Forged in Florida: Chance Meeting Sets Stage for Showdown at Frozen Yeti

WESTWOOD, Mass. – Gordon Collins knows the questions that are about to come his way. He hasn’t been prepped for the interview or told what he’ll be asked in advance. But come on, how could he not anticipate being asked about the most obvious detail about the TARCtic Frozen Yeti 30-Hour Ultra?

“People have started to refer to me as the Jim Cantore of racing,” Collins says with a chuckle. “When I show up, bad weather follows. This week was no surprise that bad weather was there.”

Collins admits he’s not particularly fond of the nickname, though he also admits it seems to fit. When he won the Outlaw 135-miler in Oklahoma in February 2021, the course was blanketed in snow and the temperature hovered near zero. When he attempted the Bighorn 100-miler in June 2022, Wyoming was inundated with flooding. A month prior to Bighorn, he was at the Riverlands 100 in Maine supporting runners on a day where the temperature surged into the 90s.

Runners were bundled up in masks and ski goggles to protect from the sub-zero temperatures and bitter wind chill at the start of the 2023 TARCtic Frozen Yeti 30-Hour Ultra. Photo by Chris Wristen/MassUltra

All of that is to say Collins wasn’t at all surprised by the -9-degrees Fahrenheit temperature and -28 wind chill at the start of the Frozen Yeti on Saturday, Feb. 4, at Hale Reservation. The cold was certainly a big deal; it gave runners a story they’ll never forget, and it merited being taken very seriously with proper gear, plenty of layers and a steady supply of nutrition. But the cold isn’t something new to Collins. He lives in Poland, Maine, and it was colder there than at Hale Reservation, so in a way he came to the Frozen Yeti to warm up – if only by a couple degrees.

So sure, Collins will happily talk about the gnarly weather on Saturday and the wild swing to a much warmer, pleasant Sunday in the 40s by the race’s conclusion. But there’s another story – a more personal story – that Collins is eager to share.

“We can talk about how cold it was, the ins and outs of the race and all that stuff,” Collins says. “We can talk about that if you want, but to me the story is something else.”

He wants to talk about a guy named Brian.

A Late-Night Encounter in Florida

It had been dark for several hours. How many hours? It was hard to say. The gushing rain made it feel like an eternity. Either way, Gordon Collins was growing restless and needed to stretch his legs a bit before the action picked up.

It was well after midnight on Sunday, Feb. 1, 2020. Collins was volunteering at the mile 88 aid station of the inaugural – and only – running of the Wild Florida 120-mile race. The point-to-point course took runners on a journey along the Florida National Scenic Trail, starting in Okeechobee and heading north through wildlands and wildlife management areas to St. Cloud, just a bit south of Orlando. The frontrunners had yet to arrive, and who knew when they’d show up on this soggy night.

“It had been raining sideways all night, and everyone was bored,” Collins recounted. “I decided to go for a walk. I went about two miles up the road and I ran into Brian coming out of the woods. He had seen things in the night that nobody up our way should ever see. There were snakes out there; the armadillos are surprisingly loud, and a whole lot more. He came through and was cool as a cucumber.”

Brian Burke had been running solo for hours, during which time he’d barely seen another soul outside of aid stations. He was thrilled to come across Collins at this unexpected spot in the Florida wilderness and welcomed the company. Together they ran the two miles back to Collins’ aid station, chatting all the way.

“I told him, ‘You should come up my way for a race sometime,” Collins recalled. “He said, ‘Where’s your way?’”

When Collins answered Maine, Burke’s face lit up; he lived in nearby Massachusetts. He was the only New Englander in the Wild Florida field. What were the odds that this late-night meeting would happen? Though they would soon part ways and Burke would go on to finish second overall in 24:02:46, it wasn’t the last he and Collins would see of each other.

“He invited me up to his running community,” Burke recalled. “I went up there and raced with them later that year.”

Burke made the trip to Maine in mid-September 2020 to meet Collins’ Trail Monsters crew and run the Firebird 50K.

“He came up and just blistered the course,” said Collins, who finished fifth on a day Burke set the course record. “He’s just naturally fast at the 50K distance.”

Following Firebird, they stayed in touch via social media and cheered on each other’s efforts on Strava, but more than two years passed before their paths crossed again. Both ran the G.A.C. Fat Ass 50K on Jan. 7, 2023, in Topsfield, Mass., with Burke finishing second and Collins sixth. The pair enjoyed the brief reunion at the low-key event and shared a post-race brew while catching up.

A longer reunion would soon follow.

A Race Three Years in the Making

Burke swore he’d never again run the TARCtic Frozen Yeti. He made the race his first 100-miler in 2019 – the event’s inaugural year – and vowed that he’d be one-and-done at the unpredictable winter race.

But here he was four years later, standing at the Frozen Yeti starting line for a second time.

In the time between appearances, he ran a few other races of 100 miles and beyond, including the Wild Florida 120 and in more recent years several Backyard Ultra last person standing events. In October 2022 he finished second at Bubba’s Backyard Ultra in New Hampshire for the second straight year, completing 143.5 miles, and then in November he won the Race for DFL in Winchendon, Mass., securing his victory after 125 miles.

When he glanced at the Frozen Yeti entrants’ list, Burke saw two names that caught his attention: four-time Bubba’s Backyard Ultra champion Ed Clifford (who ultimately wouldn’t start), and Gordon Collins. That was enough enticement for Burke to sign up and start getting excited for another Frozen Yeti experience.

“This is such a quirky race. It’s a cult classic almost; there’s nothing like it,” Burke would later say. “It is a New England, deep-winter ultra. I think the 30-hour format is primed for a comeback. Backyard ultras have gotten to the point where the people are taking these things to crazy hours right now, and I like the idea of this where it’s 30 hours, self-contained. That’s a lot of running, but there’s an end to it, so to go into this knowing it wasn’t going to go until Monday night or something, I thought ‘OK, I can get involved in that.

Gordon Collins of Poland, Maine, sported one of the best ice beards of the Frozen Yeti early in the race while the temperature was still below zero. Photo by Chris Wristen/MassUltra

“And …,” he added with a laugh, “enough years had passed that I forgot how brutal this course is.”

The course was unchanged from years prior, but the 2023 edition featured some additional brutality as a bitter cold snap engulfed New England beginning the day before the race and continuing into race weekend. As he stepped to the starting line, Burke was nearly unrecognizable from four years earlier, his face covered in a ski mask and his eyes shielded by glasses to block the wind.

Collins was also bundled up at the start, though he felt more dialed in with his gear since Maine had experienced a more typically cold winter than Massachusetts.

Both runners were eager for their face-off to begin.

“This race here has been essentially three years in the making,” Collins said, referencing their first meeting on the same weekend three years earlier in Florida. “I can’t go toe-to-toe with Brian on 50Ks; I’m not Brian quick. I knew someday he and I would be on a 100-mile course, and that’s my wheelhouse. I can do 100 miles no problem; the distance does not bother me.”

Despite the wild weather, both runners expected to go 100 miles or beyond, and both brought plenty of gear to accommodate Saturday’s historic cold and Sunday’s warm-up.

“Having been here before, I knew the setup here. I knew we were going to have our bins; I knew we were going to have access (to the lodge) every 5 miles, and like most people who do these things I had a lot of gear that I needed a reason to use,” Burke said. “My worry was on both ends. It was that there might be people who would be completely unprepared to be here and brought just a windbreaker, and on the other end there’d be people like me or a Gordon Collins who probably don’t know when to quit, who wouldn’t know when to stop.”

Gamesmanship and Gratitude

Collins wasted no time moving to the front of the pack. He established an early lead and steadily built a cushion on Burke and the rest of the field during the initial pass through the approximately 15-mile course’s three mini-loops labeled Red, White and Blue.

Burke lost some ground early as his initial layers made him too sweaty, forcing an extended stop in the lodge to ditch his damp shirt for a dry one. The wardrobe change helped, but it didn’t solve all of his problems.

“The bigger issue was when I started having all of these wet buffs,” Burke said. “I sent out a text, and I was like, ‘Bring all the buffs. I need an arsenal,’ because they were freezing on my face. I was molding them into masks and they were freezing on my face. I was like, this isn’t going to be sustainable because I intended to be here for 30 hours.”

Brian Burke on his way to victory at the 2023 TARCtic Frozen Yeti 30-Hour Ultra. Burke ran 110 miles and set an event record for distance covered. Photo by Chris Wristen/MassUltra.

Meanwhile, Collins spent much of his Saturday with his beard coated in ice, but his clothing selections were flawless and worked to his advantage.

“I’ll be honest with you, I wasn’t cold all weekend,” Collins said. “My gear selection was perfect; I nailed it on every possible aspect to prepare for this.”

Collins was the first runner through 15 miles, covering the distance in less than three hours. Burke was the second runner to complete a pass through the course, 21 minutes behind Collins.

Collins was still comfortably ahead at the 20-mile mark when he finished his second Red loop, but a missed turn on the White loop sent Collins off-course, causing him to run two extra miles while Burke silently slipped into the lead.

When Burke checked in at Powissett Lodge after completing his second White and Blue loops, he discovered he was the first runner to reach 30 miles. Collins arrived 16 minutes later, now in second despite never seeing Burke. The gap remained the same for the next 10 miles, at which point darkness began to settle over Hale Reservation and the runners remaining on the course were guided by headlamps.

Over the next 11 hours and 40 miles, the gap between Burke and Collins barely budged. Burke increased his advantage by a minute or two per mile, perhaps the effect of longer aid station stops than pace of movement. 

All the while, neither Burke nor Collins saw each other, but they were constantly on edge about the other’s presence, looking over their shoulders, peering through the woods for signs of movement or a distant headlamp, and scanning their surroundings for any sight of each other while passing in and out of Powissett Lodge. They were always close, but never made contact.

“We had such a battle, and we never spoke because we never saw each other,” Collins reflected. “But we were so in each other’s heads.”

Burke hit his lowest point after 65 miles and had to fend off thoughts of stopping. He allowed himself a few moments to mull the idea and let the emotions pass before turning to soak in the community around him and help him refocus.

“I hit around the 100K mark and I came in (to the lodge),” Burke recounted. “I don’t know what my problem was, but I was thinking, ‘Why do you do this? Why continue this when there’s so many hours left?’

“I came in and there were a bunch of familiar faces. Maybe the night (15-mile) race had just concluded. Some people were just milling about and it was fun to just check in with everybody, get some hot soup … and I was like, ‘Oh, this is why I do this, too.’ It’s Saturday night and we’re all hanging out in this nice lodge and it’s timber frame. It’s a pretty good place to be in the middle of the woods with this quirky event going on, and we’ve all come here and it doesn’t have to be explained that yeah, I’m into this. It sounds like a good weekend to me.”

A cup of soup and some community gave Burke the boost he needed to head back into the cold, dark night and continue on.

At 4:29 a.m., Collins stepped into the lodge with 80 miles on his legs and a 58-minute deficit on Burke. Collins headed to his car to take a power nap before resuming. Minutes after he crawled into his car, Burke stepped into the lodge and closed out mile 85.

Two hours later the sun was up, the temperature was in the 30s and creeping toward the 40s, and Burke’s legs weren’t cooperating. His power hike was strong, but his legs weren’t cooperative when he tried to run. Collins’ power nap gave him a burst of energy, and he was chipping into Burke’s lead. What grew to a gap of nearly two hours had been whittled to 1:19, but Burke was a full mini-loop ahead and time was running out on Collins’ rally. Burke finished his 95th mile just four minutes after Collins concluded mile 90. A lap later, they arrived together at 9:32 a.m., Burke reaching the 100-mile mark in 25 1/2 hours and Collins at 95.

Brian Burke heads for the finish line at the end of his 110-mile journey at the 2023 TARCtic Frozen Yeti 30-Hour Ultra. Photo by Chris Wristen/MassUltra

Burke was the first to leave the lodge for another loop. Collins followed a minute later, and as he headed to the trail he saw Burke standing there.

“He waited for me,” Collins said, a rush of energy filling his voice as he recounted the moment. “He waited for me, and we walked the whole loop together.”

They spent the entire loop analyzing the race, talking strategy and connecting the dots.

“Gordon and I had a back-and-forth thing going for a while, and the funny thing is we never saw each other,” Burke said. “We were aware of where each other were, and only on his last lap did we share a lap together so we went out for his 100-mile lap and we both just sort of broke down the race from our perspectives and how we were countering each other’s moves, ‘when you did this I did that; when you fired up your headlamp I turned mine off,’ just the gamesmanship of it.

“It was good to have him down here. We were both expecting a race, a good effort, and it was fun to see someone I know play that game really well.”

Burke went on to complete one more loop, setting a Frozen Yeti record of 110 miles completed in the 30-hour race. Collins finished with 100 miles – a rare feat for any runner at the winter event.

For Collins, the race was memorable for many reasons, but the final lap with his friend is what he’ll always cherish about the experience.

“That last loop we talked and we laughed and we laughed,” he said. “We were so in step with each other the whole time and we never even knew it. It was probably one of the best 5-mile loops I’ve ever had. To get to just break down an in-race situation with one of your greatest inspirations and fiercest competitors … Just to have that moment was incredible. It was three years in the making, and a really good way to finish that race off.”


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