massive), won the Twisted Branch 100K and finished second at Manitou’s Revenge. Folcik and Davis were joined at the starting line by Laura Ricci, 38, of Boston, Mass., who was making her Fells debut to close out a year where she won the TARC “Don’t Run Boston” 50K and placed second overall in her 100-mile debut at Ghost Train.
Folcik and Davis ran in close contact for the first loop with Folcik claiming a two-minute lead after eight miles. Ricci lingered back a bit and finished the first loop in fourth, a few minutes behind third-place Stacey Clark, 40, of Fort Collins, Colo., before moving up in the field. Folcik asserted control of the race during the second loop as she pushed hard and added eight more minutes to her cushion. She continued to stretch her lead during each of the remaining loops and closed out the win in 7:22:37 for her fastest performance in three tries on the course. Her time was the third-fastest by a woman in course history, just 11 minutes behind Kassandra Marin’s course standard of 7:11:54 from the 2018 race.
In the race for second, Davis and Ricci nearly mirrored each other’s efforts during the second, third, and fourth loops. Davis logged the faster final loop and wrapped up second place in 8:06:11. Ricci finished third in 8:18:34, followed by Clark who was a distant fourth in 9:10:37.
Of the 27 runners who started the 40-miler, 13 ultimately finished.
Nolette, O’Connor Victorious in 32-Mile Race
The four-loop, 32-mile race at the Fells Winter Ultra featured a topsy-turvy men’s race and wire-to-wire domination in the women’s race.
Ryan Nolette, 34, of Plymouth, Mass., was the early leader, but after hammering the first two loops he hit the wall hard and fell off the pace. Nick Lemon was right on Nolette’s heels less than two minutes back at the midway point, and the 29-year-old resident of Allston, Mass., seized the opportunity to surge to the front as he began his third trip through the course. With Alexander Lenail, 27, of Cambridge, Mass., just five minutes behind him, Lemon dug deep and pushed the pace as he dashed out for his third loop. Little did he know, but the wall was coming for Lenail, too. Not only did Lemon take the lead during loop three, but he amassed a 20-minute lead by the time he reached the 24-mile mark with one loop to go.
Lemon’s pace slipped a little bit during his final loop, but his lead was secure as he went on to win in 5:24:55. After all of the early jostling of the field, Lemon’s closest competitor turned out to be Jeff Pickett. The 31-year-old put on a masterful pacing clinic, with his fastest and slowest loops of the day separated by just six minutes. Pickett was in 12th place overall after one loop and eighth through two, but his consistency paid off in the end with a second-place overall finish in 5:48:22. Lenail rounded out the men’s podium in third place in 5:55:57, followed by Nicholas Perl, 41, of Somerville, Mass., in 6:06:30; Rem Stone, 28, of Conway, N.H., in 6:08:27; and Nolette in 6:10:50.
In the women’s race, Liza O’Connor dominated from start to finish. The 26-year-old resident of Boston, Mass., built a big early lead and steadily pulled away as the day continued. O’Connor ultimately amassed a lead of more than an hour and finished atop the women’s field, eighth overall, in 6:19:57. Her performance was the fourth-fastest by a woman on the course in race history. Denise Klatt, 30, of Brookline, Mass., was a distant second in 7:29:27, and Alyssa Ralston, 34, of Woburn, Mass., rounded out the podium in 7:57:57.
Of the 75 runners who started the 32-mile race, 55 finished within 10 hours.