STONEHAM, Mass. – In the days leading up to the Trail Animals Running Club’s Fells Winter Ultra, all eyes were on the forecast.
Typically, the race is known for its cold – oftentimes frigid – conditions, including snow and ice that make the rock- and root-covered course even more difficult and dangerous than a normal day. This year, the weather threw a wild card at the runners: it was going to be warm, windy and wet for the 11th annual event on Saturday, Dec. 3, at the Middlesex Fells Reservation. Just how wet was the question, and – more specifically – when would it get wet?
Initially, the forecast called for drops to start falling around 10 a.m., but then it bumped back to 11 a.m. Eventually, the forecast showed sprinkles starting somewhere around noon, meaning runners might make serious progress before the situation turned slick and sloppy.
For first-time ultrarunners Ryan Richer and Louiza Wise, the goal was to outrun the rain. If they successfully did so, good things were bound to happen.
“I’m glad the rain pushed out a little bit; it’s getting rough out there,” Richer said while standing under the protective cover of a pop-up tent shortly after finishing. “I avoided the worst.”
Indeed, both Richer, 25, of Holden, Mass., and Wise, 24, of Brookline, Mass., dodged most of the drops with Richer only encountering a few sprinkles before finishing and Wise enduring only about 90 minutes of rainfall.
The day began with Richer and Wise sharing the starting line with 73 other runners in the 32-mile race, as well as 18 more for the 40-miler (see separate article for 40-mile recap). It was 50 degrees and breezy when they set off into the woods to take on four loops of the 8-mile Skyline Trail. The temperature would eventually reach the low 60s before the rain began in earnest. Ultimately, 57 of those runners – including Richer and Wise – would complete the race within 10 hours, amassing nearly 6,000 feet of climbing, several stumbles and scrapes, and some soggy sneakers for their effort.
Both Richer and Wise run with Northeast Trail Crew, which plays host to Wednesday night runs at the Fells and weekend runs at a variety of venues. The NTC runs helped both runners gain familiarity with the course in advance of race day, even though both admitted they’d never done multiple loops of the Skyline Trail on a previous run.
“I’ve run these trails a bit, but never more than one loop – and never more than 8 miles,” Wise admitted.
For Richer, whose temptation to run the race was sparked a year ago while volunteering at the midpoint aid station with Northeast Trail Crew, the plan was to be conservative early, avoid costly mistakes and see how the day unfolded.
“I’d only done one lap previously, so the first lap I wanted to just stay with some people and learn the course better,” he said. “I went counterclockwise every lap.”
Though he led the race nearly wire to wire, Richer spent the first loop in close contact with a small pack that included Alexander Lenail of Cambridge, Mass., Sean Murphy of Santa Fe, N.M., Bernat Olle of Cambridge, Mass., and Brodie Miles of Wayland, Mass., along with Wise. Richer completed his first loop in 1:13:50, nearly four minutes ahead of Lenail, Olle, Murphy and Wise, who were in a tight pack, with Miles a minute behind them.
Olle and Miles dropped after the first loop, but the other four continued on, with Richer steadily distancing himself from the chase pack. At that point Wise had a 13-minute lead on the women’s field and pushed on with the men’s front-runners.
Though he’d planned to take it easy for the first two laps, Richer settled into a groove and capitalized on the dry conditions to motor ahead. He negative-split his second loop and stretched his advantage to 14 minutes by the time he finished loop two. Murphy was the second runner to hit the halfway point, with Wise three minutes behind him in third overall and Lenail 50 seconds behind her in fourth.
Richer’s pace slowed a bit during his third loop, but he continued to put distance between himself and the rest of the field. He hit the 24-mile mark in 3:48:09 and headed back out for what would be a grueling last lap.
Murphy maintained a grip on second place through 24 miles, but after three loops and 4:15 on the course he dropped from the race. That left Lenail and Wise to give chase as the second and third runners. Not far behind them, Liza O’Connor of Boston, Mass., and Galen August of Arlington, Mass., were gaining ground.
A light drizzle began around 11 a.m., at which point Richer was about a mile into his final loop and the chase pack was closing out loop three. During the next hour the precipitation gradually picked up the pace, turning the dry course slick.
Though Richer’s last lap was 22 minutes slower than his fastest pass through the course, he avoided the worst of the wet weather and his lead was never in doubt. Following a 93-minute final loop, a light rain fell as Richer closed out the overall win in 5:21:29.
“I think I pushed a little too much too early and I paid for it on the last lap,” Richer said. “But overall I’m really happy. I finished right on my goal time.”
Lenail followed a little more than 30 minutes later in second overall in 5:57:52. Shortly after he finished, Wise dashed down the home stretch in a steady rain as the first-place female and third overall finisher in 6:10:29.
“The goal was to try to beat the rain,” said Wise, who ran track and cross country for Northeastern University. “I did that for the most part, and it feels pretty good. The rain was actually kind of welcome once it started warming up out there.”
In addition to beating the worst of the weather, Wise also fended off a late challenge from O’Connor. In a remarkably consistent performance, O’Connor ran nearly perfect splits for all four loops of the course (1:33:00; 1:33:41; 1:36:01; 1:35:56), allowing her to climb from 22nd place overall at the 8-mile mark all the way to fourth place overall and second in the women’s field with her time of 6:18:39.
August finished fifth overall and rounded out the men’s podium in 6:21:00. Lukas Chmatal, 38, of Cambridge, Mass., was fourth in 6:31:34, and 33-year-old Bryn Clark of Danvers, Mass., was the fifth male in 6:34:36.
Sarah Brennan, 31, of North Andover, Mass., was the third-place female in 7:10:34, followed five minutes later by 44-year-old Caitlin Sorriento of Millbrook, N.Y., in 7:15:50, and 25-year-old Hannah Green of Brookline, Mass., in 7:20:06.