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Madness in the woods

  • Lance Somero and Elizabeth McGurk head into the finish line after one of the ten-mile loops they ran in the New Ipswich woods Saturday as part of a backyard mini-ultra-marathon. Photo by Lauren Somero

  • Photo by Lauren Somero—

  • Runners during New Ipswich’s backyard mini-ultra-marathon on Saturday. Photo by Lauren Somero

  • The Valhalla Running Club hosted a backyard mini-ultra-marathon over the weekend. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The Valhalla Running Club hosted a backyard mini-ultra-marathon over the weekend. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The Valhalla Running Club hosted a backyard mini-ultra-marathon over the weekend. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Mike Smith goes over the rules of the mini-ultra-marathon. Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • The Valhalla Running Club hosted a backyard mini-ultra-marathon over the weekend. Staff photo by Ben Conant—



Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Monday, August 14, 2017 7:23PM

Just after midnight, in the early hours of Sunday morning, two runners emerged from the New Ipswich woods. Running through the rain, lit by lightning, the pair crossed the finish line in Mike Smith’s backyard — the only two runners out of 19 entrants to complete the Barkley’s Baby Ultra Marathon.

Inspired by the Barkley Marathons, an annual 100-mile race through the wilderness of Tennessee, Smith’s Valhalla Running Club organized a scaled-down, 50-mile version, starting and ending in his backyard.
“I’ve put on a lot of races but I’ve never done anything like this,” Smith said Friday night, as competitors gathered to review the course map and hear the rules.

The course — a ten-mile loop to be completed five times in a 30-hour window — included a little pavement and a few trails, but there were plenty of twists among the turns. Runners had to visit ten checkpoints, returning with a page torn out of a book left at each spot. One could stick to the trails and find each checkpoint, but that would extend the ten miles; the shortest distance between the points necessitated bushwhacking off-trail.

And, there were some obstacles. Smith’s daughter Amelia lent her name to the treacherous “Mayhem Melia’s Death Drop.” The details of the “Cavity Search” will remain with those who encountered it. And Mascenic runners have likely all experienced a trek through “Little AZ” or over the “Log Jam.”

One of the Mascenic vets to take on the challenge was Elizabeth McGurk, who was a state champion as a Viking and has run marathons, but never anything like this 50 miles of forest. Stamina aside, McGurk’s biggest fear was getting lost — even on those familiar trails, she said she’s been lost countless times, and Smith chided her to go find the pair of glasses she lost out there in 2009.

“I don’t want to be rescued by anybody, that’s a fairly good goal for me,” McGurk said.

Nonetheless, McGurk was considered as one of the most likely to complete the race, even as she acknowledged how “crazy” it was to take it on.

“I’m going to treat these like individual ten-mile runs,” she said. “I’ve never dropped out of a race before ... I might just literally drop in the woods somewhere.”

Her segmented approach was just one of many ways runners girded themselves for the undertaking. Lance Somero, who’d run a 50K (31-mile) race in the past, said it was all about deciding how far you were going to run that day, and running it.

“I think whatever you're mentally prepared for is what you can do,” Somero said.

Others came out only expecting do one lap, like Tom McGurk, Elizabeth’s uncle, who flew out from Seattle for the occasion, looking for a chance to run with his niece and get a little of the Mike Smith experience.

“I've been hearing about him for years,” Tom said. “He's legendary all the way across the country.”

And Mascenic alum Tristan Kazo? He was just hoping everyone else would get lost so he could win.

Nineteen runners took off at 8 a.m. on Saturday morning. By the time three laps were complete, only McGurk, Somero and Jon McInerney were left. And when Somero had to drop out with an injured foot, only the final two remained as they headed out into the New Ipswich night together.

“Running around the woods in the dark is not something I think anybody here has ever done,” Smith said. “It seems unlikely that someone will ever finish.”

To his surprise and delight, they returned, the first two ever to complete New Ipswich’s most treacherous, prestigious — and only — ultra-marathon.