Another Normal: Ultra runners race distances of 30, 50, even 100 miles at a time

Amy Rusiecki laces up her running shoes one foot at a time, just like us mortals. She makes her way to the trailhead, then heads off at a gentle gait. And I follow.

We’re at the Notch Visitor’s Center on Route 116 in the Holyoke Range. The autumn leaves, just past peak, are scattered about the forest floor. The sun plays hide and seek behind the ridge. It is late afternoon. It had rained earlier, but now the sky is clear. Still, the tree roots and rocks that dot the trail are slippery, especially under cover of the leaves. We don’t gain too much elevation, but the route is not flat either. A few minutes later, we’re on a section of trail I never knew existed.

Stumbling along, I try to negotiate the multiple tasks of breathing, talking, and staying upright at the same time. Rusiecki is barely breaking a sweat, conversing easily while running. She doesn’t slip once.

“What gear is this for you?” I ask.

“You mean, like a car?”

“Yes.”

“First,” she admits. “Well, maybe not even first.”

Eyes focused on the ever-changing landscape, I wipe the sweat from my forehead quickly, careful to do so on a section of trail where a momentary decline in sight won’t result in another stumble. Taking a deep breath, I struggle to keep pace.

 —

People kept asking if I knew Amy Rusiecki.

“You should speak with Amy and [her husband] Brian,” Ruthie Ireland told me. This past summer, Ireland ran up New Hampshire’s highest peak in the 54th annual Mount Washington Road Race. Well into her forties, Ireland has two children. Her eldest runs cross country in Amherst.

“They’re U.S.A. trail running team members. Check out their blog, Running Rusieckis,” added Kyle Forbes Bissell. Last month, Bissell ran a 50-mile stretch of the Robert Frost Trail one Saturday with a few friends. It was not an official event. There were no T-shirts, or money raised for a cause. There was no notoriety, no names with winning times enshrined in record books. They just did it for fun.

“[Rusiecki] is an incredibly accomplished trail runner with numerous course records, the new race director for the Vermont 100—our region’s premiere race—and, perhaps above all, truly embodies the spirit of our sport,” said Jason Sarouhan, who organizes multiple-hour weekend trail runs at Mount Tom.

 —

Some of us enjoy hiking in the woods, and traversing mountains. Others enjoy running marathon distances. Ultra runners combine both: trail running seemingly supernatural distances of up to 30, 60, even 100 mountainous miles at a time. The trails throughout the Valley are extremely well traveled by them.

I’ve caught glimpses of them before, I think, as I’ve traipsed around the woods for an hour or so at a time, half running, half hiking, sometimes getting lost, almost always discovering a section of woods that was previously unknown to me. There was the bearded man running barefoot during a full-on rainstorm in the Holyoke Range, the woman—also sans shoes—who parked her jeep at the Mount Toby trail head before heading up the carriage trail, and another woman traversing Skinner State Park with a water bottle attached securely to the spot on her back between her shoulder blades.

The Valley is abundant with wilderness areas that are relatively accessible by trails, so it is not surprising that our region—inhabited by so many outdoor enthusiasts—would also have its share of notable trail runs.

The most famous of these is the Seven Sisters Trail Race, which is run (where possible, and otherwise hiked) along the ridge of the Holyoke Range from Route 116 west to Route 47, and then from Route 47 all the way back to Route 116. The event has been covered in such national magazines as Runners World, I was told. The race is now sponsored by La Sportiva.

The Vermont 100 (that’s miles), like other classics such as the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, features racers on foot as well as riders racing on horseback. Amy Rusiecki recently became the event’s race director, a position she tells me will last for another five years. This past summer, her husband Brian set the Vermont 100 course record—14 hours, 47 minutes, 35 seconds.

Other events are less prestigious, and more grassroots. Saturday, Nov. 16 the fourth annual Movember Mount Tom Trail Race will feature mustachioed trail runners traversing 25 kilometers of trails in support of men’s health (not the magazine). Westfield’s Nick Tooker is once again organizing the race.

Two years ago I was on Mount Toby the same day as the 25th annual Mount Toby Trail Run—seven or so miles along jeep roads and forest trails ascending 1,000 or so feet up to the summit, then all the way back down—and was nearly run over by the leaders of the pack as they sprinted at incomprehensible speeds through the fall foliage forest, down a stretch of trails covered with autumnal leaves, hidden roots, and slippery rocks. I stumbled over myself, staring in amazement. How can they run so fast over such rough terrain without snapping their knees? How can they possibly process all the threatening intricacies of the landscape at that speed? It was like nothing I’d ever seen.

“Mount Toby isn’t really a trail race,” Rusiecki tells me as she effortlessly leads me along the path. “Not to trail runners.”

413 Trail Runners is a Ning site that was started by Holyoke’s Matthew Reynolds. It includes 150 trail runners, but few are as accomplished as the Rusieckis. As members of the U.S.A. Trail Running team, they recently traveled to Wales to compete in a 50-mile race. Amy finished first among American women.

Next, the Rusieckis travel to Virginia for the aptly named Mount Masochist 50 Mile Trail Run. It’s a race Amy has run before, earning Patagonia gear with the special insignia, Mountain Masochist 50 Mile Trail Run – Finisher. “I have a down jacket from the first year I ran, and won a Patagonia down vest last year,” she says. “So I wear them all the time, and get comments on them all the time.”

 —

A few Sundays ago, Jason Sarouhan met up with friends at 6 a.m. to go on a four-hour run. I met him the following day in a Northampton coffee shop at the more pedestrian hour of 4 p.m.

Sarouhan, who lives in Northampton—where he works for Interim Programs, moved to the Valley eight years ago. He started trail running soon after that. Three years ago he competed in a Tough Mudder. Then he began training for an ultra.

“The more I went out, the more I loved it,” Sarouhan says. “Doing ultras allows you to perform at a level most people wouldn’t aspire to.”

While acknowledging the impressive abilities of ultra runners, Sarouhan and the other runners I spoke with made their transition to such extreme distance running sound almost accessible. One day you go for a run. Then you go for a longer run. And then an even longer run. The next thing you know, you are running ultra distances across mountain ridge terrain.

“These feats seem superhuman,” says Sarouhan, “but the more time that I spend with runners that aspire and train for longer endurance events, the more normalized the possibility of my doing so becomes. Every distance threshold I surpass opens up the possibility that I could run even further.”

Years ago, Sarouhan spent several months living with the Hadza, a hunter-gatherer culture in Tanzania who regularly travel 10 or 20 miles a day on foot. For most of our history, Sarouhan says, humans have had to travel such distances to survive as well. In that sense, we’re hard-wired to run. “We can maintain a sustained pace for incredibly long distances, and ultimately, as has been suggested and even confirmed by cultural anthropologists studying modern and recent hunter-gatherer cultures, run other animals to death,” he tells me. “Whatever the purpose, the evidence suggests that as a species, our bodies are built to run and walk.”

It is this biological evolution, he suggests, that allows trail runners to so effectively negotiate such difficult terrain.

“When I am running 1,000 feet downhill from the ridge of Mount Tom to Bray Lake at the bottom,” Sarouhan continues, “it is my brain and not my mind that is making thousands of calculations to skillfully direct my movement over the broken rock, roots and descent. There is no way that my mind could do this, it just works too slowly. Letting the body-brain connection work in tandem creates a deep sense of joy while running trails.”

 —

Thirty minutes after heading out on the trail, Rusiecki brings me back to the parking lot. It’s a popular spot. Several people arrive and go as we talk.

Rusiecki had run about half a dozen road marathons before she got into trail running. Her first trail race was Seven Sisters, which she ran to qualify for the Nipmuck Trail Marathon. A coworker, inspired by reading Dean Karnazes’ book Ultramarathon Man at Rusiecki’s suggestion, decided he would run a 50-mile ultra. So Rusiecki decided to do the same. “I couldn’t be shown up,” Rusiecki tells me. “We both trained up to run the Vermont 50 that year.”

Her inspiration has been sustained. Most mornings, Rusiecki—who lives in South Deerfield and works for the Amherst Public Works Department—will go for a 90-minute run. Heading out at dawn, often wearing a headlamp, regardless of the weather is a practice shared by many in the running community—ultra, trail, or otherwise.

“I think the draw of the trails and ultras is specific to everyone,” Rusiecki says. “For me the trails are a bit of freedom. It’s where I organize my thoughts and work through all the stresses of life. I have forged incredible friendships by sharing miles on the trails, and have built confidence in myself and my abilities by pushing my body to go farther, harder, steeper, more technical. The feeling of accomplishment when you finish one of these events is unparalleled.

“There are rare mornings when you see incredible beauty,” she continues, “so you are rewarded for your early morning wake-up. Being on the top of Mount Norwottuck as the sky turns pink, orange, and purple when the sun comes up, or getting to be the first set of footprints on fresh snow covering the trails, or running purely by the moonlight—all are moments that words can’t fully describe.”

 —

The alarm goes off, and I immediately hit the snooze button. My first thought is, thank goodness I’m not out running on a trail. But then I wonder who is out there, and what that experience holds.

(Originally appeared in the Valley Advocate.)

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