Last Updated on May 5, 2015 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
I’m not sure what, if anything, is wrong with those of us that seek out the pain of extreme endurance events. Is it our way of dealing with painful situations from the past? Is it a way to compensate for some sort of void in our lives? Is it punishment for some sort of wrong doing that plagues our subconscious? Or perhaps there is nothing wrong with us at all; maybe we are the ones doing things right. Pushing our physical and mental limits, striving to see what the human body is capable of…and how much we as individuals can endure. I don’t know the answer, but I do know that I have found myself amongst the ranks of people who willingly seek out that pain and those extremes.
This weekend we toed the start line of our third consecutive 7 Sisters trail race (for those interested: 2013 recap, 2014 recap). I believe it is absolutely inconceivable to grasp how brutal this course is without actually setting foot on it. I mean, it’s located in the middle of relatively flat Massachusetts, which is not necessarily known for it’s extreme terrain. But hiding there among the hills and sprawling cow & corn fields are seven relentless mountains, that while small in size when standing alone, provide a torrential and brutal course of steep, technical climbs & descents when strung together. And in this race you get to tackle that set of mountains…twice.
I’m full of excuses as of late, but this year due to the hernia surgery and work (a.k.a. spending too much time on my butt), I showed up in my worst shape yet. And though they say the third times a charm, in this case the third time meant I knew two times over exactly what torture I was about to endure. I was nervous, I was underprepared, but I was NOT going to miss this race.
Sunday morning we arrived bright and early at the bunker parking lot in Amherst, MA. The early bird catches the worm, they say, but the early runner gets good parking and more importantly, clean port-a-potties with no lines. Geoff and I were joined by our friend Damon who was visiting from the West Coast (Reno) and was going to be running his first East Coast race. The three of us checked in, received our bibs and timing chips, and then headed back to the car to relax. Poor Geoff was battling a nasty head cold, and took the opportunity to rest. I on the other hand, look forward to these races because they are always an opportunity to socialize with some amazing friends that I don’t get the chance to see often enough.
One of those friends, Sarah, came to send us off, but wasn’t racing herself. When asking why (she LOVES the mountains) her response was quite simple and telling “I come out here to enjoy these trails by myself, not to fight over them with 500 other people.” As it would turn out, she couldn’t have been more right. This year was the second year of a wave start, and the largest running of 7 sisters yet, with somewhere around 500 runners. We seeded ourselves in wave 4 based on our estimated finishing time. Waves were sent off two minutes apart, and in retrospect I’m not sure if the two minute differential was enough, or if the waves themselves were just too large…because the start of the race was pure chaos.
Actually, it was more like a demolition derby. Right from the start you begin ascending the first mountain, and it is covered in gnarly shale and basalt rock. It’s runnable only by the best of the mountain goat runners, but for the rest of us becomes a fast scramble/walk. All trail racing etiquette seemingly went out the window, as people literally pushed each other out of the way, passing on the right, passing on the left, climbing in crazy unpredictable patterns. At one point I heard the entire pack behind me gasp and shout, and as I turned around I was a woman literally sliding down the steep side of the cliff. Thankfully, she only fell about 8 or 9 feet and was able to crawl back on to trail, unscathed. But that situation could have been significantly worse.
Bottlenecks have always been the case in this race for the first half mile or so, but this year it seemed the bottle necks lasted significantly longer. At one point, we came up to a section that had to be climbed/scrambled (we’re talking hands and feet climbing) and a guy actually physically pushed his way in front of me in the line. I was completely taken aback, and suddenly realized that Sarah had the right idea. I adore trail running, but this is not how I like to spend my time on the trails.
Our group of four (Geoff, Damon, our friend Darrell, and I) routinely got separated right from the start, in the same fashion that you would get separated trying to caravan down the interstate. Someone would pass one of us, but merge in between our group, and so on. Now, I had left my GPS watch at home inadvertently. I wasn’t too upset about it, but realized at the start that I would have no way to time my nurtirion intake. I asked Darrell to remind me every 45 minutes that it was snack time. We got separated, of course, and at the 45 minute mark I heard a yell from behind “HEATHER!!!! SNACK TIME!!” It was hilarious.
Somewhere towards the middle of the “out” section (so about 1/4 into the race) the trail actually flattens out enough that running for awhile is possible. This finally started to separate the pack, and Geoff and I took off. This of course is where I got careless, and tripped in a massive way. As gravity took hold and I started to fall, Geoff was conveniently within grasping range. It was instinctual, of course, to reach out and grab for him to try and catch my fall. I nearly took him down with me, but the hilarious part was that in catching myself, I nearly ripped his shorts right off. Thankfully his muscular 180+ lb frame was enough to break my fall and I was able to stay upright. So were his shorts.
Now, if you read my blog regularly, you’ll know that just last weekend we battled hypothermia at the Boston Muckfest MS. As is the case in New England, the weather is never predictable, and this weekend we were faced with sunshine and temps that hovered in the 80’s. I absolutely REFUSED to complain about the heat…it was glorious to finally have it…but the humidity and heat was brutal in the sense that my body was NOT acclimated to it. I had to remind myself to drink water, and drink often. I also made sure to take a Hammer Endurolyte every hour.
This year the course was slightly different than the years before in that the course went across the observation deck of the Summit House on top of Mount Holyoke. This area was deemed a mandatory “walk zone” and anyone caught attempting to run across the deck would be disqualified. I’m not sure how the front runners felt about this mandatory walk zone, but considering the rest of us walk SO much of this course, I took the opportunity to enjoy the amazing views.
From there comes the most deceptive point in the course: a nearly one mile downhill to the aid station and turn around. After so many steep climbs, a long downhill feels amazing, and makes you completely forget the brutal course you have already covered. You enter the aid station feeling on top of the world. And then there are cookies! Water, Gatorade, gu, Clif bars, Health Warrior Chia bars, oranges, bananas, pretzels, and so much more. It really is the most amazing aid station I’ve ever seen.
But then you turn around…and climb that mile back up.
And this is when your legs start to protest. They insist that this should have been a 6 mile point to point race, and not a 12 mile out and back. They have fought the good fight, and had their cool down with the long downhill. The legs now refuse to play along. But you push on anyway, because after all, this is what you came here for. It’s an interesting transition when you suddenly go from feeling fearless while flying down steep, technical terrain, to being fearful with every step on flat terrain that you might inadvertently trip over a rock or root with your now fatigued legs. During the run portions, you run significantly slower. And during the technical descents, you just brace yourself for a potential fall with every step.
If you’re lucky, you don’t fall…or you at least catch yourself before any damage is done. If you aren’t as lucky….
The sun was really starting to get to me (NOT A COMPLAINT! Oh how I missed you summer sun!) and the heat combined with the climbs made me feel nauseous. More water and a few more endurolytes down the hatch helped, but the eventual cloud cover was the hero of the day. As soon as the sun crept behind the clouds, the temperature instantly dropped, making the last 1/4 of the race more than bearable. Though the climbs were just as brutal as I remembered from the years past, they didn’t hurt as much. This was likely due to the fact that we were at a significantly slower pace overall than the year before. But as a whole my legs weren’t protesting nearly as much as I had expected, there was no hands on the knees, there was no counting of the steps (just walk 50 steps then you can rest!)…it was just constant forward motion. The only real pain I was enduring was on the soles of my feet. THEY, on the other hand, were on fire.
In typical Heather fashion, I had decided to try a new anti-chaffing product out on race day (don’t do that kids). I justified this poor decision by convincing myself it was a trial run for Infinitus at the end of the month. And instead of preventing friction, this product made my feet so slippery that they were sliding around in my shoes (I’ve worn these socks and shoes on this trail before with no issues). The hot spots were unbelievable, and the blisters I have now incredibly painful. The good news? I learned I’m NOT using this product for the ultra.
Before we knew it we crested the last summit and began the gnarly descent back to the start, over endless basalt rocks that just dared you to run on them. I didn’t feel like ending my race with a twisted ankle or broken leg, so we walked/hopped down as briskly and safely as we could. And then it was all over.
A finishing time of 4:04:56 put me at 307/431 finishers (471 started the race). It was certainly no land speed record, and it was our slowest 7 Sisters yet, putting us about 22 minutes off of last years time. We were cheered in by friends that finished with amazing times (I’m looking at you Lisa!) and others who pulled out of the race for various reasons. As soon as I crossed that finish line I pulled off my socks and shoes to let the screaming hot feet breathe. We headed up to the post race refreshment tent that was loaded with bagels, cream cheese, Nutella, fruit, yogurt, and more.
As mentioned last year, there are no finishers medals, shirts, pint glasses, or anything at all given out at this race…and I don’t think they are necessary. Instead you take with you the experience of the brutal sisters, a running experience that is likely to never be forgotten.
Once again I commend the race director and all of his staff and volunteers for a fantastic race. The course was impeccably marked, the aid stations fantastic, the volunteers and spectators absolutely wonderful. And of course the trail itself, while incredibly challenging, is absolutely gorgeous and a ton of fun to run on. My only complaint and suggestion is regarding the crowds. I understand wanting to give everyone the opportunity to run this fantastic course, but I would recommend cutting the entrance field way back to allow those of us in the waves behind wave 1 the opportunity to actually race. I felt the larger crowds and longer bottlenecks really took away from the experience.
For more information on the 7 Sisters trail race, please check out their website: www.7sisterstrailrace.com
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.