PITTSFIELD, Mass. – Shortly after Free to Run founder Stephanie Case wrapped up a fourth-place finish at the 330-kilometer Tor des Geants in Europe to raise money for her non-profit organization, Free to Run received a second fund-raising effort on a second continent as the Berkshire Ultra Running Community for Service (BURCS) played host to the fourth annual Free to Run Trail Races in western Massachusetts.
The mission of Case’s Free to Run organization is to empower girls and women in conflict regions such as Afghanistan through running and other forms of physical activity. The BURCS have supported that mission by donating proceeds from each year’s race to Free to Run. The race has raised around $5,000 annually for the non-profit, and Jake Dissinger – who directs the race alongside Michael Menard – said it looks like the proceeds from this year’s race on Saturday, Sept. 15, will once again produce a donation of around $5,000. In addition to financial support, Free to Run will also receive generous footwear support. Dissinger and Menard requested that runners donate lightly worn running shoes to be sent to Free to Run, and at last count Dissinger said 76 pairs of shoes had been collected.
“(We are) very happy with both of those numbers,” Dissinger said. “The local trail and ultra community came through as always.”
While the runners and race organizers were in a giving mood, the race course wasn’t so charitable. Around 100 runners took part in the 50-mile, marathon and half marathon distances at Pittsfield State Forest. The 12.5-mile loop course that they endured dished out 2,500 feet of gain, fallen trees, rocks, roots, and mud. For the 16 runners who took part in the 50-miler, that meant four trips around the loop, eight 900-foot sustained climbs, and around 10,000 feet of vertical gain. Ultimately, the course took its toll as the miles added up and just nine runners finished the ultramarathon.
A thick fog blanketed Pittsfield State Forest for the 50-milers’ 5 a.m. start, and as they entered the woods and began their first 900-foot ascent over a mile and a half they could barely see their surroundings. The long climb, a mixture of gradual and steep grades winding over muddy and rocky terrain, hugged the edge of a steep drop-off to the creek below. Hidden by the fog and darkness during the early hours, race leader Shaun Berard didn’t notice it as he made his way up the climb with Scott DeFusco a few strides behind.
“It was kind of cool to run in the fog,” Berard said, noting that the glow of his headlamp reflected off the moisture in the air and made visibility a bit difficult. “The first time through was fine. The second time through, I think it was on the Lulu Brook Trail, there’s quite a drop-off! I didn’t know that at all in the dark, which may have been a good thing!”
Berard opened up a five-minute lead on DeFusco by the end of the first loop, and Berard gradually pulled away from there. He ultimately led the race wire-to-wire, running the first full climb and most of the second 900-foot climb which maxed out at a 30-percent grade during his first few loops while building his lead. He then used a strong power-hike during the later miles to make good time on tired legs.
Berard led by more than an hour entering his final loop. He weathered an unhappy stomach during his last trip around the course, and a hot spot that had formed on one of his toes during the first loop finally ripped open with a few miles to go. Neither of those obstacles kept him from securing the win, though. The 37-year-old resident of Portland, Conn., ultimately crossed the finish line in 10:17:39 and then took a celebratory dip in a nearby pond to cool off.
“It was nice,” a smiling Berard said of the soak. “I was hobbling a little bit from the blister, but that felt good on it. It just felt good to get off the feet a little bit.”
Berard soon took a seat with race volunteers and spectators to cheer on other runners as they came through. DeFusco, 42, of Beverly, Mass., finished nearly two hours after Berard and placed second in 12:05:18.
While Berard and DeFusco amassed a sizeable gap on the rest of the field, the race for third overall was much closer. Ultimately, women’s champion Rebekah Zimmerer earned that spot, and the 30-year-old from Northborough, Mass., did so with a steady performance that allowed her to pace consistently and gradually improve her position. She was in seventh place after the first loop and just a few minutes ahead of the next women. She expanded a four-minute lead on the closest woman to 16 minutes after the second loop while moving up to sixth overall. By the end of the third loop she was in fourth place overall and had a 21-minute lead on women’s runner-up Carla Halpern. Zimmerer went on to place third overall and win the women’s division in 15:04:00. Men’s third-place finisher Benjamin Simon, 36, of Glastonbury, Conn., finished 31 minutes later in 15:35:24, followed by 46-year-old Will Ledwith of Guilford, Conn., in 16:04. Halpern, 49, of New Salem, Mass., was the sixth finisher and second woman in 16:24:40. Jane Rumrill, 35, of Salem, Mass., rounded out the women’s podium in 18:30:11.
The final finishers, 38-year-old David Drebsky of Plainview, N.Y., and Shannon Plesh, 32, of Lincoln, R.I., ran the entire race together – save for a few brief moments of separation during longer stops at the main aid station – and finished side-by-side in 19:34:55.
The nine total finishers marked the lowest total since the inaugural Free to Run Trail Races in 2015 when just five of 17 starters completed the race. Fourteen runners finished the 50-miler in 2016 and 16 did so in 2017.
LeBlanc Sets Course Record in Marathon Win
While the 50-milers started under the cover of darkness, the marathon began four hours later as the morning fog was beginning to lift. Runners at that distance faced two loops of the course for 5,000 feet of gain after first knocking out a mile on the road. Nick Curelop set a fast pace during the early miles, dashing past the half-marathoners and darting to the front of the field. Sam Masters took off after Curelop and was a few minutes back, followed a few minutes later by Samantha LeBlanc. Curelop ultimately dropped midway through the race, and with the 30-year old resident of Housatonic, Mass., out of the race it became a neck-and-neck battle between Masters and LeBlanc for the overall win.
The marathon required two loops of the course for 5,000 feet of gain, as well as some added distance on the road. Samantha LeBlanc earned the overall win while setting a new women’s course record by 35 minutes in 4:29:14. Sam Masters was the men’s winner in 4:39:31. Masters had a 4 1/2-minute lead on LeBlanc after the first loop, but the 29-year-old from Brighton, Mass., slowed a bit during his second trip around the course and LeBlanc ultimately tracked him down. The pair raced in close contact through the final miles, and Leblanc, 30, of Woburn, Mass., ultimately emerged victorious in 4:39:14. Masters charged across the finish line 17 seconds later as the men’s winner and overall runner-up in 4:39:31 and – with a grin on his face – headed straight to LeBlanc to congratulate her on her strong race. The accolades were well-deserved as she set a new women’s course record by 35 minutes. Masters’ effort was not too shabby, either; he posted the fourth-fastest time on the men’s record board.
Niveen Ismail, 36, of Florence, Mass., was the women’s runner-up and fourth overall finisher in 5:43:27 while tallying the third-best mark on the women’s record board. Mollie Burgett, 34, of West Fulton, N.Y., finished three minutes later (5:46:31) to finish third among the women and fifth overall.
Steve Roszko, 47, of Westhampton, Mass., was the men’s runner-up in 5:17:26, and Marc Blandin, 38, of Bellingham, Mass., rounded out the men’s podium while finishing sixth overall in 5:47:25.
Twenty-six runners completed the marathon within nine hours.
Zeitler, Brinkert Earn Half Marathon Victories
When it came to the half marathon race, there was Chris Zeitler, Alexandra Brinkert and Matthew Simon, and then there was a sizeable gap to the rest of the field. The trio darted to the front during the initial six-tenths of a mile on the road before heading into the forest for 12 1/2 miles of dirt, mud, rocks, roots and climbing to the tune of 2,500 feet of vertical gain.
Simon, 34, of Melrose, Mass., held an early lead before pausing to address some leg tightness. From there, Brinkert moved to the front of the pack and the 32-year-old resident of Medford, Mass., set the pace for a few miles. Then it was Zeitler’s turn to lead the way. The 32-year-old from Albany, N.Y., finished fifth in the half marathon a year ago, so he knew what the course had in store during the final half of the race. Zeitler gradually pulled away while Brinkert and Simon spent most of the final miles separated by just a few seconds.
Zeitler ultimately won the race in 2:11:28, followed by Brinkert in 2:14:28 and Simon in 2:14:37. In addition to placing second overall, Brinkert was the top female finisher and broke the women’s course record by 85 seconds.
Till Kaeslin, 20, of Weston, Conn., rounded out the men’s podium in 2:25:52. Liz Sullivan, 28, of Cambridge, Mass., was the women’s runner-up in 2:32:07 and Jackie St. Louis, 30, of Somerville, finished third in 2:44:57.
Forty-six runners completed the half marathon within six hours.