When the Stone Cat Trail Race organizers from Gil’s Athletic Club (GAC) announced that the 2022 edition was “likely going to be the FINAL Stone Cat,” runners jumped at the opportunity to get their one and only crack at the classic event or run it one last time.
More than half of the 188 runners who toed the starting line on a soccer field behind Doynton School in Ipswich and prepared to tackle three loops through the trails of neighboring Willowdale State Forest on Saturday, Nov. 5, had done so before. Some were there for their third, fourth or fifth time, while others had been coming for much longer. Dag Holmboe of Hamilton, Mass., and Gary Richards of Belmont, Mass., were there to earn their 10th Stone Cat finishes. David McDermott of Fryeburg, Maine, was there for the 14th time, having run his first Stone Cat in 2006. Joe Hayes of Portsmouth, N.H., finished 20th overall in the inaugural Stone Cat 50-miler back in 2011. He last ran Stone Cat in 2019 for his 14th finish. Though he wouldn’t earn finish No. 15 on this day, he showed up one last time to see friends and enjoy one more Stone Cat experience.
Like Hayes, both Barbara Sorrell of Delmar, N.Y., and Ken Gulliver of Hinsdale, N.H., were there for the first Stone Cat in 2001. Sorrel finished second in the women’s field and 13th overall that day while Gulliver finished 17th. Sorrel was back for her 18th Stone Cat and Gulliver his 19th.
On a day that brought back so many Stone Cat legends, the 21st and final Stone Cat – and third edition of the event as a 50K race – saw two fresh faces etch their place in the event’s storied history. Both Nick Lemon of Wellesley, Mass., and Lila Gaudrault of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, had heard about Stone Cat from fellow runners in the region. Both understood the event’s significant place in New England ultrarunning history. When they heard this would be Stone Cat’s final year, they were quick to sign up for their one and only chance to take part.
“I heard about the race last year and that it was a fairly fast course for a trail 50K,” Gaudrault said. “When I heard this year was going to be the last running of it I wanted to sign up and see if I could get the course record.”
Lemon agreed and cited similar ambitions. Unlike Gaudrault, Lemon had previewed the course in advance and knew exactly what to expect.
“At the beginning of October I went out and did a 20-mile long run there,” he said. “It felt pretty comfortable, and the pace I ran for that was ahead of what the course record would have been so I knew it was something obtainable that I just had to execute on.”
It was already unseasonably warm when runners gathered at the starting line. Jackets, tights, hats and mittens were largely absent with the temperature already in the 60s and expected to surge into the mid-70s as the sun climbed throughout the day.
Lemon, who ran track and cross country at Stony Brook University and now runs with Northeast Trail Crew, set the pace quickly. He moved to the front during the first mile around the Doynton School soccer fields and steadily opened up a lead during the early miles on the leaf-blanketed single- and doubletrack trails through Willowdale State Forest. A few minutes behind him, a small pack of runners gave chase, including Gaudrault, 2017 Stone Cat marathon winner Sean McDonough of Littleton, Mass., 2021 Stone Cat 50K runner-up Jack Scott of Boxford, Mass., 2018 Stone Cat 50-mile champion Michael Pulli of Medford, Mass., two time Stone Cat 50-mile third-place finisher Will Swenson of Andover, Mass., as well as multi-time Stone Cat finishers Jack Bailey of Medway, Mass., Roy Van Cleef of Harvard, Mass., and George Stevens of Essex, Mass.
Lemon completed his first loop of the course in 1:15:51, and he already had a six-minute cushion on McDonough, Scott and Pulli who were the next to complete the loop. Gaudrault was the fifth overall runner to finish loop one (1:23:16), and another 10 minutes would pass before the second woman, Greeta Soderholm of Underhill, Vt., reached the checkpoint.
The temperature closed in on 70 degrees as the leaders made their way through the loop for the second time. Lemon remained on cruise control at the front, maintaining near-perfect pacing as he increased his gap on the field. As the miles rolled by, McDonough slipped from second to fifth place while Scott took over second, followed less than a minute behind by Gaudrault in third and Swenson two minutes behind her in fourth.
Though he was comfortably ahead and feeling good, Lemon’s bid for the course record hit a bump – or, more accurately, a rock – when he rolled his ankle around the 19-mile mark.”I managed to catch myself, but my hamstring locked up during that catch,” Lemon said.
Two miles later, he completed loop two with 2:25:23 expired and a nearly 18-minute lead on Scott (2:43:06) and Gaudrault (2:43:39), but Lemon’s ankle woes were just getting started.
“I fell again at mile 23 1/2,” he said. “I rolled my ankle and the next stride didn’t feel right in my hamstring so I wasn’t able to keep myself up and I just went down. It happened again at mile 26. Those were because of all the leaf coverage and just having to have faith that my next step was going to be on solid ground, not a root or rock, and unfortunately it kept resulting in a step and a roll.”
Ultimately the multiple ankle-rolls and falls led Lemon to hold back a bit during the final five miles.
“I knew if I rolled the ankle again it’d be game over, so I ran more gingerly with it,” he said.
Still, he maintained his sizable lead on the field, dashed out of the forest and across the finish line first overall in 3:51:16. His time was the second-fastest men’s mark on the course, trailing only Jason Smith’s time of 3:49:42 from 2019.
“I would say my main goal was achieved,” Lemon said. “The goal of trying to get the course record unfortunately fell a little short, but I was just happy to grit it out to the finish.”
While Lemon’s bid for a course record came up just short, Gaudrault’s did not. The 20-year-old raced like a savvy veteran when she set a fast early pace and tracked down more experienced ultrarunners during her second trip through the course.
“I was on my own for a lot of this one, but I kind of liked that,” she said. “I knew there were guys in front of me and I could try to chase them down. I do a lot of my training alone, but I kind of like having people out in front of me. Knowing there’s someone to chase is an extra fun challenge for me.”
In loop three, she showed plenty of resiliency. She passed Scott and moved into second place overall and then held off a late push by Swenson while keeping her goal in sight. Gaudrault ultimately finished second overall in 4:13:58, first among the women, and smashed the women’s course record by more than 12 minutes.
“I wasn’t super familiar with the race going in, but looking at it now and how it has a great history, it’s pretty special,” Gaudrault said of setting the course record in the final year of the race. “I really just loved finishing the race; there were so many people around at the finish line so it felt like a great community.”
While Stone Cat champions Lemon and Gaudrault were both newcomers to the event, they were the only runners in the overall top 10 who hadn’t raced Stone Cat previously. Swenson finished third overall in 4:15:56 for his sixth Stone Cat Finish. George Aponte Clarke of Portland, Maine, climbed 10th place in the first loop all the way to fourth overall in 4:21:50 for his best Stone Cat finish in four tries. Scott ended his third Stone Cat in fifth place overall in 4:30:54, while Bailey placed sixth (4:34:03 in his fifth Stone Cat. A steady climber throughout the day, Santosh Karmacharya of Watertown, Mass., was seventh (4:40:02) in his second Stone Cat appearance. Gaudrault’s closest women’s competitor was Soderholm who finished eighth overall (4:42:21) and earned her fourth women’s runner-up finish in four tries. Rounding out the overall top 10 were Pulli (4:45:33) who earned his sixth Stone Cat finish and Stevens (4:46:01), who became a two-time finisher.
Stone Cat newcomer Kate Mingle of Norfolk, Mass., joined Gaudrault and Soderholm on the women’s podium, finishing third in 4:55:25. Alia Rawji of Boston, Mass., was the fourth-place female in her Stone Cat debut, finishing in 5:00:33. Gabrielle Riley GAllagher of Dartmouth, NS, finished fifth among the women (5:18:09) in her ultra debut.
Among the Stone Cat long-timers, Holmboe earned his 10th finish in 6:45:26; Richards finished for the 10th time in 7:33:05; McDermott became a 14-time finisher in 7:35:18; Sorrel secured her 18th finish in 8:12:11; and Gulliver notched a remarkable 19th Stone Cat finish in 8:21:21.