When the Berkshire Ultra Running Community for Service played host to the inaugural Free to Run Trail Races in 2015, co-race directors Michael Menard and Jake Dissinger hoped the BURCS could play a small role in helping the Free to Run non-profit organization advance its mission “to use running, physical fitness and outdoor adventure to empower and educate women and girls who have been affected by conflict.”
The BURCS’ little race has come a long way toward fulfilling the running club’s service-oriented mission and that of Free to Run in three short years. Menard and Dissinger need look no further than two of their event’s runners and Free to Run benefactors, Zahra Arabzada and Farahnaz. Both ran the half marathon in 2015, and then Farahnaz again ran the half marathon with sizeable improvement in 2016 while Arabzada bumped up to the marathon distance.
On Saturday, Sept. 16, at the third annual event at Pittsfield State Forest, both Farahnaz and Arabzada joined the ranks of ultrarunners as they completed their first 50-mile races.
“This year we were lucky to be joined by Taylor Smith, the Afghanistan Country Manager for Free to Run at the race,” Dissinger said. “It’s amazing to hear from her how much the program has grown in just a few short years. In Afghanistan alone there are now over 100 girls participating in multiple teams doing everything from running to kayaking to even skiing. In the same way, it’s been great to see Zahra and Farah grow as runners from completing their first trail half marathon at the race three years ago to now finishing 50-milers strong.”
Free to Run is anything but an easy course for a first 50-miler. The four-loop course features plenty of technical singletrack trail and around 11,000 feet of vertical gain. That didn’t stop either Farahnaz or Arabzada from persevering and crossing the finish line, however. They were among 16 runners who completed the race. Farahnaz, 24, earned third-place honors among the women and finished eighth overall in 12:27:00. Arabzada was the seventh female finisher in 16:56:30.
Sarah Slater of Guilford, Conn., set a new course record for the women in her Free to Run debut as she cruised to victory in 11:02:11, eclipsing the previous course record of 11:23:54 that was set by Maartje Bastings in 2016. Slater, 39, finished fifth overall.
“I was very impressed with Sarah Slater’s race,” Dissinger said, noting Slater’s success at races such as Seven Sisters and Wapack and Back. “She looked strong all day. I hadn’t met her before, but I knew from her race history that the Pittsfield State Forest’s technical trails and climbing weren’t going to be a problem for her.”
Lynn Hall, 49, of Schenectady, N.Y., was a distant second in 12:25:00, just two minutes ahead of Farahnaz. Nicole Kelleher, 28, of New Braintree, Mass., was the fourth-place female in 14:29:13, followed by 30-year-old Kelsey Weiss of Boston, Mass., in 15:10:16, and 57-year-old Ann Alessandrini of Johnsonville, N.Y., in 15:10:22.
While a course record fell on the women’s side of the field, the men’s record stood—though not without a stiff challenge from Jason Mintz and John Kemp. Mintz, of Syracuse, N.Y., won the inaugural Free to Run 50-miler in 2015 (10:57:24) to establish the original course standard, and then opted for the marathon in 2016 where he set a course record at that distance (4:10:51). Mintz returned to the 50-mile distance this year, and went toe-to-toe with Kemp, 49, of Sheffield, Mass., in a battle that lasted nearly start to finish.
The lead pack started fast with Mintz, Kemp, 41-year-old Brian Shafer of Litchfield, Conn., and 33-year-old Brendon Campbell of Medford, Mass., sticking within a minute of each other for the first loop. Mintz and Kemp broke off during the second loop and steadily opened distance on the remainder of the field, but they couldn’t shake each other.
“They ran the first lap together as it was super foggy and tough in the dark,” Dissinger said. “Then John got a little gap when Jason stopped for a second on the second lap. For the rest of the day they were essentially within a few minutes of each other both taking advantage of their strengths.”
Kemp used the climbs to move ahead, but Mintz would battle back with aggressive descents. By the time they completed the third loop the race was still up for grabs as Mintz clung to a 30-second lead.
Ultimately, Mintz was unable to stick to course-record pace, however he defended his lead, pulled away, and posted the second-fastest time in course history with a winning mark of 9:23:23. Kemp finished shortly thereafter in second place in 9:31:02. Shafer rounded out the top three in 10:14:28, followed by Campbell in 10:26:10.
Bill Boyer, 54, of Great Barrington, Mass., was the fifth-place male and sixth overall finisher in 11:05:17. He was followed by Joe Mayer, 37, of Manchester, Conn., in 13:40:56; Rick Maricle, 46, of Cambridge Springs, Pa., in 13:58:17; Bill Odendahl, 52, of Trumbull, Conn., in 14:34:50; and Gabriel Weiss, 29, of Boston in 15:10:18.
Dozens of Shoe Donations
In previous years, the Free to Run races have raised thousands of dollars for the Free to Run organization to help support its programming in countries such as Afghanistan. This year, the focus was on collecting shoe donations for the organization to distribute to runners in Afghanistan.
“It’s really hard to obtain girls’ and women’s-size running shoes there as you can imagine,” Dissinger said. “Taylor was collecting gently worn shoes to hand out to her athletes. Our goal was to fill up one suitcase for her, and the BURCS crew came through in a big way. I don’t have the exact count, but there were multiple suitcases full of shoes. It was inspiring to see how many runners showed up to the registration table with shoes to donate.”
Croshier Sets New Standard in Marathon
Lindsay Croshier of Medford, Mass., turned in a dynamite performance in the marathon. The 34-year-old finished fifth overall and was the women’s champion in 5:14:42. Croshier knocked more than 33 minutes off the ladies’ course record en route to her victory.
On the men’s side, 31-year-old Clemont Harmon of Brooklyn, N.Y., earned the overall win by a nearly 14-minute cushion in a time of 4:35:12. Paul Crockett, 44, of Boston, Mass., was a distant second in 4:49:04.
Records Fall in Half Marathon
The half marathon distance saw record turnout as 40 runners finished the race. That included a pair of new course records as 30-year-old Ed Cullen of Rumford, R.I., cruised to a 17-minute victory in 1:46:38. The top five men all dipped under the previous course record. Additionally, 26-year-old Kristen Peterson of Cambridge, Mass., set a new standard for the ladies by 85 seconds as she finished in 2:15:53.