The Lynn Woods: Finding my Tribe and Passion for Ultra Running

Armed with a brand new pair of trail shoes and a can of bug spray, I arrived for my first trail race in the Lynn Woods on a hot and humid Wednesday night in 2018.

I had never run trails before. But that night, I pretended I knew what I was doing as I charged up steep, rocky hills and over rolling single track sprinkled with pine needles. At the end of the race, along with the new friends I had made along the way, I crossed the finish line to cheers and flashing cameras. 

That night would change the course of my running, and ultimately, my life. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had just begun chasing an ultramarathon dream.

The Lynn Woods is an optimal training ground for ultra distance runners. The forest is an expansive 2,200 acres, the second-largest municipal park in the United States. There are many hills, and terrain varies from carriage roads to beautiful single-track trails. 

The start of the long race on a Wednesday night. Photo courtesy of Mike Fitzgerald.

Every Wednesday night, hundreds of runners of all ages join the Lynn Woods race series. Competitors have three courses to choose from each week: the kids’ 1.67-mile race, a 2.5-mile race (dubbed the “Short Race”), and the “Long Race,” which varies in distance from four to seven miles each week. This summer ritual has been in place since 1970. There’s a cup for donations, but there are no entry fees.

“We haven’t ever really discussed charging entry fees,” said Bill Mullen, avid runner and leader of the volunteers who organize the series. “I wanted to make sure it continued to be free so everyone can participate.”

Mullen told me, “The Lynn Woods is a community of people who gather,” adding with a chuckle that he’s, “still sometimes stunned 200 to 300 people show up every week when there are no trophies and there’s a reasonable chance you’re going to get lost in the woods.”

Joe Abelon in the timing truck. Photo courtesy of Mike Fitzgerald.

The Wednesday night trail series was started in 1970 by Joe Abelon. At the time, Abelon was the cross country coach at Lynn Technical High School, known at the time as Lynn Trade. The decade before, he was the highly successful coach at St. Mary’s High School in Lynn. When Abelon began coaching at Lynn Trade, he decided his team would benefit from more competition over the summer. So in 1970, he began a weekly race series in the Lynn Woods, which has continued every summer for the past 52 years, including a virtual series in 2020.

Mullen began helping organize the races in the 1980s, and Abelon says Mullen is the reason the series has continued so long. But according to Mullen himself, the popularity of trail running is a major force behind the success of the series. He also believes that women have contributed a great deal to the race series’ growth. “When we first started the races, there were no women racing, but now 40 to 50% of our field are women; they have added so much to our competition and our participation.”

Bill Mullen at the finish line of the Wednesday night race. Photo courtesy of Mike Fitzgerald.

Both Mullen and Abelon have the same vision for the future of the Wednesday night races. They simply hope the series continues after they are unable to organize it personally. To ensure that, the group began asking for volunteers in 2021. Mullen told me he had previously been hesitant to ask runners to volunteer.

“I’ve always wanted runners to run, not volunteer,” Mullen said, “but over the last year, we needed to get more people actively involved in volunteering to make sure there’s a continuity for the series.”

Despite his hesitancy, runners were eager to help out, and the volunteer sign-ups were full every week in summer 2021.

Long Race competitors charge into the woods on a Wednesday night. Photo courtesy of Mike Fitzgerald.

My favorite races in the Lynn Woods are the “Tour de Lynn Woods” nights, which usually occur four times each summer. Guest trail masters plan and mark the single-track courses, which are designed to explore some of the more remote sections of the woods.

One special night each summer, Abelon himself serves as a tour’s guest trail master. Although runners show up in droves that night ready for adventure, many compare his route planning to that of Lazarus “Laz” Lake of the famed Barkley Marathons.

“I do really enjoy doing the tours,” Abelon told me, “and when it comes to marking them, when I get lost out there, I basically just keep marking as I go, and hope I end up somewhere I recognize.” He laughs, “It takes me six to eight hours to mark.”

After that first Wednesday night, I kept coming back to run the Lynn Woods races, and one night I learned of a sport I’d never heard of – ultra running. I remember going home and telling my husband some of my new friends had recently run a 50-mile race. We agreed they were crazy.

Fast forward three years, and I have run many 50Ks, will complete (fingers crossed) my third 50-mile race this weekend, and am training for my second 100-mile race.

Jennifer Rizzo completing a race in 2019. Photo courtesy of Mike Fitzgerald.

For me, the real magic of the Lynn Woods races is in the community. When I did my first 50K in 2019, my Lynn Woods buddies traveled to the race to pace me and cheer me on. I wouldn’t have finished without them. On those Wednesday nights in the Lynn Woods, I found my tribe and my passion for ultra running. 

Mullen told me that over the years, he has been most proud of “the everyday runner. The person who comes for the first time and does the short race, and maybe can only walk it. But over time, they keep coming back and they get latched on. And you see them eventually challenging themselves to do the long run. They come back and become the fabric of the weekly series. The series has had an olympian and national champions at the collegiate and high school levels. But the thing I’m most proud of are the regular people who come in as trail virgins and go away as regulars.” 

To learn more about running in the Lynn Woods Wednesday night trail race series, visit this link: https://www.lwrun.org/

Or visit the Lynn Woods Runs Facebook page: ​​https://www.facebook.com/Lynn-Woods-Running-157671555445

Sources: 

Arrington, Paul J., Running in the Lynn Woods https://www.lwrun.org/ebook/Running_In_The_Woods_1NOV2018_ebook.pdf

One thought on “The Lynn Woods: Finding my Tribe and Passion for Ultra Running”

  1. Thank you for this great article. Well done Jennifer. I grew up running at the Lynn woods races. Although I now live in Georgetown, I try to get back to a few Wednesday nights every year. I’m always impressed that Bill remembers everyone’s name and Joe’s passion for the sport is unmatched. The Lynn Woods Running community is like no other.

    Like

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