NEEDHAM, Mass. – The inaugural Needham Backyard Ultra wasted no time having its first down-to-the wire, cutoff-eluding experience.
“The last person signed up at 7:59,” said Kiko Bracker, chuckling with his co-Race Director Bill Gallagher, as the pair reflected on the first-year event on Saturday, May 7, while relaxing at the start/finish area at Needham Town Forest.
The event started at 8 a.m., and adopted the traditional backyard ultra format where runners have one hour to complete a 4.167-mile loop course and return to the starting line with a new race beginning on the hour, every hour, until only one runner completes the final loop. Some backyard ultras last only a few hours; others have massive turnouts and go on for days.
Bracker and Gallagher anticipated a small gathering when they organized the event on behalf of the Needham Running Club. There was no entry fee, and they saw it as an opportunity to bring people together for community-building and fun while giving runners an opportunity to try out the unique racing format.
“Expectation for numbers was somewhere in the 10-18 range,” Bracker said. “We thought 18 seemed way too many, so I was a little surprised … a little dismayed … when more than 18 showed up, but we were able to manage it.”
Indeed, turnout exceeded expectations. Twenty-six runners showed up to race – including the runner who arrived with one minute to spare.
A second expectation was also exceeded: the weather. Rain and strong winds were in the forecast, but runners were treated to a dry, breezy day with temperatures in the upper 40s to low 50s and some afternoon sun.
“I was nervous about the weather,” Gallagher admitted. “But it worked out and it’s nice and sunny.”
With nervous anticipation and a bit of anxiety, the runners gathered at the starting line and Bracker sent them on their way at 8 a.m. sharp. The event brought together runners from the Needham Running Club and other neighboring communities, as well as the Trail Animals Running Club.
“It was kind of cool,” Bracker said. “Everybody’s standing behind the start line; some have a smile on their face; most of them had no experience with this at all so it was their first time doing it. Maybe one or two guys had done (a backyard ultra) before.”
The runners proceeded from the staging area near the Horsford Ponds Parking Area, past some sports fields and into the forest where they ran on a mix of singletrack trails, doubletrack dirt, and the Bay Colony Rail Trail.
Bracker observed with interest the different approaches runners brought to the race, some completing loops quickly to have more time for recovery, and others pacing themselves with limited rest time.
“It’s interesting; there’s no advantage for the speedy,” he said. “You kind of have to view it as an all day, all night,] and beyond thing, so embrace your 12-minute-a-mile, get 10 minutes of break, and that’s probably the best way to continue on into the night. Even on the very first lap nobody was running fast, everybody was holding back and kept the reins on.”
A handful of runners completed one or two loops, and the field dwindled to just 11 runners by the end of the third hour.
“We did get some people who just wanted to give (the format) a try, and they ran two or three laps and said yes, this is for me, or no it’s not, but it was a good way to dip your toe into the pool and try it out,” Bracker said.
Jeff Hattem of Natick, Mass., and Debra Galloway of Framingham, Mass., ended their day after four hours and 16.68 miles of racing. An hour later, Framingham’s Stephen Galloway and Melrose’s Don Keren called it a day after five hours and 20.85 miles, bringing the remaining field down to seven runners. That number dropped to six when Weston’s Ilya Bass stopped after 25.02 miles.
The final six runners all entered ultramarathon territory. No runners stopped after the seventh hour, but North Easton’s Jessica Pope did after eight hours and 33.36 miles – her first ultramarathon.
Hour number nine proved pivotal. A trio of runners – Bruce Leung of Natick, Mike Bates of Acushnet, and Jamie Romaniak of Easton – all stopped after their ninth loop and 37.53 miles of racing. That left just two runners still going: Natick’s Molly Karp and Arlington’s Daniel Leonard.
Karp had been the first runner to finish nearly every loop throughout the day, allowing herself time to rest and refuel before returning to the starting line. Leonard had lingered further back in the pack on most loops, exerting less effort along the way but finishing with less time to recover. At 5 p.m., Karp and Leonard toed the starting line for the 10th time. An hour later, they did it again. Finally, a few minutes before 7 p.m., Karp made her way to the starting line, wrapped in her green sleeping bag as she had been prior to many other loops. Leonard joined her at the line. For the 12th time, Bracker sent runners on their way, only this time Karp didn’t move off the line. Instead, she announced that she was done after 45.87 miles of racing.
Leonard stopped, returned to the line and thanked Karp for racing throughout the day, and then proceeded to complete the 12th loop and secure the victory with a 50.04-mile day.
Reflecting on the first-year event, Bracker and Gallagher were thrilled with how smooth everything went. They praised the local community, including the Needham Conservation Committee, Needham Parks and Recreation Department, and the Needham Department of Public Works for their support of the event. They were pleased with the turnout and the positive experience that runners appeared to have, which makes them optimistic as they turn their thoughts to the 2023 event.
“Last time we did an event (the 2021 Needham May Day Distance Classic) much of the goal was community creation,” Bracker said. “It still is. It’s nice to bring people together who enjoy doing similar things like running. The community of people is just great.”
The Needham Backyard Ultra was just the second backyard ultra-format race in Massachusetts. Amy Rusiecki of Beast Coast Trail Running was the first in the Commonwealth to put on such an event. Her Race for DFL began in 2019. The format has exploded in popularity nationally, and Bracker said he expects to see continued growth in the years ahead. For now, he’s happy that the Needham Running Club was able to create an opportunity to let runners join in on the fun.
“There’s a real steep trajectory of these runs developing around the country, and there’s only one other one that has been done in Massachusetts, but I do anticipate that we’ll see more of them,” Bracker said. “That will be great, because I think there’s definitely an interest in it.”