“It’s gnarly, rocky, rooty, it’s got lots of small ups and downs to rack up the vertical without a major climb, and it’s got some incredible views that make it all worth it. It’s the type of running where you’ve gotta pay attention or else you faceplant!”
– Amy Rusiecki, Race Director
The Seven Sisters Trail Race (SSTR) in Western Massachusetts, which snakes along the ridge-line of the rocky, rooty, and gnarly Holyoke Range, is that very quintessential New England trail race in which Rusiecki speaks of. Put into simpler terms by four-time race champion, Matt Lipsey, “It’s really punchy!”
There was much more colorful commentary I heard along the trail during the race – which I will not repeat here – but I must admit that it was quality entertainment when it was delivered in the form of a thick Eastern New England accent (think Casey Affleck in the Dunkin’ Donuts SNL skit).
SSTR celebrated its 30th year of existence on a cool, windy and cloudy Saturday morning, May 7, 2022. It was a big celebration and a huge relief for race director and 2009 race champion, Amy Rusiecki. A huge relief because the race was last contested on May 4, 2019. Rusiecki was very eager to distribute finisher awards, saying, “The finisher mugs we hand out actually arrived at my house about three days into COVID, back in 2020. So, they have been a constant reminder of two years of not being able to host the race (although we lucked out that we didn’t put a date on the mugs!).”
Not only did the global pandemic affect income from the race, it burdened her financially in other ways, one being in the form of awards storage. Rusiecki said, “Handing them out this year, after storing them for two years, was amazing.”
The ripples of the pandemic lapped onto the banks of the race’s non-profit partners, as well. Rusiecki added, “In terms of finances, the two-year hiatus certainly affected income, which means it affected the donation that the race typically gives to our charity partner, the Friends of the Mt. Holyoke Range.” The SSTR has donated over $100,000 to the Friends of the Mt. Holyoke Range since the race’s inception in 1991. For its part in history, the Friends group was instrumental in taking the race from pre-GPS, pre-Strava, self-directed running challenge — where runners would keep track of their own times and write them on a piece of paper on the wall of the local running store — to a full-fledged, organized trail race on the land the they helped to purchase and preserve.
The 12-mile course – marked by white blazes – follows a section of the Metacomet – Monadnock trail, more commonly known as the “M&M” trail, along Massachusetts’ Holyoke Range. The M&M trail makes up 108 miles that runs North to South through the entire length of Massachusetts–of which 17 miles extends into New Hampshire–and shares the trail with the 225-mile New England Trail.
The race starts on a benign, flat section of single track trail, but quickly serves up the first of many steep, craggy basalt climbs, followed by a descent, necessitating hands on rocks or the ground to safely negotiate the trail. The vernacular that is most often thrown around to describe the course is “punchy.” Once you get past the unforgiving footing of sharks teeth and ankle breakers, to the high point of the course — Mt. Holyoke Summit, elevation 942 feet — the trail opens up to the lush scenic views of the Pioneer River Valley and panoramas as far as Vermont to the north and Connecticut to the south. To reach its apex, the course climbs a flight of uniform stairs to the mountain house, where runners run across the deck and are able to take their eyes off their feet for a few seconds to take in the views before jumping back onto craggy rocks of the M&M Trail. “You crash down the other side then you turn right around and climb back up. Running the trail is akin to running a lot of uneven stairs,” Lipsey tells me.
The ever-exuberant Lipsey (Marysville, PA), who is the undefeated, four-time race winner and goes by his alter ego on social media, “Matthias Lipshitz,” posted the fifth fastest time (1:45:04) ever run on the course, behind the top-four marks of course record holder, Paul Low. Lipsey described the trail as having, “Lots of rocks, lots of technical stuff…it’s a prehistoric, post-volcanic basalt, some sandstone, some quartzite conglomerate.” He went on to use the common course descriptor when he said the course contains, “Steep punchy stuff, the climbs aren’t too long but they are steep.”
If a race participant is able to take their eyes off the trail for a second, they will be astounded by the geological rock formations that make up the course. Lipsey excitedly adds, “The basalt columns are really unique, they’re octagonal and pentagonal pillars…they look really cool!”
Although Lipsey has not lost at SSTR in the past 6 years, the two year disruption, due to the Coronavirus pandemic, allowed him to remain undefeated. This doesn’t mean he didn’t face other challenges during the hiatus. In fact, he faced the biggest challenge of his life in August 2020. It started with an unexplained lack of grip strength, and eventually led to the inability to grip a fork to feed himself under his own power. After many months of doctors and no answers, he was finally diagnosed with Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyradiculoneuropathy (CIDP), a rare type of autoimmune disorder where the body attacks its own tissues, in particular the myelin sheaths that insulate and protect the nerves.
“It feels so good to come back, from sitting on a chair for 4 months last year and getting myself figured out and getting healthy again,” Lipsey says. “The doctors told me I wasn’t ever going to be 100% again, but I feel like I’m 110% now. When I came back, I had to reinvent all my muscles.”
In the rare moments he is not cracking jokes or discussing his theory of the “Halfpipe Earth,” he appears enlightened from the ordeal. “I’m older now, I run a little smarter, I don’t try to kill it the entire way, I strategize things. I feel like I’m older, wiser, and somehow stronger.”
[PRO TIP: Read about Lipsey’s comeback.]
Women’s race winner in 2:15:08, Carmen Bango (Sharon, VT), a research assistant in psychology at Dartmouth College, was a first-time SSTR participant who attended school at nearby Williams College, so she was familiar with the rocky, rooty terrain of the trails in the region. “It was still very unexpected as I didn’t look too closely at the elevation profile,” she said after rethinking her strategy only a mile into the race.
Even though the trail was much more aggressive than she had anticipated, Bango enjoyed her first experience on the course, stating, “It was fun to run on the way back, with so many people still running the other way, everyone was cheering for each other was really an amazing environment, so that definitely kept me going. Such a supportive environment!”
When asked about what she thought of the course, Bango told me, “I am stronger on the climbs and I really need to work on technical downhills. That was the hardest part for me, how technical the race was.” She rolled her ankle on a rocky, technical section and a man she was running with stopped to help her to her feet. He stayed with her to make sure she was able to continue running. Her synopsis of the race: “It was wild!”
In its 30 years, SSTR has seen many elite mountain and trail runners grace its starting line, and a considerable number of past members of US Mountain Running Teams, including two-time winner and current course record holder, Nikki Kimball (2001-2:01:56, 2003-2:00:08*), five-time champion and current men’s course record holder, Paul Low (2002-1:43:14, 2003-1:45:27, 2004-1:44:10, 2006-1:42:06*, 2007-1:42:29), Megan Kimmel (2014-2:05:40), Andy Ames (1995-1:49:40), Ryan Woods (2014-1:54:03), Kelli Lusk (2003-2:11:25, 2004-2:22:00, 2006-2:15:41), Matt Byrne (2014-2:10:12), Amber Reece-Young (2014-2:24:59), Ben Nephew (2000-2:04:50, 2001-1:52:58, 2002-1:51:31, 2003-1:52:57, 2004-1:52:21, 2005-1:53:52, 2006-1:52:03, 2008-1:50:29, 2009-1:48:18, 2010-1:51:24), Kevin Tilton (2009-1:51:20), Dave Dunham (1991-1:50:21, 2006-2:07:00), Josh Ferenc (2008-1:47:14), and even the race director herself, Amy Rusiecki, formerly Amy Lane (2009-2:15:13).
And, yes, Ben Nephew raced and won many, many times! Here is what he had to say about the 2001 race.
Past race participant and former US Mountain Running Team member, Kevin Tilton, described the race like this: “Imagine the toughest trail you’ve ever run, but now you have to race on it.” Another past US Mountain Running Team member and 2014 SSTR Champion – the second fastest woman ever to run the course – Megan Kimmel likened the course to a bike pump track, saying, “Super pumpy. I remember my quads doubling in size after that race!”
Lipsey tells me a story about one past participant who was on the return route in the second half of the race and came upon the most iconic basalt slab section of the course, with a drop off measuring 7 feet high. He was forced to wait for four fellow racers climbing up the craggy basalt from the other direction. With no patience to wait the 10 seconds for them to clear the route, he just took a flying leap off basalt precipice, and over the heads of the four people, landing on the unforgiving terrain below…and continued on his way to the finish line. He couldn’t tell me who the impatient runner was, nor what year this evasive maneuver occurred. He just told me that he heard the story in a bar the night before the race, so it may just be an SSTR urban legend.
An actual race legend – and current men’s course record holder – Paul Low, told me that there were three main reasons he focused, invested in, and still holds a fondness for SSTR.
- “It was local.” He resided in Belchertown, MA – a neighboring town – in the early 2000s and lived without a vehicle and so he supported the local races out of necessity. He could train on the course, however, he rarely saw the entire course in one session because it was an hour-long run each way to and from Belchertown.
- “It was a grassroots event.” From the race’s humble beginning — where runners would self-report their times on a sheet of paper tacked to the wall of the local running store — and volunteers taking over as race director to keep the race afloat, the race has always been supported by the community. SSTR continues to be supported in the way of advocacy and financial donations.
- “The challenge.” Low believes SSTR is one of the most difficult and technical races not only in New England, but also the country.
His secret: fell running in the UK. While Low studied abroad in England, he cut his teeth at the various off-trail, sometimes very muddy, sometimes very rocky, treacherous and downright dangerous terrain that fell running offered. “If you have never done fell running, it’s f*cking hard!” When Paul Low drops the f-bomb, you know he’s serious.
For his first attempt at SSTR in 2002, Low, who holds a PhD in Geology, attended a gathering at a friend’s house in Amherst and camped in the woods the night before the race. He had invested a lot of time and effort into training on the trail, sacrificed a comfortable night’s sleep in order to get to the start line, and basically put all his geodes into one basket—as geologists do—so he hoped for a favorable outcome. He crossed the finish line first in a new course record time and felt a huge sense of relief.
With his training and racing in the fells of England, Low was confident that there was no one in the US who could beat him on the technical, rocky, rooty terrain of SSTR, however, he knew of a handful of British fell runners who could challenge him – had they been present – based on their technical running ability. “It wasn’t that I thought I was the fastest runner, I just knew I had the experience to run faster than anyone else on that specific terrain.”
He went on to win the race on every occasion where he showed up at the start line–2003, 2004, 2006, 2007–setting the course record of 1:42:06 in 2006 and monopolizing the top-five times run. That is until this year when Lipsey cracked into the fifth spot with a 1:45:04.
With the long-awaited return of SSTR, Bango’s rediscovered knowledge of the technical footing she ran during her college years, Rusiecki getting back to her passion for race directing, the reinvention of Lipsey’s health and continuation of his win streak, along with the numerous return of eager runners to in-person events, life appears to be getting back to normal. It allows for many more faceplants on the gnarly, rocky, rooty, and basalt-laden path of the M&M trail, which geologist Paul Low insists, has been very patiently waiting for 200 million years.
2022 Top-3 Women
- Carmen Bango – 2:15:08
- Bonnie Lathrop – 2:17:11
- Colleen Chase – 2:19:06
2022 Top-3 Men
- Matt Lipsey – 1:45:04
- Daniel Grip – 1:48:58
- Liam Cregan – 1:52:12
Full race results: https://aratrace.com/7-sisters-trail-race-4/