Seven Sisters Trail Race competitors describe what draws them to it

  • Greg Tew of South Deerfield runs over Bare Mountain during the Seven Sisters Trail Race earlier this month. He says he has been obsessed with the course ever since he ran his first race there two years ago. GAZETTE STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

  • Runners crest Bear Mountain during the 7 Sisters Trail Race on Saturday, May 5, 2018. GAZETTE STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

  • Runners crest Bear Mountain during the 7 Sisters Trail Race on Saturday, May 5, 2018. GAZETTE STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

  • Runners crest Bear Mountain, which is about a half mile from its base to the top, during the race.

  • Runners crest Bear Mountain during the 7 Sisters Trail Race on Saturday, May 5, 2018. GAZETTE STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

  • Runners crest Bear Mountain during the 7 Sisters Trail Race on Saturday, May 5, 2018. GAZETTE STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

  • A composite image of the Holyoke Range. The 12-mile 7 Sisters Trail Race starts at the base of Bare Mountain, leads over Mount Holyoke to Mountain Road and returns on the same route. GAZETTE STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

  • A graph showing the change in elevation of the 12-mile 7 Sisters Trail  Race. In comparison, hikers of Mount Washington in New Hampshire climb about 4,000 feet of elevation.

  • Howard prepares for the start of the Seven Sisters race May 5. He has started a weekly group in Easthampton for those who want to try trail running. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Matt Howard, left, of Westfield greets Jack Egan before the start of the Seven Sisters Trail Race in Amherst on Saturday, May 5, 2018. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Friends, from left, Matt Howard, Jack Egan (back to camera), Shelley McDonald, Amanda Miller and Greg Tew chat before the start of the Seven Sisters Trail Race in Amherst on Saturday, May 5, 2018. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Friends, from left, Matt Howard, Sera Rivers, Amanda Miller, Greg Tew, Jack Egan and Joel Calloway chat before the start of the Seven Sisters Trail Race in Amherst May 5. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Matt Howard, third from left, of Westfield and Greg Tew, fifth from left, of South Deerfield huddle with friends for a photo in the parking lot before the Seven Sisters Trail Race in Amherst May 5. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Tew says Seven Sisters Trail runners need strength to overcome elevation changes. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Above, Matt Howard of Westfield, center, waving, starts the Seven Sisters race in Amherst. He says trail running is an adventure.

  • Greg Tew, right, of South Deerfield starts the Seven Sisters Trail Race in Amherst May 5. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

@AndyCCastillo
Published: 5/14/2018 5:27:41 PM

A narrow trailhead beginning at Route 116 in South Amherst winds up a grueling 1,000 foot incline to the top of Bare Mountain, where jagged stones give way to a rocky plateau that overlooks the Connecticut River Valley and the Holyoke Range, a 6-mile stretch of summits along which meanders the Seven Sisters Trail.

Marking the trail’s opposite end is Mount Holyoke, home of the Skinner State Park Summit House. In between there’s a series of ridgeline knobs, known as the Seven Sisters, that require technical skill and endurance to traverse. Hiking the trail there and back, covering 12 miles and 3,500 feet of elevation, isn’t for the faint of heart. 

Running the ridgecrest in competition against hundreds of other athletes during the annual Seven Sisters Trail Race, which took place May 5, is an entirely different matter.

“Next foot forward. The hill will end if you keep moving forward. That's something I tell myself,” said Greg Tew, 47, of South Deerfield, a polymer science and engineering professor at the University of Massachusetts and a dedicated trail runner. Tew was taking a break at a picnic table at the Mount Holyoke Range State Park one day before a training run for the race. "When you say trail running, that means there's quite a bit of walking and power hiking,” he added.

The first time Tew competed in the Seven Sisters Trail Race was a few years ago in 2016, at the recommendation of friends. It was also the first time he’d ever run off-road on a trail. Previously, Tew worked out with the nationally branded INSANITY Workout high intensity fitness program, took exercise classes, and generally avoided road running because of the monotony and stress on his body.

“I didn't know what I got into, to be fair,” Tew said about his first Seven Sisters race.  “I've been obsessed ever since, and that was two years ago.”

Off-road adventure

Trail running differs from road running in that the running surface is softer, reducing the impact of each step. But because of the uneven terrain, trail running can also be more challenging.

Runners say that’s what draws them to it.

The trail is “rocky, rooty, slippery, and muddy,” said Matt Howard, 34, of Westfield another Seven Sisters racer who was training with Tew. “What’s more fun about trail running than road running is the adventure. You're literally taking it one step at a time, because every step is different."

The first time Tew ran Seven Sisters, it took him three hours. The second year, he shaved about 20 minutes off. And in the most recent one, he ran the 12 mile trail in 2 hours 27 minutes and 36 seconds, placing 12th in his age bracket and 42nd overall out of 446 competitors. Howard completed the course in 2 hours 29 minutes and 9 seconds. Matt Lipsey, 28, won the race with a time of 1 hour 49 minutes 21 seconds.

While there are other trails in New England that offer challenges for runners,  “This is one of New England's hardest half marathons,” said Howard. The race was started in 1991 and donates net proceeds to the Friends of the Mount Holyoke Range, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of the range, according to the event’s website. Since then, the race has raised more than $100,000.

Howard says in his experience, the combination of technical difficulty in the terrain and elevation gain in a 12 mile course is unique, requiring runners to meticulously conserve their strength.

“This is the place to run and train if you're into trail running, races, ultra-marathoning,” he said.

Year-round commitment

Preparing for the race requires a year-round commitment and a structured training regimen that takes into account the need for endurance, because of the race’s moderate length and short bursts of strength needed to overcome steep elevation changes.

“That's one of the things I would say is different about road running versus trail running. You need to be strong, but not in a bulky or heavy way,” Tew said. “If you look at marathoners, they're super thin. And if you look at the elite trail runners, they're stocky."

To supplement weekly running on nearby trails like Mount Tom and other sections of the Metacomet-Monadnock Trail, which includes the Holyoke Range, that aren’t as technically difficult as the Seven Sisters Trail, Tew cross-trains with weight lifting, high intensity workouts and yoga.

A month before the race, Tew ramps up his trail running distances on the 7 Sisters Trail itself.

During the race, runners burn an estimated 2,000 calories. Thus, runners must eat nutritious foods throughout the run in order to maintain strength. Deciding when to eat and drink might mean the difference between a good and great race.

“The key is to drink more at the beginning. Because if you wait until you're thirsty, you're probably too far behind and you can't catch up,” Tew said. For nutrition, on the race’s first leg to the Summit House, Tew typically consumes Tailwind, a hydration drink that contains sugars and electrolytes. At the halfway turn-around point, which is a mile and a half past Mount Holyoke, he eats snacks such as protein bars in order to build up energy, sugars and calories, for the return trip.

Howard is an electrician who ran road races before transitioning into trail running a few years ago. In his Seven Sisters training, Howard combines Jiu Jitsu, a martial art which requires short bursts of physical exertion during short matches, with trail running, supplementing with strength training. He also competes in other races throughout the region.

Rollercoaster course

From the Connecticut River Valley, the Holyoke Range doesn’t look as grueling as it is. But inside the trees, Tew said “the fact is (the hills) are endless. As you're standing on one little hill, you look off in front of you and you think 'that's the last one,’ but actually there are several more.”

After cresting Bare Mountain, which is about a half-mile from its base to the top, runners barely have a chance to catch their breath before tackling Hitchcock Mountain, an adjacent peak that’s also 1,000 feet high. After that, the course is like a rollercoaster, cresting and dipping for miles over about 10 hills up to Mount Holyoke.

Comparatively speaking, the Seven Sisters Trail Race is shorter than other trail running competitions. In the past, Howard has run longer races up to 50 miles. As such, Tew noted that runners push themselves to get the fastest possible time. 

“It's more or less intensity the entire time,” Tew said. “There is no place to rest. Going downhill here is hard work."

On the return trip after the Summit House, which is a mandatory walking zone, runners have become fatigued and the race evolves into an intense mental challenge. It’s this mental aspect that prompts runners like Howard and Tew to return year after year.

“I try not to stop. When you're in those low points and your body hurts, and everything hurts, and it's becoming mental, just keep moving,” Howard said. “One foot after the other, just move forward. Forward progress. And you can get through it."

The physical challenge of running forces Howard to turn inward and pay attention to how he feels. In so doing, he says, he achieves a mental euphoria during which it seems the only thing that matters is running. Howard says it’s a spiritual sensation, and compared running to meditation. “It's very much the same when we're out here running, except we're not sitting still, we're going hard,” Howard said, noting that he, like Tew, doesn’t run with headphones on in order to appreciate nature. “What I love about being out here is paying attention to what's going on around me, and focusing inward.”

Sharing the love

Out of his passion for running, Howard leads a weekly running group called Om! Endurace that meets every Thursday at Abandoned Building Brewery in Easthampton and treks around a trail system at Mount Tom. The exclamation point is included to emphasize the spiritual nature of running, Howard says. He started the group last spring as a way to introduce trail running to those who hadn’t tried it.  Seven members of that group competed at Seven Sisters this year.

Tew says community spirit is an aspect of trail running that he particularly enjoys. While running a race is inherently competitive, there’s a mutual respect for the Seven Sisters Trail that’s shared by the competitors, he says. 

“We understand it's a privilege to be out here,” he said. "There's nothing that’s relentless like those seven sisters.”

Andy Castillo can be reached at acastillo@gazettenet.com.

How to connect

To learn more about Matt Howard’s running group Om! Endurance, visit www.facebook.com/omendurance.

For more about the Seven Sisters Trail Race, visit www.7sisterstrailrace.com.


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