WINCHENDON, Mass. – Two times Brian Burke tried his luck at Bubba’s Backyard Ultra, a last-person-standing event in New Hampshire. Twice he finished second to a master of the format, Ed Clifford, the event’s four-time champion and a winner of at least a half-dozen backyard ultras in his career.
On Nov. 19-20, Burke tried the format one more time when he took part in Race Director Amy Rusiecki’s Race for DFL in Massachusetts. Burke brought with him all the lessons he learned at the 2021 and 2022 Bubba’s races, the time-tested strategies he developed, and all the grit and desire he could muster. He was once again pushed to the brink – this time by Dan Grip – but this time was different for Burke. This time he was the last person standing, the Dead Freaking Last runner.
“The backyard ultra format is more of a game than a race,” Burke said. “Like any game, if you play enough you start to learn the tricks. Having done this before, I knew how to be efficient with my downtime. I knew there would be lows, and I had a crew to talk me through them. Most of all, I learned that it doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing on the course. Stick to the plan, and always take it one lap at a time.”
This year marked the third edition of the Race for DFL, as well as the event’s third home. It began in a backyard in Pelham in 2019. Following a cancellation in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the race returned in 2021 at the Chesterfield Gorge Reservation in West Chesterfield. For 2022, it moved to a farm in Winchendon owned by 2021 DFL champion Jenny Kenty and her husband George.
The new venue treated runners to panoramic views, fresh-cut trails, and a variety of terrain. The start/finish was in the middle of a field high atop a hill with views of Mt. Monadnock and exposure to constant wind. Between the start/finish, runners tackled a little bit of everything – grassy field, singletrack and ATV trails, rocks and roots, mud, sponge-like forest ground, rail trail and rocky farm road.
Seventy-three runners took part in this year’s race, which used a 4.1666-mile course. A new race started on the hour, every hour, with the field slowly shrinking with each passing loop.
Though they enjoyed mostly dry conditions, all runners endured plenty of cold. The first loop began with 25-degree temperatures at 8 a.m. Saturday. It warmed into the upper 30s by mid-afternoon, though a constant wind made sure the start/finish was as frigid as it was scenic. By 5 p.m. the temperature was back below freezing, and the cold combined with the accumulation of time and miles soon took its toll on the runners. Burke had dealt with cold overnight temperatures at Bubba’s, as well as at many of his evening group runs with Northeast Trail Crew, so he was ready for it.
“Running in New England means you have to have a sense of humor about the weather,” Burke said. “If this race was one week earlier, we’d be talking about the heat. Instead, we got 14 hours of darkness at below freezing temps. That’s not easy on anyone, but I saw it as an opportunity. I knew those conditions were going to wipe out most of the field. The thought of seeing the sunrise was a great motivator in those rough hours.”
Forty-two runners completed at least seven loops (29.2 miles) and surpassed the marathon distance. Twenty-four of them lasted at least 12 hours for 50 miles.
Hour number 15 marked 62.5 miles and the final loop for eight of the runners – Bryce Spare of Adams, Mass.; David Champoux of Florence, Mass.; Mike Brennan of East Walpole, Mass.; Chris Peter of Newmarket, N.H.; Durgesh Mankekar of Medford, Mass.; Jeremy Shafter of New Hartford, Conn.; Marc Guillaume of Greenfield, Mass.; and Elizabeth McGurk of Peterborough, N.H. – at which point just seven runners remained. One lap later, both Matt Pacheco of South Hadley, Mass., and Bill Warner of Hopkinton, Mass., retired after 66.7 miles, reducing the field to five.
Kit Pang of Boston, Mass., stopped after 17 laps and 70.8 miles. Two laps later, Eli Burakian of Brownsville, Vt., was done after 79.2 miles. When Shan Riggs of Southbury, Conn., stopped after 23 hours and 95.8 miles, the field was down to two: Burke, of Medford, Mass., and Grip, of Wendell, Mass.
Just as Clifford had been a formidable foe for Burke at Bubba’s, he knew Grip would be a worthy competitor as the hours grew long and the miles added up. After all, Grip’s the owner of many fastest known times on difficult trail sections in New England, and recently broke the course record while finishing second overall at the Midstate Massive Ultra-Trail 100-miler.
“Dan’s the real deal,” Burke said. “I’ve kept tabs on his running for awhile now, but this was the first time we had crossed paths. When I saw his name on the entrant’s list, I knew we were in for a battle.
“Dan and I ran our loops at different paces, but got to know each other in those first few minutes of each hour. When it was down to the two of us, I tried to view him as more of a teammate than a competitor. That’s the beauty of a backyard ultra. On the surface it’s a test of endurance, yet somehow it creates this really social and positive environment.”
Six more hours passed as Grip and Burke did battle. They started laps together before Grip eventually moved ahead and typically finished a few minutes before Burke. Then they’d regroup together to do it all over again the next hour. They saw the sun rise. They endured continued cold temperatures and 20-mph winds. Finally, after 29 hours and 120.8 miles, Grip decided to stop. He cracked the ceremonial beer that sent Burke out for a 30th and final lap. Around 50 minutes later, Burke returned to the top of the hill as the DFL finisher, the last person standing after 125 miles.
It took three tries, but he finally got his victory in this atypical racing format.
“These races test a runner in so many ways,” Burke said. “Having the physical capability to go long is just a small piece of the puzzle. Going into DFL, I focused on the mental side of running. The ability to maintain a positive attitude kept me in it until the end.
“A win is always satisfying, but the irony of being the ‘Last Person Standing’ is that I hardly did it alone. Between my tough love crew and a cast of friends who dropped by, I had a ton of support out there.”
Grip Runs Fastest Lap
Though Grip wasn’t the last runner standing – he earned the assist on Burke’s victory – Grip did earn top honors for running the fastest lap of anybody, which is a competition within the competition that Rusiecki tracks. On his fourth lap, Grip threw down a scorching 24:36 loop averaging less than 6 minutes per mile. The runner-up for fastest lap was Spare, who clocked a 27:07, followed by Matthew LePage of Westfield, Mass., who logged a 28:27 loop. Five runners logged a loop in less than 30 minutes.