Written, run, and beaten by Marc Almanzan and Thom Gennaro, foreword and editing by Katie Merrill
The Seven Sister’s Trail Race is a 12 mile out-and-back course, that covers gnarly trails and beautiful overlooks through Western, Mass. It also might be one of the most insane races that you’ve never heard of or known anyone who ran it. Among the trail running community, the 7 Sister’s carries with it prestige and awe. Without the frills or amenities of many races these days, the 7 Sister’s pits runners against terrain, challenging them to climb up steep summits, carry their own water, and see just how much their quads and ankles can handle.
The race this year was May 3rd, and two of FHR’s own were brave (crazy?) enough to give it a try. Marc and Thom, our “off-roading” running enthusiasts, headed out west early that Sunday morning. Their cheering committee, Alicia, Adrienne, and me, headed up shortly after, with a dog and picnic in tow.
When we arrived at the starting area, we saw a pack of runners all looking anxious, equipped with fuel belts, and even some hiking poles. When the race finally started it left in waves, which was a necessity considering the steep and narrow trails the runners had ahead of them. Two by two, the runners embarked down the trail, some occasionally hooting like animals, all disappearing into the woods. After all the runners had all departed, Adrienne, Alicia, Mojo, and I decided we would walk some of the trail for some exercise and to get a small taste of what the runners would experience. I don’t think anyone could have prepared us for the trail we saw, however. After entering the woods, turning around a bend, and walking up a small incline, what was essentially a wall of rock greeted us, daring us to climb up it. People were actually running this?! How?....
Only about 15 minutes into our trail hike (note: difficult hike, not run) we saw our first injured runner coming back down the trail towards us. She wouldn’t be the last. The next racer, a rock climber from Colorado, we found coming back towards us about five minutes later. Both had busted ankles. In the end, we hiked to what was the first of many summits, turned around, and came back down to watch the finishers come in. On our way back, we heard the first racer come sailing down the rock façade towards the finish. He looked amazingly agile on the rocks I had to literally scoot down on my bum.
At the bottom of the trail, back in the open sunlight, runners’ families were waiting on blankets and with friends, ready to celebrate their loved one’s return. The three of us set up our picnic and watched in awe (and occasional shock) as racers emerged from the woods. Some were covered in scratches, a few were actually bleeding, all looked like they had seen and done things that amazed even themselves. Red in the face and beat up but not beaten, runners exploded into the sunlight. When Thom and then Marc finally came through the trees, we were over joyed. Seeing they were okay, though sore and tired, we all breathed a sigh of relief and dug into the celebratory feast as we watched the rest of the runners come in. It was an amazing day, full of feats of strength, delicious food, and a grass-rootsy trail running community.
A Runner’s Perspective: 7 Sister’s according to Marc
My alarm was set for 5:10, but due to pre-race excitement I ended up getting out of bed around 4:45. I powered through some coffee and oatmeal and set off to pick up Thom and head west towards the 7 Sisters Trail race.
We arrived around 7:55 for the 9 am start. Athletes of various shapes and sizes were going through their pre-race routines all around the parking lot and surrounding lawns and woods.
The pre-event buzz at trail races is different than at a road race. It is much quieter, but somehow more electric.
After completing some light jogging and stretching, we got ourselves situated and entered the first corral (for those who estimate that they can complete the event in less than 2 hours and 30 minutes.) As we stood around waiting for the race to start I could start to feel the sun, and it felt angry. It was nice to feel some serious warmth after our ridiculous winter, but all knew it was going to be a sweaty, thirsty affair.
And, they’re off!
The first few hundred meters are runnable, but the ground quickly rose to an absurd incline that forced all to power hike. On this first real ascent I learned there was a little bit of gamesmanship involved, as intrepid climbers/scramblers could take a wide berth around fellow runners and rack up some quick “kills.” I liked this method, and I probably passed a solid number of people on this first climb.
I got a kick out looking at all the people, crushing this first section.
After this first aggressive uphill it levels out enough to be runnable, so the runners quickly transition from goats to gazelles and the pack mercifully thins out.
For a good long while I ran behind a brazen trail runner who was wearing a very minimal looking pair of Vibram style shoes. He started continuing a conversation with me, calling me by a stranger’s name. I said, “Who?” He replied, “Oh, I thought you were my buddy, so & so.” To which I replied, “I ain’t got no friends.” He laughed and said, “Well, you have one now.”
But, at this point I wasn’t able to talk very much so I kept up my fake tough guy façade without much effort.
At one point around mile two there is a great section where you have to hand over hand scramble up a cliff face that reminded me of the game Q-Bert. I made a mental note that this had the potential to be very dangerous on dead legs on the return trip.
Soon after this point Thom caught up with us and, with his ample lung capacity, was able to casually strike up a conversation with Vibram man, who turned out to be Jason. Jason gave some good tips about running the course and what X time at the halfway point projects to be for the complete round trip. Reason being, the course descends a solid amount to the lowest section of the entire race at the exact turnaround point, and the real race starts at mile 6.
We still had a ways to go to get there, so the three of us stayed fairly close and ran much of the next two miles in close proximity. These miles running behind Thom and Jason were the highlight of the race for me. I could have coasted like this forever. The trail was mostly runnable, while still being extremely interesting, and every now and then you would be treated to wonderful views of the flat lands surrounding the 7 sisters.
We encountered the leaders of the race about a quarter mile from the turnaround, maybe a little more. The leader looked great, as comfortable as I have ever seen someone winning a race look. He was smiling, effortless, and in his element. On the other hand, the third placed runner looked awful, quite red, laboring, but still keeping close on the lead runners’ heels.
Hitting the turn-around was a mixed blessing. There was an amazing aid station with all kinds of treats that I would have enjoyed greatly had I not been racing. I had a small cup of blue, and a small cup of yellow Gatorade. Foolishly, I didn’t ask them to refill my half empty handheld water bottle, even after they asked, “Are you sure?” I definitely regretted that choice later.
With zero fanfare, we were back off into the woods again, only this time, starting at the lowest (elevation) point on the course, with nowhere to go but up over the next mile. At this point, Thom sped off, and I quickly passed Jason on the first or second climb. I began to run into tons of other runners, we exchanged congrats, and keep it ups, and other brief words of encouragement, even a high five or two.
The course began to get to me.
The technical downhill sections that were so fun and fast to run down with reckless abandon on the “out,” became brutal uphill slogs, full of lactic accumulation on the “back.” I really don’t remember the downhill sections being so steep on the way out, so it was a bit surprising how brutal they felt on the way back.
There were points of steep inclines that I had to actually stop walking just to let my heart settle down and let my legs cool out. A large part of this was physical, but what might have been a bigger component was the mental aspect of being a little afraid that my legs wouldn’t be as nimble on the various steep descents at various points on the return trip. I wanted to make sure to ration my strength properly so I didn’t find my legs going to putty (or a cramp) at a dangerous section on the course.
The next few miles were a bit of personal hell, but I was able to keep it up and keep going, only getting passed by a few, while also passing a few people.
About a mile from the finish a woman who I had run behind for the first half mile of the race, but had passed, passed me. I was a little peeved because I had been a few minutes ahead of her at the turnaround. Nonetheless, I used it as a motivator and made up my mind to stay with or beat her. It was a fun challenge to keep me engaged and motivated for the last 10 minutes of the race. I ran about 10 feet behind her at a comfortably fast pace for the last downhill sections of the course. As we hit the last descent and home stretch before the last turn we both picked up the pace. Another fellow who had been hot on my tail did a double pass, hitting the last section with reckless abandon. I was content to run it in behind the two of them, having zero of the MUST SPRINT TO FINISH mentality that I usually have in races. Either way, I finished only 1 second behind her (3rd place woman) with a solid push to the end, feeling strong.
It was great to here Katie cheering me in, as well as Alicia and Adrienne. After I recuperated for a few minutes I made my way back over to the picnic blanket spread that the ladies had set up and promptly drank a bottle of water and a beer. We relaxed, watching and cheering in the other crazy runners.
It was an amazing day, and I hope we can all go back in 2016 to give the 7 Sisters an even better show.
A Runner’s Perspective: 7 Sister’s according to Thom
I prepared as best as I could; I committed to the trails. I ran in the Middlesex Fells Reservation on most Sundays – even when snowshoes were needed. On weekdays, I raced down the front face of Peter’s hill in the Arboretum, and I climbed up the backside often. I read race reports, looked at elevation maps, and talked to anyone with experience on the trails. You see – I did everything one could do, short of course, of experiencing the race itself.
I had never experienced a trail quite like 7 Sisters. Despite all of my preparation, I learned something on those trails in Amherst.
The start of the race is a set of long narrow corrals extending down the side of a service road. Each was set to start just a few minutes after the previous corral. The wave start was designed to mitigate congestion on the single-track trail. The horn sounded a few minutes after 9 AM, and we made our way onto the course. The first few steps are deceptively easy; the dirt trail was fairly wide with few rocks and roots. About a tenth of a mile in the trail turns right and… up.
The field thins out on the first climb. This is where I lost Marc. Until this point runners were ordered in two single file lines. Marc’s line moved faster than mine, and I was stuck back in traffic. I decided that it wasn’t worth the expending the energy so early on to catch him. The first climb is roughly equivalent to ascending the front dirt face of Peter’s Hill continuously 5 times, if Peter’s Hill had sections where the grade approached 35% and was covered in loose basalt rock. (In fact, according to Strava, Peter’s Hill approaches 20%). It just wasn’t the sort of place to try to go around the competition to get in a better position.
Over the next three miles the trail alternated between steep ascents and precipitous descents. Running was impossible in many places. So I power hiked many of the ups. Descending was really an exercise in extreme concentration. Short rapid steps and fast turnover were methods not of propelling you forward, but for harnessing gravity.
I finally caught back up to Marc around three miles into the 12 or so mile race (no one really knows how long the course is, GPS units are not accurate along the ridge). I asked him if he missed me, and he affirmed and questioned what took me so long to get back up to him. We latched onto a runner and continued toward the turnaround.
For first time runners on this course, it’s advisable to find a Sherpa to guide you and temper your efforts. Our Sherpa was a gentleman named Jason. He had run the course several times before and was familiar with the trail. He advised us to take it easy until the turnaround, “Save your quads” for the penultimate decent on the return trip. He also encouraged us to fuel at the house – a building centrally located on the ridge serving hikers on the trail.
The sun was brutally hot. There were five aid stations on the course. Four of the stations were self-serve gallon containers of water placed on the course. The turnaround featured a full spread of Gatorade, water, coke, and a variety of food stuffs. I elected to carry about 15 oz of water with me as well as a Cliff Bar Ginger Beat pouch, a salted watermelon flavored GU, and six electrolyte tablets.
Note: Had the course been less supported I would have carried more water – at least 30 oz., but I would probably opt for 1.5 L carried in a race vest or pack. At 35 minutes in I took two electrolyte tablets with some water.
When we arrived at the house, I took Jason’s advice and opened the Cliff pouch. My hope was that despite the heat, my preemptive fueling and the additional electrolytes might help keep my legs from cramping.
After the house, the course descends all the way to the turnaround. Jason cautioned us to not take the decent to hard or we would pay for it on the way back. This turned out to be sage advice – many runners seemed to suffer immensely on the way back.
We expected to see the leaders shortly after the house, but we didn’t see them until about a quarter mile from the turnaround. This is shocking – I expected to be much more than a half a mile back on the leaders by this point. However, upon reflection this makes sense; what separates the leaders is their ability to sustain their pace throughout the whole race. Most of the 20 or so minutes that the leader put on me happened on the return trip. It’s like the second half of a marathon: the size of the positive split heavily determines what kind of day you are having.
Marc, Jason, and I made it to the turnaround. I filled my bottle, downed a cup of Gatorade, and started back up the climb. Marc was on my heals, and Sherpa Jason was still leading. We continued this way for another 10 minutes, before I went around Jason and told him I was going to open up a bit and see what happens (he could drag my body out of the forest if he came across it on his way back).
I passed a few people on the climb back up to the house. I took the last of my Cliff pouch there, and popped another two electrolyte tablets while taking in the view. I felt best at this point – maybe it was the pristine view of the valley from this spot on the ridge. The vistas alone make every step of this race worth it. So with four miles to go I decided that it was as good a time as any to try to run hard.
I came down the backside of the knob I had just ascended to the house with a head full of steam. Runners still on their trip out to the turnaround politely gave way on the narrow paths and cheered me on. Running fast on trails is simultaneously fun and terrifying. I kept reminding myself to keep my feet up, and to watch my posture; balance was paramount.
I picked up about 10 to 15 places before starting to wear down on the climbs. At this point, my quads were screaming, and the salt from my sweat was getting into my eyes. I had about two miles to go, which I knew featured the reverse of the initial loose basalt stone climb, as well as the decent over one ledge that required a brief period of hand-over-hand to pass. Spectators at the summits kept me going (or made me jealous: one group of guys had hammocks, a few beers, and a campfire).
Somewhere in the last mile I made a wrong turn. The trail had been well marked with hot pink tape ties to trees and routes along the course. In my exuberance, I powered right by an obvious turn and ended up in a big group of bushes. Fortunately, I was not far from the correct trail, and I made it back on course within a few min. Unfortunately, this was enough time for two runners I had passed to catch up. Still, I welcomed the company as we moved toward the top of the final summit and prepared for the decent to the finish.
I fell back slightly. I tried to match them over the boulders and loose stone on that final decent, but I was too tentative. Our speed increased and I held on as best as I could. About half way down, I gave up the idea of being able to stop – the motion I was currently engaged in was just some advanced type of falling. Surprisingly, I made it to the bottom unscathed, and did my best to kick for the last 50 meters.
On very few occasions over the course of 12 miles was this race about two or more runners trying to propel themselves faster than the other(s). The camaraderie was palpable. The environment set the limits far more than any athlete, and only those most in tune with the ridge were able to race full speed. As it was, the ridge coaxed more than a few runners into submission (about 10% DNF).
The fire chief, Tim Nelson, was called and orchestrated the extraction of one runner on the back of an ATV. Another runner apparently defied his orders and completed the race while extremely dehydrated. Thankfully, I had made good decisions as part of my prep.
Despite my preparation, I learned a lot from the Seven Sisters. I learned about the value of patience. Pacing is about holding a speed, cadence, or heart rate; patience while running is about letting the environment and race come back to you when it’s ready. I learned about camaraderie. Racing is about achieving both personal and shared goals (perhaps a platitude at this point); you cannot make it to those personal goals without a guide – I really don’t know what kind of shape I would have been in without Jason’s advice. Finally, I learned that no matter how far I’ve gone or how many different places I have had the privilege to run in, there is always another surprising and beautiful place to explore.
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