Volunteers Outshine Vandals at Inaugural Mt. Toby Ultra

For more than a decade, the trails of western Massachusetts have been Amy Rusiecki’s playground. The rugged, rocky and at times steep terrain prepared her legs and lungs to succeed, propelling her to more than 35 ultramarathon victories and dozens more podium finishes. She’s grateful for all those trails have given her, and for years she has dreamed of sharing her training ground with others.

Last year she began doing that with the introduction of the Chesterfield Gorge Ultra and 25K trail race in West Chesterfield, Mass. On Saturday, April 6, she shared another of her favorite places to run when she played host to the inaugural Mt. Toby Ultra and 22K in Sunderland, Mass.

More than 60 runners took part in the event; 11 started the 50K and more than 50 took part in the shorter distance.

The course challenged runners with a diverse assortment of terrain on singletrack dirt, rugged doubletrack, and a trip through a cave. Runners in the ultra reached Mt. Toby’s summit three times; the 22K racers touched the top once.

“For me, it was like a greatest hits of Toby,” Rusiecki said of the course. “I run at Toby all the time, and there’s great singletrack and a lot of beautiful rock outcroppings out there; there’s a cave; there’s a nasty climb to the top that’s maybe three-quarters of a mile long but 800 feet up, so it’s just hands-on-knees going to the top. I put it all in.”

Course conditions were good despite snow falling the night before the race, and patches of ice that had slicked the trails in the days leading up to the race had melted by the time the runners started.

While the course showcased the quality of the trails and beauty of the scenery in Sunderland, runners encountered one obstacle that left Rusiecki feeling mortified. She received a call from her husband about 25 minutes after the race began. Runners were at a standstill in search of a turn. Rusiecki had marked the course on Thursday, she said, and then spot-checked course markings again on Friday. At some point between spot-checking and the start of the race, someone had removed the markings on that part of the course. Rusiecki told her husband where to guide the runners onward, and off they went.

“In the moment it was mortifying and I was beating myself up and feeling horrible about it; I still feel bad,” she said of the course vandalism that disrupted the race. “I’m glad this is the trail community where everyone just kind of rolled with it and saw it as an opportunity to group problem-solve with the entire race field. I appreciate that people were very gracious about that.”

The vandal wasn’t finished. Rusiecki sent a volunteer to remark that part of the course as 50K runners would pass back through it later. The markings were promptly removed again, but Rusiecki’s husband addressed the issue with additional remarking before it could impact runners a second time.

“I had a friend on a mountain bike remark it,” she said. “Someone then retook them down after we remarked it, so Brian went back out and remarked it again.”

The 50K runners spread out quickly once the race resumed. Kels Spare gradually pulled away from the field and amassed a 30-minute lead with a few miles to go. Ultimately, the 35-year-old from Wendell, Mass., won the race in 5:55:00. Chris Neoh was the second runner to finish. The 34-year-old from Pelham, Mass., finished in 6:33:11, a solid effort that is part of his tune-up for the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run in June. Molly Karp, 37, of Natick, Mass., was the third runner to finish, clocking a time of 7:18:11 in a tune-up run that’s part of her buildup to the Riverlands 100-miler in Maine this May. Karp was followed three seconds later by 47-year-old Fernando Salcido of Somerville, Mass. Salcido is preparing for the Run Rabbit Run 100-miler in Colorado in September.

Other finishers of the 50K were Michael Donnelly, 48, of Gorham, Maine, in 7:29:41; Scott Burch, 47, of Belchertown, Mass., in 8:20:26; Matt Rich, 43, of Longmeadow, Mass., in 8:24:09; and Shira Catlin, 26, of Newton, Mass., in 8:51:04.

In addition to the ultra, another 51 runners completed the 22K race within 4 1/2 hours. That race was highly competitive at the front of the pack.

“There were a ton of short-course people out there, so it was great to have an event where several of the top men and women are all phenomenal runners,” Rusiecki said. “I thought that even with smaller numbers we had a really high-quality field there.”

A close battle unfolded among the men and the top three finished within a three-minute window. Stephen Kerr, 27, of Hadley, Mass., pulled away for the win in 2:06:40. He was followed one minute later by runner-up Matt Shamey as the 39-year-old from Leverett, Mass., clocked a time of 2:07:40. Liam Cregan, a 26-year-old from Amherst, Mass., rounded out the men’s podium in 2:09:40. That trio gapped the rest of the field by more than six minutes. Among the women’s category, 26-year-old Haley Heinrich of Wolfeboro, N.H., earned the victory in 2:16:20 while also placing fifth overall. Fourteen minutes later, 28-year-old Kristin Ritchie secured the runner-up spot in 2:30:21. Jada Wensman, 25, of Portland, Maine, finished third in 2:32:57.

Beyond running performances, there were a few highlights that stood out to the race director from the weekend. For one thing, proceeds from the race went to benefit Girls on the Run of Western Massachusetts, and Rusiecki said she anticipates making an $800-$1,000 donation from this year’s race. Additionally, she praised the effort that was put forth by volunteers. In particular, she said several runners commented about a volunteer who decked out the cave with lights and battery-powered lanterns “that made it like this disco joint that everyone wanted to hang out in.” Additionally, the volunteers at the top of Mt. Toby had to hike two miles to get to their station. Once there, they made chocolate peanut butter bars for runners – a treat that earned rave reviews.

“I just love that those are the sorts of things that people will remember,” Rusiecki said. “All these volunteers really put their heart and soul into making it special.”

With the inaugural Mt. Toby Ultra in the books, Rusiecki is now turning her focus to directing the sold-out 7 Sisters Trail Race on May 4 in Amherst, Mass., followed by the second annual Chesterfield Gorge Ultra 30-hour and 25K on June 1-2 at the Hilltown Land Trust.

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