TURNER — While many outdoor enthusiasts were able to pursue their favorite pastime safely during the coronavirus pandemic last summer, those who compete in ultramarathons were largely out of luck.
Ultramarathon trail races refer to any race longer than a marathon, or 26.22 miles. The most common ultramarathon trail races are between 31 miles (or 50 kilometers) and 250 miles – including the popular 100-mile distance. Few other physical and mental tests of strength and endurance compare.
A small number of ultramarathons were held across the country in 2020, including the Last Man Standing Ultramarathon at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester. But most ultramarathon trail races in New England were canceled last year, including the only two 100-mile trail races in northern New England: the Riverlands 100 at Androscoggin Riverlands State Park and the Vermont 100 in east central Vermont.
So for those who lined up at 5:55 a.m. in Turner for the start of the Riverlands 100 on May 8, it seemed like a long-awaited, joyful reunion among a unique breed of endurance runners. There was laughter, whooping cheers, and smiles beneath masks. Never mind that they soon would be fighting muscle fatigue and sheer exhaustion while navigating rocky and rooted trails – and by headlamp during the middle of the night.
“It’s definitely great to get back. I missed people in this community. It’s a quirky, weird world. It’s definitely a tribe,” said Erik Johnson of Pownal minutes before the race began.
There were 55 runners on the starting line who came to run 100 miles, and another 14 who came to participate on relay teams where runners are required to each run 20 miles.
The Riverlands 100, which is put on by the Trail Monster Running club with assistance from the Turner ATV club, was first held in 2017 and continued as an annual race before it was canceled last year because of the pandemic.
Riverlands 100 race director Valerie Abradi said the draw of ultramarathons – especially those 50 miles or over – is the physical and mental test of trying to conquer a seemingly insurmountable goal in the company of others striving to do the same.
When 35 of the 55 solo runners finished on Sunday morning, many were crying. “And I cried with them,” Abradi said. More than a third of the field dropped out or did not finish by the cut-off time, which was 32 hours.
Abradi has competed in ultramarathons for 15 years, including running through hail during a thunderstorm. At 61, she hopes to attempta grueling 100-kilometer race in the Rockies in Colorado one more time.
“When you put yourself out of your comfort zone, that is when you grow. Even if I don’t finish a race, I grow,” Abradi said. “When you think you’ve been totally broken at Mile 60 in the middle of the night and then you finish, you know what you are capable of overcoming.”
For the chance to race a 100-mile trail race again, a handful of runners traveled to Turner last weekend from as far away as Colorado, New Mexico, even Hawaii.
“This is such a great community. You’ll meet people here today and leave as friends. These are my people,” said Gordon Collins of Poland, who ended up tying for first with Jay Frontierro of Boston, both finishing the course in 21 hours, 44 minutes and 44 seconds.
Collins could not stand going a year without an ultramarathon, so he flew to Oklahoma in February to run the Outlaw 135. He ended up winning the 135-mile trail race.
“Some people dropped out of that race. Some were not ready to travel. But that race set me up well for this,” Collins said before the Riverlands 100. “This is a hard course. It’s deceiving. It seems flat, but it’s rocky and grinds away at you.”
Runners cross a bridge along the course of the Riverlands 100-mile trail race in Turner on May 8. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo
For most of the other runners in the 100-mile foot race in Turner, it was less about competition than about proving their fortitude, defying sleep deprivation, and being able to complete 100 miles while navigating a narrow, rock-strewn trails.
Eric Lundblade of Hebron said he worked out more in the weight room while waiting for ultramarathon trail races to return. There was nothing else that could substitute, he said.
Rae-Anne Nguyen of Casco planned to compete in ultramarathon trail races last year, but they were canceled. She found training to be lonely as a result of the pandemic. She ran on trails with her two dogs and now plans to try a canicross race (where a runner is tethered to a dog). Being at the Riverlands 100, she said, was like a holiday gathering.
For Patrick Beaulieu of Sidney, who spent the past year training on mountains to stay fit for ultramarathons, the Turner race was his first attempt at a 100-mile trail race. He became one of just two runners last weekend to complete a 100-mile race for the first time. Beaulieu finished third, more than an hour ahead of the fourth-place runner, in 21:56:47.
“I tried to set goals for myself last year. But it’s definitely better having an event,” Beaulieu said. “You feel more competition than you can get running alone. I told my wife I would never do a 100-mile race. But then I decided, I had to do one to prove to myself that I can.”