Last Updated on October 24, 2019 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
The psychology of suffering is a fascinating topic. The idea that people willingly sign up for physical and mental pain is incredible; the idea that they may actually enjoy the suffering even more unbelievable. Everyone has their own reasons behind their desire to hurt, to push their body past perceived normal limitations. I’m not exactly sure when or how I fell into this category of human beings, but here I am. I remember a day when I would make excuses to get out of such discomfort. These days, I seem to thrive on it.
Last year, Geoff and I signed up for what was seemingly a regular trail (almost) half marathon called the 7 Sisters Trail Race. In reality, it was more than a trail race, it was a total sufferfest. 12 miles of grueling, steep inclines and declines on incredibly technical trail. For comparison purposes: my half marathon time that year? 1:40. My seven sisters time that year? 3:58. An out and back race covering over 3,700 feet in elevation gain EACH direction,7 Sisters is ranked the “Hardest Up/Down Race” by Runner’s World. I had no idea such a treacherous trail was hiding amid these “hills” of Western Massachusetts. In fact, no one knows, until they set foot on those trails themselves.
7 Sisters physically hurt more than any race had ever hurt before. And yet, when word of the race popped back up on our radar this year, we could not wait to go back. When I stumbled upon someone giving away their race entry, I jumped on it (thanks again, Mark!) and informed Geoff that we were in. It didn’t immediately occur to me as I emailed the race director the information regarding bib transfer that the race was in less than one week. We hadn’t been training for such an event; my longest run as of late has only been about 4 miles. But we were in.
Bring on the hurt.
Sunday morning we showed up to the race start in Amherst, MA on already fatigued legs, as we had just spent the day prior running across the beach at BoldrDash. We met up with a handful of friends and teammates, some of which had tackled the sisters before, others who were hopeful first timers.
This year, 7 Sisters was included as a part of the 2014 La Sportiva Mountain Cup , and you could sense the difference already. There was an air of serious trail competition. We were given an entire race packet, and not just a bib, upon check in. This year would be timed with chips and we were separated into corrals for wave starts.
We hit up the ridiculously long port-a-potty line pre race (unavoidable), and then headed into the last corral of the day. Though I was seeded in the 3:30 or faster corral (#3 I believe), Geoff was a race day sign up so he was automatically put into the last corral (#5). A friendly volunteer tried to convince me to move up to #3, but I assured her it didn’t matter to me if I was towards the back.
After all, I remembered that first hill.
I was in a surprisingly awesome place mentally. The weather was ominous, with black clouds rolling in, wind, and the occasional rain droplet, but I had packed layers and was warm and prepared (for once). I had zero expectations of my performance that morning. I knew how hard the sisters were, I knew this wasn’t going to be a walk in the park, I knew I wasn’t trained (enough) for this race, and yet I welcomed all of it. I was not only ready for, but looking forward to entering that place where your body screams at you to stop, but your mind takes over and keeps you moving forward. This would be great training. Another notch in my wanna-be-mountain-goat belt. So when our corral was told to go, I went forward with a smile on my face.
The corral seeding alleviated some of the congestion we experienced the year before, but didn’t completely solve the problem. The first hour of the race was spent yelling “passing on your left” to other runners, and yielding to the right when others would do the same. There were quite a few more racers this year than last, and I could tell by simple trail etiquette (or lack thereof) towards the back of the pack that many were beginners: running two abreast on a very narrow trail, not moving to the right when someone is clearly breathing down your neck , or simply not heeding to the “on your left” call at all. I gave them the benefit of the doubt though, just showing up to that race is commendable. That said, I felt horrible for the people slipping all over the trail in the first half mile in their no-tread-cross training sneakers. Sure fire sign of the fact that they had no idea what they were up against. (For the record, I chose my Salomon FellRaisers, and they were awesome.)
I managed to mess up my GPS once again, so I had no reading of distance, only time elapsed since the start. This was fine by me, since my biggest concern was nutrition. A Margarita Clif Shot Blok *every 20 minutes and a Hammer Nutrition Endurolyte *every hour was my plan, and I was able to stick to it pretty well. Around what I’m guessing was mile two the crowd thinned out enough that I was really able to take off. For once I left Geoff in the dust, not because he was slower but because he got stuck behind a crowd. Passing was not always a viable option, so sometimes falling into the pace of the crowd was your only option. I, on the other hand, had my bossy shorts on and had no problem loudly requesting “passing on your left when possible!” every time I needed to.
For the record, the trail was impeccability marked, kudos to the race directors!
My legs were heavy and tired already, but I felt genuinely good otherwise. The forest was eerily quiet, other than the occasional sound of a runner. A storm was most definitely brewing and the birds and other wildlife were clearly hunkered down and waiting. I made a comment to Geoff about how I was genuinely going to miss this when we moved South…the mountains, the forest, the awesome freeing feeling that comes with barreling across a trail.
Being my third time on this trail (we had come out late last summer for a hike) I had a general idea of where we were in the race despite my lack of GPS. The front runner passed us about an hour in on their way towards the finish line, and as we approached the 1.5 hour mark, countless more passed in the opposite direction. I yielded to each one as they came by, stepping off the trail to let them pass, which significantly put a dent in my own time. But I clearly wasn’t racing so I was happy to do so…and besides, it’s the right thing to do. Plus, if you take a look at the elevation chart above, you’ll notice that the mile (plus) to the turn around aid station is completely downhill. Thus, I felt freaking fantastic, and sympathized for everyone who passed in the opposite direction with looks of pain in their face. They deserved the right of way.
We reached the turnaround in 1:38, and arrived to the most fantastic spread I’ve ever seen at a trail race (or perhaps any race for that matter!) I had joked for the past week that the best part about this race were the cookies at the aid station, but this year they outdid themselves. A friendly volunteer filled my hydration pack for me while I shoveled orange slices in my mouth.
While we weren’t “racing” per-se, Geoff and I both not-so-secretly wanted to beat last years time, even if it was by mere seconds. So we agreed to not waste time at the aid station, and instead fueled, adjusted our packs, and got right back on the trail.
Immediately my “I feel awesome” status disappeared. Granted, we went from a downhill run, to cookies, to an immediate climb, but I still hit a wall and I hit it hard. Thankfully, if I’ve learned one thing during my 7 (ack) year running career, it’s to recognize a bonk. I immediately pulled out my Clif Bloks and shoved two more in my mouth, chugged a good bit of water, and popped another endurolyte. Slowly but surely, it worked, and I picked my pace back up.
The second half of the Sisters is far more brutal than the first. Sure, it’s the exact same trail in reverse, but now you know what you are up against…and it’s climbing. To keep my head in the game I told myself that I would not let more than a net total of 10 people pass me on the return trip. For every person I passed, I could subtract one that passed me. I felt my body starting to give out, and knew it was only a matter of time before those who had better paced themselves started to catch up to me. We made it through that first brutal climb on the return trip (the one I had so much fun running down) and Geoff suggested that we start running on the brief stretches of flat. And by “suggest” I mean he just took off: my option was follow or be left in the dust. So I ran.
Running at this stage in the game is interesting. Your legs are so tired that you have to remind yourself to really pick your feet up off the ground: shuffling will only lead to falling on a rock or root (I fell no short of 3 times last year). Yet despite the need for caution, really sprawling your legs out and running feels so good, it’s relief from all of the climbing. Like playing Roulette on the trail; I ran. It was here that I started passing people. One after another after another. After I eventually passed 15 people, with no one passing me, I stopped counting.
I may not be fast, but I was doing something right.
The second half of the race was somewhat of a blur. I most definitely entered the “one foot in front of the other” survival stage, but I relished that phase. It hurt, and I couldn’t help but think of how much I love that. How I love that my body is capable of such things, and how lucky I am to have such strength. The very last climb was when I finally entered that immense world of hurt. I willed myself 50 forward steps before I could stop and rest. Then the 50 became 20. The 20 became 5. My legs were hurting, but my hips were locking up,and this was a new pain to me. However, I knew how close we were to the finish so I kept pushing. For the first time during the race, I looked at my watch and let myself acknowledge the fact that we may actually beat last years time. While I had vowed to not get crazy competitive with myself, this little bit of information was exactly what I needed to push through the pain that was creeping in and keep moving forward at a decent pace.
Eventually we reached the very last summit: it was all downhill to the finish line.
While this sounds like a fantastic way to finish this race, the reality is that this last downhill is completely covered in loose shale and basalt rock; one wrong move and you will likely require a cast and a ton of stitches. It is, in my opinion, the most dangerous part of the race, not simply because of the terrain, but because of the exhaustion and excitement that the finish line is so near. It would be far too easy to make a mistake at this point. Geoff and I both slipped a couple of times, with the heart stopping “holy crap that was close” exclamations. Eventually we reached the bottom, and the last 100 (ish) yard flat trail to the finish line. As we heard the crowd cheering just on the other side of the tree line, Geoff said to me “don’t you dare take off without me!” I certainly wasn’t planning on it, and was then shocked when he started sprinting. I told him my legs simply didn’t have that, and for once they didn’t. I almost always find that finish line push, but it just wasn’t there. In fact, that last 100 (ish) yards may have indeed been the most painful part of the entire 12 miles.
As we neared the finish line I heard a yell from my friend John P. who had come out to cheer us on. He took this this finish line picture. if that face doesn’t scream “this sucks!” then I don’t know what does.
I knew a PR for this course was ours, and I hit the GPS stop button the second I reached the timing mat.
Official results: 3:42:10. (293 out of 433 finishers) That’s 16 minutes off of last years time. I high fived Geoff, exclaimed some sort of sailor-esque “holy sh*t that was horrible!” and immediately crashed for this picture. I was wearing a Blerch shirt after all, it was necessary.
There are no finishers medals, no finishers anything at this race, and to be quite honest, there doesn’t need to be. 7 Sisters is one of those races that you leave taking away far more than any physical object could ever begin to represent (locked up leg muscles being just one of those things). I love this race. I love those evil sisters, and I’m so glad the we had the opportunity to tackle them once again.
For more information on the 7 Sisters trail race, please check out their website: www.7sisterstrailrace.com
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Heather Hart is an ACSM certified Exercise Physiologist, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), UESCA certified Ultrarunning Coach, RRCA certified Running Coach, co-founder of Hart Strength and Endurance Coaching, and creator of this site, Relentless Forward Commotion. She is a mom of two teen boys, and has been running and racing distances of 5K to 100+ miles for over a decade. Heather has been writing and encouraging others to find a love for fitness and movement since 2009.