For around 90 minutes, I perched halfway up the hill below Wright’s Tower and clicked away with my Nikon D90 camera as runners came toward me in both directions. Some danced down the hill, navigating its tangled web of tree roots while others dug deep and made the steep, rocky march upward.
It was Saturday, Dec. 3, at the Middlesex Fells Reservation, and I was covering the Trail Animals Running Club’s annual season-ending event, the Fells Winter Ultra 40-mile and 32-mile races where runners can choose which direction they want to take on the reservation’s 8-mile loop. It was unusually warm with temperatures in the 50s, but the wind had been whipping all morning and rain was on the way. I’d taken photos from this particular spot several times, but never had such a good day with the lighting so favorable and the images so crisp. Part of me wanted to stay there all day, but I knew it was time to move. A pet peeve of mine is when my photos all look the same, when every photo has an identical backdrop or the location doesn’t accurately reflect the runners’ experience at the event. I’d had a good morning of shooting, but there’s much more to this race than the Wright’s Tower hill. It was time to go.
I’ve covered the Fells Winter Ultra several times during my seven years publishing MassUltra. During that time I’ve roamed many parts of the course’s trails to watch the event unfold and find unique locations for photos. One spot I’d never visited was the midpoint aid station, which is run by Northeast Trail Crew. This seemed like a good day to pay the volunteers a visit.
Truth be told, I didn’t know exactly where the aid station was located. I had a hunch where I’d find it – somewhere around the loop’s midpoint, obviously – so I made an educated guess where that might be. I drove to a parking area on South Border Road that I guessed was around a quarter-mile from where the aid station might be and then hiked into the woods to the Skyline Trail. After a minute or two of walking, a sign caught my attention that I’d never seen in the Fells before – a most unusual sign to find in the Fells, or anywhere, really – and I knew immediately that I was on the right track.
“Coming up: Aid Trail Station,” the sign read, with the letters CATS capitalized and a cutout of a kitten standing atop the words.
Affixed to a tree just a few strides past the initial sign was a picture of two cats staring creepily back at me. Just past them was another tree with another cat photo, and then another slightly further down the trail, followed by another. Through the trees I could see a few pop-up tents. That appeared to be the place.
Moments later, I arrived at the aid station. The place was bustling with energy. Around two-dozen people were there, some to volunteer and others just to cheer on runners as they passed through. Bursts of noise rang out each time a runner approached, hoots and hollers and the clatter of cowbells greeting them. Each runner was promptly welcomed by a volunteer who was ready to tend to their every need, be it a refilled bottle, a snack, a shot of Fireball, or just some words of encouragement.
Mountain-bikers, hikers and runners not involved in the race were welcomed with similar fanfare and offered their choice of refreshments.
“Help yourself if you need anything; we have plenty of snacks,” one volunteer called out when a non-participant passed through the aid station around mid-day.
But there was more to this aid station than just the typical fare and care.
There was the cat theme, and it was unmistakable. The cat signs didn’t simply guide runners to the aid station – they served as an aid station spirit animal. Several volunteers wore whiskers drawn on with face paint. Stuffed cat dolls dangled from the pop-up tent.
“I went to the dollar store and picked up a cat calendar for $1.25,” noted Brian Burke, the aid station captain and ringleader of Northeast Trail Crew. “It was two-for-one, so I got a big one and a small one.”
The images from the big calendar were what helped me find my way to the aid station. The images from the smaller daily calendar were strung up and flapping in the wind like prayer flags in the Himalayas.
There was even an unopened can of cat food on the aid station table, since you never really know what an ultrarunner’s appetite will call for after so many miles.
This was Northeast Trail Crew at its finest: silly, supportive, welcoming, and passionate in a way that was captivating to witness. It was both absurd and awesome – and that was the point.
I’m thankful that this moment played out during the final race I covered in person this year; it was a perfect lasting memory, and it provided me with some perspective that I occasionally lose sight of when writing about the “racing” part of trail- and ultramarathon running. It’s easy to get caught up in the competitiveness of the race, and sure, that piece is important. But it’s not the be-all and end-all, and it doesn’t even affect most of us in this sport who are middle- and back-of-the-packers.
What I hope to take away from this year’s ultramarathon season is a reminder to celebrate the silliness that makes this sport – and our community – special.
Northeast Trail Crew’s cat-themed aid station went above and beyond what I’ve observed at ultras in recent years, but it was far from the only example of ultra silliness.
The season kicked off with a quesadilla competition at TARC’s To Hale and Back 6-Hour Ultra as Josh Katzman and Patrick Caron made dueling quesadilla flavor competitions and kept a running tally of which was preferred by more runners. Their concoctions, such as adding nacho cheese Doritos to a quesadilla, were crafted in the same spirit as TARC’s legendary aid station treat known as the “Skeptical Jeff.”
Beyond aid station edibles, our community’s creativity sometimes takes a more artistic turn. Look no further than Race Director Amy Rusiecki’s Chesterfield Gorge Ultra, where there’s a designated Bling Station to decorate race bibs, or Carla Halpern’s Village Ultra in New Salem, where runners keep track of the route they’ve run by adding colored beads to a lanyard, and stomp on a “power up” button for added juice to log a few more miles.
Then there’s the Berkshire Ultra Running Community for Service, a club that takes its running seriously and its fundraising efforts for worthy causes even moreso. The BURCS have many loyal runners who take part in every event, either as a runner or volunteer – or in some cases both. One of the BURCS’ most accomplished participants is Wally. He’s 4 years old, has an UltraSignup profile and a few impressive results. He’s also the club’s most notorious smack-talker on social media.
He’s also not real.
Wally Watermelon has been a mainstay at BURCS events since 2019, amassing his mileage by being carried around the course by runners, primarily on the Notchview Ultra and Sweltering Summer loop courses. There’s something truly silly about seeing a runner haul a watermelon during a race, but the result of that effort is serious. Race Director Benn Griffin increases his personal contribution to the race’s beneficiary organization for each lap Wally is carried, and runners seize the opportunity to carry the melon and make an impact. Again, it’s something that’s both absurd and awesome, and everything about it makes me smile.
These are just a few examples that have stood out to me in recent years, but there are so many more examples of silliness that are worthy of celebration. I’m sure you have your favorites, and I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.
As we close out 2022, let’s take some time to reflect on what we love most about the trail- and ultrarunning community, especially the silly stuff that makes for some memorable moments and keeps us coming back for more.
Year eight of local coverage from MassUltra starts next week. I’ll see you on the trails again soon.
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