2018 The North Face Endurance Challenge Massachusetts

Yesterday, Debbie ran the 50 mile trail race at The North Face Endurance Challenge Massachusetts. The event was at Wachusett Mountain Ski Area in Princeton. That area is an old stomping ground for me. The mountain always played a central role in the Fitchburg Longsjo Classic when it was a stage race. I raced the four-day event in 1992, 1993, 1995, 1996, and 1998. It’s been 20 years since I was last on those roads and there are no blog posts to look back on and reminisce!

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The trails of north-central Massachusetts also have something to offer. This is a lovely part of the state, and Wachusett, at 2,005 feet, is the tallest mountain in Massachusetts east of the Connecticut River. That isn’t a major distinction, but the mountain’s proximity to Boston makes for a nice place to visit (hike and ski) and attracted a lot of trail runners this weekend.

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The North Face events are some of the biggest and most highly produced on the ultrarunning calendar. As Debbie put it, they have a “big money marketing bucket” to tap when promoting these races, and it shows. We are not a stranger to The North Face events. She did the Bear Mountain (New York) version of this race in 2008 and 2011. Amazingly, that 2008 edition was before our daughter was born! The series has grown since then, and in addition to New York and Massachusetts, makes stops in Washington D.C., Wisconsin, and California. However, the format has remained consistent, and the two-day events feature a wide range of distances races including: 50 mile, 50 kilometer, marathon, half-marathon, 10 kilometer, and 5 kilometer. They also do a marathon relay.

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The three longest races were on Saturday and had overlapping courses. The 50 mile course was pretty hilly, but still very runable. Debbie’s Suunto GPS registered 8,000 feet of elevation gain, which is modest for the 50 mile distance. The course consisted of a loop on the resort side of Mountain Road with two ascents of Mt. Wachusett within the DCR Wachusett Mountain Reservation, and then multiple loops on the opposite side of the road that included sections of the Mid State Trail in Leominster State Forest. She said the trails were a mix of singletrack and fire roads. She said the footing was tricky in spots and that overall, it was challenging, but not too hard. This race first launched in 2017, and we heard that the original course was more difficult with four ascents of Wachusett, and the cutoff times were too tight; resulting in a very high number of DNF’s.

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It appears that they made some adjustments for 2018 that worked. It looks like 117 runners finished the 50 miler out of about 154 starters, which is a normal attrition rate. The 50K had 176 finishers, and the marathon 86 finishers. There were 44 relay teams. I surmise that the shorter races on Sunday will attract even more runners.

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It was close to home (90 minute drive), was only a minor objective for Debbie, and it isn’t an iconic race; but she still wanted to try it. Over the last 20 years, I’ve only missed one or two of her races. I didn’t want to miss this one, but I couldn’t follow her all day long. Life is busier than ever and our kids have their own schedules too.

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So, she drove up on Friday afternoon and stayed with our old Team Horst Sports teammate and friend, Will Kirousis, and his family, in Leominster. They were great hosts. Will is a coach and runs Tri-Hard Endurance Sports Coaching. He grew up in Hubbardston and knows the roads and trails in that part of the state like the back of his hand. On Saturday morning, I had a bunch of “chores” to do at home, including “balancing” three months worth of checkbooks, looking after the kids, taking Dahlia to soccer, and handing Shepard off to family friends who he was spending the day/night with.

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When the soccer match ended at 12:45 P.M., Dahlia and I drove straight to Wachusett. We were hoping to catch Debbie at the last aid station, at mile 44.9 at the Rt. 31 crossing. We got there in time, but I consulted the race “Bible” and it said no spectators or crews were allowed at that checkpoint. So, we went straight to the start/finish area, scouted it, and then found a quiet spot in the shade, a little ways up the trail. We waited about 90 minutes for her to arrive. That was fun because we saw a lot of runners finish and had fun cheering for them. The weather was perfect for a June day. It was sunny and warm, but not too hot.

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We saw all of the top 50 mile women. They were bunched closely together. I had an idea that the race was tight, because I had been tracking them on the live results throughout the day. I knew that Debbie was running well, but that her pace had faltered a bit in the second half. She had slowed a bit when she reached Leominster State Forest when her average pace crept above 13 minutes/mile, but I was hoping she would rally and finish strong. It was fun to watch the top six women arrive within 40 minutes.

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Katelyn Tocci took the win. She was followed by a surging Karen Benway only three minutes back. Then, it was Stacia Broderick another three minutes back, then Kehr Davis, Krista Rynkowski, and then Debbie. Karen had a fantastic race. She has battled with Debbie in the past, notably at the 2012 Vermont 100. Kehr had an off-day. Debbie chatted with her during the race and we both chatted with her after. She said her legs were empty, which was too bad since she crushed it at the Mt. Tammany 10 (38 miler) back in March and looked to be on fine form. I’m sure she will be back at the top again soon. She is one of the best trail runners in New England and has been running consistently fast for many years.

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Debbie was in fifth for most of the day, but Krista caught her with about 12 miles to go, and then held her off. Debbie was joined by Pedro Grullon for the last few miles, and he helped motivate her to run hard at the end. She met one goal by breaking 11 hours, finishing 10:58:58, good for 25h overall. She finished as the third 40-44 year old behind Stacia and Kehr. Karen is also 40+, but technically in the 45-49 age group. All four are mothers and keep running well in their masters years.

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On the men’s side, the top three 50 milers were: Alexander Jinks, Bryan Kerl, and Victor Zuniga. The start/finish area outside the base lodge had a festival like atmosphere with refreshments, a pop-up store, ample space to hang out, and a variety of other entertainment options. It was great to see our old friend, Paul Young. Debbie got a chance to run with him. We spent a lot of time with Paul in the early 2000’s when all of us were alive participants in the New England Grand Tree Trail Running races. We also saw Fred Hawran, Curt Pandiscio, and Jack Pilla.

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Jack showed up in my 2011 The North Face Bear Mountain blog post too! He is one of the strongest masters runners in New England.

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Jack also did Hardrock in 2017 and is prominent in that write up too.

 

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Considering that I hadn’t been to Wachusett in ages, I brought a bicycle with me. In the early 1990’s, when I lived in Boston, I would frequently drive out to train on the quiet roads. I would ride multiple laps of the Wachusett Road Race course, or I would do multiple ascents of the access road to the top of the mountain.

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Debbie and Dahlia hung out at the race a little longer. Then, for old times sake, I did one lap of the old course and then rode the classic finish up the “one way” route on the access road climb to the summit. The roads were in good shape. The lovely “downtown” Princeton climb brought back good memories, and then the views from the summit were spectacular. It took me an hour to cover 14 miles or so, and then I packed up and drove home.

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Next weekend, we will be at the tallest mountain in Massachusetts, Mt. Greylock, for the Greylock Trail Race, race number seven in the 2018 New England Grand Tree Trail Running Series.

Race Results

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