WESTWOOD, Mass. – When the Trail Animals gathered at Hale Reservation in early February, it was an unforgettably frigid affair as a historic cold snap plunged temperatures well below zero for the TARCtic Frozen Yeti. Seven weeks later, the Trail Animals returned to Hale on Saturday, March 25, for the sixth running of the club’s To Hale and Back 6-Hour Ultra, and the runners encountered a completely different experience.
The trails were soft, not frozen. The temperature was well above zero, in the mid-30s at the start with a high in the low 40s by early afternoon. Though rain was in the forecast, a light dusting of sleet was all that dropped. Several runners wore shorts and shortsleeves, and a number of folks were ready to run fast and work up a sweat without fear of hypothermia.
It was a good day to set big goals and go after them, and that’s exactly what Dan Grip, Jade Bihua Zhang and Gwenyth Taradash did. All three runners entered the race with ambitious objectives, and all three ultimately delivered big-time performances.
For Grip, this day was a long time coming. He first ran To Hale and Back in 2018 and finished 25.6 miles, placing 21st overall. At the time he had completed just two ultras and done most of his trail racing at shorter distances. Eight months later, Grip earned his first ultra victory when he completed 34.1 miles at the TARCkey Trot 6-Hour Ultra. Since then, he has been on a tear, either winning or finishing on the podium of nearly every trail race he has taken on, including as the runner-up at the Midstate Massive Ultra-Trail 100-miler in October 2022 and the the Race for DFL Last Person Standing event in November 2022 when he logged 120.8 miles.
All the while, To Hale and Back has weighed on his mind and been on his radar.
“There were two races when I started doing ultras where my first attempts just destroyed me; this was one of them,” Grip said with a chuckle. “I was trying to do this one again for years. In 2018 I totally sucked, and then in 2019 I was registered and I got the flu right before it, and then I was registered in the covid year (2020, when the race was canceled). And then it was sold out last year, so it’s been a while that I’ve been trying to get on this.”
Grip made sure his second crack at Hale was worth the wait. He ran aggressively on the 3.5-mile loop course and its rolling, winding, occasionally technical singletrack trails. He had the course record on his mind, knowing that to achieve it would mean running sub-30-minute laps to complete 12 loops within the time limit. Even matching the course record of 11 loops would put him in the company of New England standouts Patrick Caron (2016), Joe McConaughy (2016), Eric Ahern (2016), Kyle Bergemann (2019) and Brian Burke (2019), who pushed hard on the sneaky-tough course.
“I totally went into it thinking 12 laps was the record and it was within my reach,” Grip said. “I went at it trying to build about a half-hour buffer.”
Grip pushed hard from the start. He ran with Adam Ribeiro for the first lap, with the pair finishing together in 27 minutes. Ben Schersten followed 90 seconds later, followed by Michael Sage 3 ½ minutes back. Grip and Ribeiro stayed in close contact for much of lap two before Grip slowly inched ahead and built a 1-minute lead while completing the loop in just under 27 minutes. From there, he continued to open it up with more 28- and 29-minute loops. Grip completed his seventh loop in 30 minutes flat, giving him 24 ½ miles in 3:18:45. He was still on record pace.
“I probably had an 11-minute buffer (on course-record pace),” Grip said. “And then it just slowly went away.”
Grip finished in eighth lap in 31:53 and his ninth in 35:02.
“The light is gone from my stride,” he said while making his way along the Noanet Pond shoreline early in his 10th loop.
It was during that loop that Grip realized his legs didn’t have 12 laps in them, but he would definitely get 11 and tie the course record. That’s exactly what he did. After finishing his 10th loop in 37:36, he cruised through his final trip around the course in just under 40 minutes and secured the overall win with 11 loops for 38.5 miles in 5:43:15. While relaxing shortly after finishing, Grip seemed satisfied with his effort.
“I think the pace I came out at was really good for a 50K,” he said. “It would’ve been a great 50K pace.”
After sticking with Grip for the first lap, Ribeiro stood firm in second place for the remainder of the day and finished second overall with 10 laps for 35 miles in 5:46:50. Evren Gunduz steadily climbed his way through the top 10 throughout the day and finished third overall with 35 miles in 5:53:45. Sage was fourth with 35 miles in 5:55:35, and Schersten rounded out the top five with nine laps and 31.5 miles in 5:20:35. Additional 31.5-mile finishers were Victor Pereira in 5:22:33, Brian Okum in 5:31:15, and David Catarius in 5:51:06.
While Grip seized control early in the men’s race, the women’s winner was in doubt throughout the day as both Zhang and Taradash turned in impressive performances. Both finished nine laps for 31.5 miles apiece and tied for the second-best mileage efforts by women in event history.
Neither Zhang or Taradash had their sights set on each other as both ran their own races, enjoying some solo miles as well as a few loops with friends. For the first few hours it looked like Taradash would run away with the win as she pushed hard and amassed a nearly eight-minute lead by the end of her fourth loop (14 miles).
“My goal was eight loops,” she said. “I wanted to do a half marathon and a marathon in one week. That was my goal, and I prepared for it for the past few months.”
Taradash completed the first phase of that ambitious goal the previous Sunday, March 19, when she hustled to a speedy 1:35:43 finish at the New Bedford Half Marathon. The pep in her legs during the first half of her race at Hale eventually dissipated as the magnitude of her busy week caught up to her and fatigue set in.
Meanwhile Zhang was busy rattling off nearly perfect splits. She ran each of her first three loops between 37:20 and 37:40. After a 39:09 fourth loop, Zhang clicked off loop times of 37:03, 36:57 and 37:23 to erase the deficit and quietly move into the lead by the 24.5-mile mark. A hand-timing error missed Zhang’s second loop until after the event was over, so nobody knew a lead change had taken place. The post-race correction was verified by GPS data.
Once in front, Zhang pulled away with a 40:17 eighth loop and a 43:25 final loop, giving her 31.5 miles and the win in 5:46:35.
As Zhang recovered, friends were on edge as they waited to see if Taradash would finish her ninth loop within the time limit. She had battled through leg cramps and completed her eighth loop with 5:13:33 expired, leaving a narrow window of time to attempt to squeeze in one last lap.
“Eight laps was my goal, and nine laps was my reach goal,” Taradash said. “I did lap eight with Justin (Deane), Mat (Ridley) and Danny (Gorelik), and they said I had to go out for another one. I had enough time, so I’m glad I did it.”
Urged on by her friends, Taradash went after her big goal. She fought through fatigue and cramps while navigating the loop one last time. Cheers rang out from the crowd at Powisset Lodge as Taradash emerged atop the final hill, less than a tenth of a mile from the finish with the clock ticking closer to the 6-hour mark. She trotted down the hill, back up the last rocky incline and across the finish line to a roar of applause. She made it with two minutes to spare, finishing her 31.5-mile effort in 5:57:58.
“I don’t think I’ve ever tried so hard in my life as on that last lap,” she said with a grin. “I was just looking at the clock and trying not to fall because my legs were getting heavy.”
Both Zhang and Taradash matched Claire Gadrow (2016), Issy Nielson (2016) and Mindy Lipsitz (2019) for second place on the women’s course record board. Only Elise DeRoo has done more, completing 10 laps for 35 miles and the overall win in 2017.
Crystal Ross rounded out the women’s podium with eight loops and 28.0 miles in 5:26:10. Maria Chevalier and Carolyn Stocker ran the entire way together and finished fourth and fifth with 28.0 miles apiece in 5:46:44 and 5:46:48, respectively.
Of the 110 runners who took part in the 6-hour race, 28 completed eight or more loops for ultramarathon mileage and 10 ran at least 9 loops for a 50K or beyond.
Caron, Sedlak, Hume Take Top Honors in “Heavy” 5K Race
In addition to the 6-hour event, another 36 runners took part in a one-loop race. Of that group, 35 ultimately finished the 3.5-mile “heavy” 5K. Nobody hammered the course harder than Patrick Caron. The 25-year-old from Needham, Mass., threw down a speedy performance on the winding singletrack trails and set a new men’s course record with his winning mark of 21:47. Joseph Sedlak, 31, of Boston, Mass., was a distant second in 27:18, and 43-year-old Pete Mustonen of Framingham, Mass., rounded out the men’s podium in 29:37. Kent Hirshberg, 46, of Westwood, Mass., followed in 30:59.
In the women’s field, 25-year-old Mary Sedlak of Boston, Mass., dominated the race and cruised to victory in 29:25, nearly three minutes ahead of her closest competitor. Her time also earned her third place overall, as well as the second-fastest finish by a woman in course history, trailing Jullien Flynn’s winning mark of 28:13 from 2022. Emma Seevak, 24, of Brookline, Mass., was the women’s runner-up in 32:10, followed by 34-year-old Erin Colleran of Westwood, Mass., in 34:37.
Maxwell Hume, 35, of Dedham, Mass., finished 10th overall and was the nonbinary category winner in 34:40.
Up Next for the TARC Trail Series
The Trail Animals’ 2023 season is starting to heat up. April will be a busy month with the annual “Don’t Run Boston” 50K and 50-mile ultras on Sunday, April 16, at the Blue Hills Reservation in Milton, followed by the TARC Spring Classic on Saturday, April 22, at the Jericho Woods in Weston. The Spring Classic offers 50K, marathon, half marathon and 10K distances. The event is sold out with 370 runners entered among the four distances.