Thursday, May 9, 2013

Surviving Seven Sisters

I was warned. This race is a monster! It’ll chew you up and spit you out! I’d read the humbling race reports. I’d heard about insane terrain. I’d poured over the ridiculous elevation profiles. I’d broken down all the heart-breaking splits. I’d seen the post-race photos – in all their gory detail. And, I'd read the Runners World article calling this the toughest up & down trail race in the country! Still, somehow, I was intrigued by this race and wanted to find out for myself what the 7 Sisters fuss was all about. And now, after running it for the first time, I can tell you that it definitely did not disappoint!

7 Sisters is a 12-mile, out and back, trail race that’s run along part of the Monadnock-Metacomet Trail (or M-M, for short) in the Holyoke Range State Park. The single-track path snakes east-west along the ridge between Amherst & South Hadley, Massachusetts. It goes over seven rocky outcroppings (known as the 7 Sisters) including Mt. Holyoke and has 3,700 feet of climb - mostly over very sharp and/or loose Basalt rocks. And, once you’ve gone over all seven of the sisters, then you have to turn around and run back over them again! That’s like, um, 14 Sisters!

Despite (or maybe because of) the severe nature of this race, this year’s field was the largest in the history of the event – with well over 400 entrants! This large number of people all vying for the same 3 foot wide section of trail (that went vertical almost immediately) made the start of the race something of a sight to behold! Think of 400 strangers, trying to move through a subway car, that’s lined with loose rocks and tilted on its end and you’re starting to get the picture!

The Start
Needless to say, there was quite a bit of walking / following in the first half mile. At the “top” it leveled out for about 10 feet before going back down again. Then back up. Then back down. This became a regular theme that was repeated over and over and over again. I’d known going in that there wasn’t much fast/flat trail in this race. But, it still came as a bit of a shock just how much up and down there really was! And, even the occasional flat came armed with random grass-covered rocks and roots.

I was VERY careful through the first half of the race - picking my way down the steep embankments, hand-over-hand up the rocky ledges, tip-toeing along the knife-edged ridges, and zip-zagging around the roots/rocks and over the fallen trees. At one point I exclaimed (to no one in particular), “This isn’t a trail race! It’s an obstacle course!” I reached the turn around point (in a surprisingly quick 1:13) and then my race truly began as I threw caution to the wind and set about trying to mow down as many runners as I could.

This is the Trail
I’d also been very careful about making sure I fueled properly during this potentially 2 ½ to 3 hour race. I carried a 20 oz waist pack that I filled (with water and a Nuun tablet) at each of the aid stations. I consumed 2 packets of GU and 1 packet of Shot Blocks. And, I downed a dozen Enduralyte tablets to ensure that I kept my electrolyte level up. This nutritional strategy seemed to work pretty well as I managed to reel people in fairly regularly on the 6-mile return trip.

Of course, just when I start feeling good about myself, that’s when things usually go wrong. And, that’s exactly what happened. During one of the “easier” sections, while I was fiddling with my water bottle, I caught one of those random rocks and went down. Hard. I popped up quick but was still a bit dazed as I got to my feet. I did a “once over” and saw that I’d scraped my knee and shin but otherwise I was fine. I took a deep breath and got back to the task at hand.

Read the last note!
I found that the return trip felt much easier, at least until the end - when there were more than a few “hands on knees” moments.  But, in general, I was pretty psyched at how my body was handling the rigors of the course without too much complaint – even with the fairly warm conditions. I hit the top of the last hill and turned on the “jets” for the final descent.  Putting a good two minutes on my closest competitor - crossing the line in 2:27:44. Nearly 10 minutes faster than I thought I’d be able to run here!

Looking at my splits, I see that I ran a pretty even race. 24:34 to AS-1 (2 miles), 24:37 to AS-2 (4 miles), and 24:12 (including a minute to re-tie my shoes) to the turn around - for a 1:13:24 first half. Then, 23:50 back to AS-3 (8 miles), 24:41 to AS-4 (10 miles) and 25:48 (including the fall) back to the finish - for a 1:14:20 second half.  I slowed by less than a minute over the second half of the race and passed more than 20 runners along the way!

There’s nothing quite like the feeling you get from facing a seemingly impossible task head on and rising to meet the challenge. That’s what this year’s 7 Sisters Race was for me. It was the single most technical trail race I have ever run! Yes, it was foolishly hilly. Yes, it was insanely rocky. Yes, it was brutally brutal. But, you know what? I ended up loving every minute of it!

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