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On the ridgeline above a quiet valley, footprints of 500 runners sink into a deep, wooded trail. Below, the valley is lush with the shades of spring. A river snakes wide through green foliage. But these runners are hardly here to enjoy the view; their eyes remain locked on the trail beneath them.
Western Massachusetts’ Seven Sisters Trail Race has been called a wooden roller-coaster. Gory. Nauseating. On this course, feet dodge hidden roots and rocks as competitors often climb hand-over-hand. The trail rises up, falls down, and rises steeply again. Many runners cross the finish line scraped and bloodied, their quads screaming after 3,500 feet of elevation gain. And this isn’t even an ultramarathon. It’s not Boulder or Bozeman, either. This course is only twelve miles long, but is often considered the most technical trail race in the Northeast.
Today, the Seven Sisters race includes 40 volunteers and a max of 500 participants, drawing world-class athletes from around and outside the country. It demonstrates how trail races can welcome growth while remaining mindful of place—the surrounding community, the ecological needs of the region, and the history of the land.
A Ridgeline to Remember
The out-and-back race follows a ridge on the Mount Holyoke Range, one of few east-west oriented mountain ranges in the United States. The Seven Sisters refers to basalt ridgeline knobs that lie along the range, between Mount Hitchcock and Mount Holyoke. To traverse the Seven Sisters, runners must follow a section of the New England National Scenic Trail, historically called the Metacomet-Monadnock Trail. If runners are able to break concentration and peer out over the ridgeline, they will find dramatic views below. But enjoying the view often proves difficult.
“You’re skating on a wing and a prayer that you’re going to stay on two feet the whole time,” says Jason Sarouhan, an entrepreneur and local trail running community leader. Sarouhan knows this terrain better than most, for he has been involved with Seven Sisters for over ten years—three years competing, two years on the race committee, and an additional five years marking the course.
To Sarouhan, one of the most exhilarating moments of the race happens at the Summit House on top of Mount Holyoke. Here lies a panoramic view of the valley—green forests and farmland stretching out toward rolling hills and mountains—a quintessential New England landscape. But before runners can fully absorb the view, they begin running down. Down the steep, one-mile descent to the turnaround. Down until their quads surrender. When they reach the bottom, they must turn and face the technical slope once more. Now, they must climb.
Seven Sisters race director Amy Rusiecki directs five additional races, including the Vermont 100-miler. She also holds numerous athletic accolades, as a three-time member of the USA Trail and Ultra Running Team and 15th-place finisher at the 2013 World Trail Running Championships.
In 2009, she won the Seven Sisters race, an impressive feat for any trail runner. She proceeded to make plans with the male winner to celebrate their victories over dinner a few nights later. That man was Brian Rusiecki, and he would eventually become her husband.
To Rusiecki, Seven Sisters is unique—and not only because of its rigorous course.
“It has such a rich history,” she says. “I took on Seven Sisters after its 25th edition. So, that’s a lot of years; a lot of history, miles, sweat, and blood on the trail.”
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A Troubled Namesake
Still, both Rusiecki and Sarouhan acknowledge that the history of this land is not purely one of joy and recreation. Rather, like the rest of this country, the “Pioneer Valley” holds (in its very name) a deep colonizer history.
The region where the race takes place, the “Pioneer Valley,” refers not to the original inhabitants of the land—the Pocomtuc—but to the colonizers who stole it. The Metacomet-Monadnock Trail (now part of the New England National Scenic Trail) was named for Wampanoag chief Metacom, otherwise known as King Philip. King Philip’s War took place here and throughout southern New England from 1675 to 1678. It was one of the deadliest per-capita wars in U.S. history, resulting in the deaths of thousands of Native people, and the stealing of these Native lands.
How do we account for these complex truths? Seven Sisters is one of the most famous trail races in the northeast, and draws, as most trail races historically do, an overwhelmingly white field. Yet, it also takes place on land stolen from Native peoples, during one of the country’s most brutal wars.
“It’s an evolving process,” says Rusiecki, reflecting on her role in accounting for this history. In the past few years, she has created Indigenous land acknowledgements for Seven Sisters and her other races, with help from UMass Amherst and the Kestrel Land Trust. “I’m trying to [draw from people] who know the land better than I do, to help me fact check and ensure the land acknowledgement [reflects] an appropriate history.”
Despite its present-day acclaim, the Seven Sisters Trail Race had humble beginnings. It started in the 1980s with a piece of paper. Local runners would compete for the fastest time on a segment of the (then) Metacomet-Monadnock Trail, and they would record their splits on a piece of paper tacked to the wall of the local running store. This was pre-Strava competition–no Instagram recap, no GPS. Just tacks, pens, and the honor system.
In 1991, volunteers from the Friends of Mount Holyoke Range (FoHR), a local nonprofit that helps purchase land for conservation, asked the store manager for more information on these posted times, because many of the The FoHR volunteers were also runners. They began to consider a trail event with both local runners and local conservationists in mind. How could this competition serve both? With support from the local forest service, they formalized the competition, and the Seven Sisters Trail Race was born.
The early relationship between the race and the FoHR was one of symbiosis. In the 1990s, the nonprofit supported the race’s growth, such as by purchasing a chip-timing system, and in return, all proceeds went to the nonprofit’s future conservation efforts. Today, the race continues to donate net proceeds to the FoHR, raising more than $100,000 since 1991.
“The contribution from Seven Sisters is very important to our work,” says Patricia Eagan, Chairperson of the FoHR Board of Directors. Through race proceeds, “we were able to give a large amount of money to purchase acreage next to the Mount Holyoke Range. It was going to be turned into suburban housing. While I’m all for building houses, that land is abutting the range, and it’s an important wildlife corridor. Why not preserve it for everyone to use?”
Where Conservation and Competition Meet
Rusiecki is grateful, not only for the partnership with the FoHR, but also for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR). The DCR owns the land and permits the Seven Sisters Trail Race to use it, while going above and beyond. On race-day, they manage emergency response, coordinate with EMTs, and get medical attention to injured runners, when needed. Throughout the year, the DCR maintains the trail, ensuring it is ready for the race and other recreation.
Conservation work—as facilitated by the FoHR, the DCR, the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), and other organizations—has become exceedingly crucial over the race’s tenure. In recent years, heavy rains have resulted in a muddy course. On rainy days, human impact is visually stark: during the race, the footprints of 500 runners sink deep into the trail. Competitors finish splattered in the mud they’ve slurried up from the course. A representative from the DCR confirms this impact: aside from race day, runners are asked to not train on trails when they are muddy, to mitigate erosion.
Liam Cregan, local conservation professional and trail runner, sees this impact through two lenses. An accomplished athlete, Cregan has experienced the trail’s wrath—the steep dips and merciless climbs. They placed second at Seven Sisters in 2019 and third in 2018. At the same time, they protect this land, serving as the National Scenic Trail Coordinator for the AMC.
“In high-use areas like the Mount Holyoke Range, the trails are pretty loved-to-death,” says Cregan.
While highly loved trails are awesome, they require highly funded conservation projects. On various occasions, Cregan has witnessed trail runners in Western Massachusetts taking individual action—writing letters of support for conservation grants or donating time and money to maintenance projects: “There’s clearly an interest in protecting the quality of trails and protecting the land around the trails, too,” they say. Less common than small-scale, individual actions are races that prioritize conservation. And here, Seven Sisters stands out.
Even as they sign up for the race, athletes can see where their money is going, to the FoHR. Hopefully, they consider the connection between running, trail degradation, and the need for conservation work.
“A certain amount of money needs to be put back into the trail,” says Eagan. “I hope more runners can understand that.”
The Future is Intersectional
All trail races face complications. So does the sport of trail running—an overwhelmingly white sport taking place on stolen land, and often contributing to the ecological degradation of that very land.
For each race director and committee, the challenge is to not hide from these realities. Instead, they must consider how these challenges appear in their region, and which actions to take. For Rusiecki, these actions go beyond donations to local land trusts.
Through Beast Coast Trail Running, the race series that houses Seven Sisters and her other Massachusetts races, Rusiecki promotes trail days—opportunities for runners to clean up local trails. In the future, she hopes to organize at least one trail day per year. She also plans to keep updating race-day land acknowledgements, as sources arise.
The task, then, becomes responding to these complexities without forgetting to celebrate—the local trail running community, the history of the race, and the land. And for the Seven Sisters Trail Race, much celebration is in order.
May 7, 2022 will mark the race’s thirtieth year and its first running since 2019. Sarouhan is excited to cheer with his trail running group on top of Mount Hitchcock, banging drums as runners climb the mountain, hand-over-hand.
“Something that Seven Sisters has really brought to the forefront is that we have this precious, precious resource,” he says. “I really love this land, and I want to support and recognize its history, both Indigenous and more recent. I also want to help protect this land for future access.”
Rusiecki is thrilled to welcome competitors back to the trail and distribute the 500 finisher mugs she ordered prior to the canceled 2020 race. The slogan printed on each mug, while simple, speaks volumes to the responsibility of a local trail race—accounting for historical, social, and environmental context; celebrating a local community; and ensuring a day of both immense challenge and immense joy.
Printed on each mug are the seven words: Thirty years of blood, sweat, and tears.