Josh Billings RunAground 2019: Allen Heights Veterinary repeats as champion during action-packed event
This story has been updated to correctly identify the team that broke the SUP Team time record
LENOX — After two weeks in the hospital this summer, Tom Keefe was just happy to be in a canoe with his buddy on a Sunday morning.
His teammates at the 43rd Josh Billings RunAground, however, were out there to win.
Allen Heights Veterinary repeated as Josh champions for the fourth-straight year on Sunday. The team of cyclist Josh Lipka, paddlers Ben Pigott and Keefe, and runner Steve Monsulick tackled the triathlon in 2 hours, 17 minutes and 35 seconds.
The time was two minutes off the course record, set by Allen Heights in 2017, but that mattered little to Keefe.
"I'm just glad I can race. I was really sick this summer and missed most of the summer of training," he said. "Thank God I had good teammates, I just relied on them."
The quartet managed to distance themselves from the field, with second-place The Boss's Maine-ly Mass-iv Men (AJ Piper, Kevin Boss, Dave Vandorpe and Shawn Rumery) finishing second in 2:29:14. Minkler Ins I (Chuck Leach, Tim Minkler, Gary Quadrozzi, Mark Rabasco), Note Those Guys (Damon LeCompte, John Berry, Matt King, Mike Zani) and SPIN SPLASH SPRINT (Phil Warner, Steve Fagin, Tom Fagin, Anthony Guarino) rounded out the top five on the day. According to the race results, 375 teams finished the race.
"We know what we need to do," said Pigott of the well-oiled machine. "I'd say we know exactly what we need to do, where to be, when to be, how to do it, and what those times need to be."
Lipka got things started with a dynamite ride from Great Barrington to the Stockbridge Bowl boat ramp, a route he has become intimately familiar with over the years.
"I grew up here, moved away a couple years ago, but I've probably done this course hundreds of times," he said. "The pavement this year was super good. When you're riding you're looking for that smoothest part to keep the speed."
At the end of his 27-mile ride, he fired the relay wristband to Keefe without breaking pace.
"That wristband came by me so fast. I butterfingers'd it," Keefe noted about the one hiccup in their transition. While Keefe had to track down Lipka's projectile, he and Pigott were on the water with a more-than six-minute advantage on the first pack of cyclists.
With the pair of canoeists churning up a wake in Stockbridge Bowl with a healthy lead, Lipka turned and headed to the next transition point to give Monsulick an update.
Monsulick was the first runner across last year, but took a different path with the altered course. Back on familiar ground this September, the veteran distance runner didn't miss a beat.
"This course I'm just used to more. It's a little more pleasant, too. This course is tough, but it doesn't beat you up like last year," he said. "You can cruise the first three miles, and then know you've got to work hard the rest of the way. That last mile is tough, though. It always is, doesn't matter how fit you are, it's going to hurt."
The quick update from Lipka to Monsulick is largely the only communication opportunity Allen Heights has on race day. Much of the work in building a now four-peat champion comes over the summer.
"There is a fair amount of communication between us, me coming in and saying what I think I can do and they come back with their thoughts," said Lipka, who saw Monsulick at a wedding earlier in the summer.
"He looked fit," Monsulick noted of the cyclist. "Everyone just kind of takes care of themselves. We're all friends, we like the idea of racing as a team. It's not something you get to do very often."
That friendship doesn't come without it's ribbing. Camaraderie and competition go hand in hand.
"No one want to be the slow person in the group, so it's a little bit of competition between the team," said Monsulick.
That includes within the confines of boat.
"We're on a text thread, and honestly we are mostly just rip on each other," joked Keefe. "It's strange how it works."
"We bust on each other, get each other mad. It's motivation," added Pigott.
MADE OF IRON
Defending ironman champion Kent Lemme was a late signup for the 2019 Josh Billings. He spent much of the summer resting and healing up from an injury and hadn't been able to train at his regular clip.
"My foot has been hurt, I haven't been running much. And when I'm not running much, I'm not doing anything much," he said. "At the last minute I just said I'm going to go do it, and whatever happens, happens. I'm not going to worry about it."
Lemme relied on experience more than training, and still had enough in his tank to place 10th overall and claim a fifth consecutive Ironman title.
"The bike went better than expected, the paddle I guess went pretty well, and I made it through the run," noted a shrugging Lemme after finishing the RunAground in 2:38:33.
"I was telling everybody I was relying on muscle memory, because it certainly wasn't training. It's what we tell our clients [at Berkshire Running Center], I just had to run, one foot in front of the other. I didn't look at my watch once. Just kept driving."
Lemme bested runner-up Art Sanders, who finished in 2:44:54.
The Ironwoman competition was considerably more fierce, with three athletes finishing within 25 seconds of each other.
Martha Berrouard clocked in as the champion in 3:24:11, with Lara Denmark in second in 3:24:30 holding off Nicolette Enhorning-Picto (3:24:36).
"Today was great. I knocked two minutes off on the bike and I stayed in a pack. I felt like I was flying in the boat," said Denmark, who competes as team Ironmom. "The run I felt dead, but then a man came up behind me at the very beginning and asked to run together. He saved my run, I probably would've been four minutes slower."
VIXENS OF VERMONT
The competition for the top all-female team at this year's Josh was stiff, but boiled down to a pair of trios dueling it out over the competition's three stages.
The Vermont Vixens ultimately overcame last year's victors It's All About the T-Shirt to claim their own crown and mug.
The original Vixens — Oonah McHugh-Dillon and Andrea Vogl — found runner Katharine Kimball through the Josh's matchmaker and the three have become fast friends, literally. Kimball crossed the Tanglewood finish line in 2:59.53, good for 55th overall. T-Shirt, which features Kathy Kimpane, Andrea Goodman and Kim Gero were 78th in 3:06.49.
Kimball's husband's family is full of Josh veterans who "have been doing this for 30 years and they have a team so the night before there is a big dinner," she said. "The key is apple pie from Vermont."
"We all get to carbo-load together," joked McHugh-Dillon, a recent retiree who said she hit the bike hard this summer to get ready.
"There's a woman I know, Kathy [Kimpane], she's from around here and she's a super good cyclist, so I'm always trying to look for her. Last year they beat us," she said. "They're our motivation to work hard."
The transition to Vogl wasn't incredibly smooth, with McHugh-Dillon taking a spill at the bike finish, but once on the water, Vogl flew.
"The water was spectacular this year, and I was keeping an eye out on [Goodman] so I could hopefully hand off to Kate with a little bit of a lead."
That second transition, however, was compared to a Tom Brady pass, and Kimball was off to the races for a six-minute win.
As the sport of standup paddleboarding grows in popularity, a series of records may continue falling at The Josh.
That was again the case on Sunday, as two of the three SUP categories saw record-breaking performances.
The team you doin the josh?, with Jonathan Molk on bicycle, Timothy Hudyncia on SUP and Joel Pekoz running, finished sixth overall, and their time of 2:41.50 set a new team paddleboard record, breaking the mark set in 2017 by Will Dugan and Patty Spector by just under three minutes.
Meanwhile, Becky Cushing returned on a board borrowed from Spector, the race's director, and set about one-upping herself.
"My goal was to narrow the gap between the men's and women's record. Still a ways to go, but the bike was solid. It was windy on the Bowl, but there was such an awesome energy out on the water today," said Cushing. "So many people were yelling 'way to go, SUP' and stuff. It was awesome."
Cushing set the Ironwoman paddleboard mark in 2016, but racing under team name For the Birds this year, she re-set The Josh recordbooks with a 3:25:41 outing.
"Patty started doing it, and she's a friend and just said we should start doing it together," said Cushing, who picked up SUP in 2015. "I did my first Josh as an Ironwoman in this beater kayak, so I knew I needed to get something new. I love it."
Men's Ironman paddleboard record-holder Logan Wilson of Relentless Forward Progress again won his category in 3:02:52, but was out-paced by himself from 2016 (2:52:24).
ARE YOU KIDNEYING ME
Robert Gyurjan raced in The Josh again this year, and while the team name changed, his cause for competing has not.
Gyurjan has lived with Focal Segmental Glomerulosclerosis, a disease that causes kidney-breakdown, for 10 years. He is fundraising for the organization Champions for Nephcure and Nephcure Kidney International as a part of Countdown to a Cure - Boston.
Gyurjan paddled along with biker Joshua Nealy and runner Maryrose Williams to 181st place on Sunday. His website, www.TeamRUK.com is still accepting donations through Sept. 28.
THE FAMILY THAT JOSH'S TOGETHER
The Josh is a family affair from within the teams to aid crews to uniform-clad cheering sections.
Team Just Dooley It, featuring the father-daughter duo of Mike and Tara Dooley tucked in a top-10 finish on Sunday, with runner Tara passing under the arch in 2:37:57.
"I used to canoe with him, but I moved to Boston and couldn't train with him," said Tara, who has been doing The Josh for 13 years with her dad. "But we keep in touch and I know the days he is going out biking with friends and I know when he'll be coming in for the transfer."
The two flew through the course and were the first tin team (two-person) to finish.
"Today was a great day. Weather was awesome on the bike. The wind picked up now, but when I was out on the water it was smooth," said Mike, who bikes and paddles for the team. "It's a tradition until I can't do it anymore."
"I always just assume I'm running it," added Tara.
Likewise it was a good day for the expanding Ray family.
Longtime Josh competitor Steve Ray filled out his 2019 team with his son Steven and his new daughter-in-law Kate. Steven and Kate were married earlier this spring.
"He's done it a lot, but then stopped for while until I picked it up with some friends and he got back into it, so I decided to do it with my father," said the younger Steven. "[Kate] wanted to join and we've been doing this for three years."
The trio had their best finish on Sunday, placing 16th overall in 2:43.26. Steven started off the race and got himself into the first pack, before handing off to his dad.
"They're intimidating teammates," joked Kate. "I tried to bust my butt."
The younger Ray found out after The Josh four years ago that he was diagnosed with cancer, but never let that keep him off the bike each September. He's been in remission for three years.
"It was literally the next week after The Josh, I said I need to go to the doctor," he said. "I didn't miss the next one, though. It was like a six-month ordeal."
The elder Ray competed in 18 RunAgrounds during the early years of The Josh, before stepping away for a time. Now, he can't see not coming back together at the end of each summer for another trip around south Berkshire County.
"Being able to come out here and win a mug with your kid," he said. "Nothing better than that."
Mike Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @CLNS_Walsh on Twitter and 413-496-6240.
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