Barely a month into the COVID-19 pandemic, Amy Rusiecki’s world as a race director began to crumble.
The first race of the 2020 season that she was slated to direct – the Mt. Toby 50K – was forced to cancel as orders from Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker restricted the size of public gatherings, schools were closed, and businesses statewide largely shut down or transitioned to work-from-home environments. A few weeks later, Rusiecki was forced to cancel the popular 7 Sisters Trail Race as the pandemic worsened. As the year wore on, her three remaining events all were canceled.
“I wish I could say ‘Oh yeah, I’m doing awesome, everything’s great and I’m handling things well,’” Rusiecki said. “But the reality for me is the same as it has been for a lot of people this year in that the things that take stress from me and give me joy – being around the ultra community, seeing friends, being a participant – my coping mechanisms kind of got stripped away which impacted my ability to effectively process everything that’s been happening this year.
“It’s tough and it’s disappointing to cancel everything. There’s a part of me that feels like our job as an RD is to constantly overcome challenges that happen and find a way to put an event on for people, and I found it hard to admit defeat. There was this part of me that wanted to keep pushing and find a way, but there never was a time in the year that would have been super-safe to put on a race.”
Each cancellation was difficult for its own reasons, but the one that truly broke Rusiecki’s heart was the Vermont 100.
In 2009, Rusiecki made the race her first 100-miler and finished sixth in 22:33:10. She returned to the VT100 starting line each of the next five years, placing in the top four and finishing in less than 20 hours each time, including a runner-up finish in 2012. As much as she grew to love the event as a runner, her passion for the race solidified when she took over as the Race Director in 2015 and began to cultivate her relationship with Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports, the organization that benefits from the race’s proceeds.
Vermont Adaptive is a non-profit organization with the mission of empowering individuals with physical, cognitive and emotional/behavioral disabilities to take part in sports and recreation activities, regardless of their financial constraints. Vermont Adaptive offers winter programs such as skiing and summer programs such as paddle sports, cycling, sailing and horseback riding.
Rusiecki has long been an advocate for making trail- and ultrarunning inclusive to everyone. The Vermont Adaptive mission resonated with her, so she sought to elevate the organization’s presence at VT100 and increase awareness among the race’s participants.
“I had to educate myself on what they do,” Rusiecki said. “It started out as getting to know Vermont Adaptive, and then I participated in their U.S. Association of Blind Athletes Ski Weekend, so I got to see first-hand what they do, which helped me be able to speak more eloquently about it. In the years since, I’ve participated in several events and met Vermont Adaptive athletes, which has been an awesome way to help me become a champion for their cause.”
In addition to featuring the organization prominently at the VT100 pre-race briefing and having athletes and families speak to the race participants about the organization each year, Rusiecki’s friendship with Vermont Adaptive athletes has led to inclusive improvements to VT100 itself. Kyle Robidoux, a visually impaired ultrarunner, pitched the idea to Rusiecki of starting an Athletes with Disabilities Division at VT100. Today, Robidoux and multiple other visually impaired runners have completed VT100 in the Athletes with Disabilities Division with the support of sighted guides. Both Robidoux and Rusiecki have spoken to the American Trail Running Association’s conference about the importance of making the sport inclusive to athletes of all abilities, and in the process have shared the success story of Vermont Adaptive and VT100 to a national audience.
Vermont Adaptive’s three largest fundraisers each year are the Vermont Adaptive Charity Ride (formerly known as the Long Trail Century Ride), the Vermont 50 run and mountain bike ride, and the Vermont 100 run. The Charity Ride transitioned to a virtual format this year due to the pandemic, but both the Vermont 50 and VT100 were canceled. Rusiecki said VT100 raises around $150,000 each year for Vermont Adaptive, so the cancellation of that event alone marked a significant hit to Vermont Adaptive’s funding.
“Obviously a good portion of that was lost this year,” Rusiecki acknowledged. “But about a dozen people who fundraised this year (in the fundraising division of the run) were willing to donate what they raised this year and start at zero next year so we were still able to fundraise and hand over some of the money from this year to Vermont Adaptive due to the kindness and passion of people who do the fundraising.”
Without a race to direct, however, Ruskecki had an empty feeling in her gut as VT100 weekend approached. Then she had an idea.
“You know the grieving process in general, how you get upset about something and then your mind needs to latch onto a consolation prize? At the time the Race Committee decided to cancel Vermont 100, in my heart of hearts I knew it was the right thing to do, but I don’t know if I was 100-percent there yet and really struggled emotionally announcing it,” Rusiecki recalled. “In the aftermath of that I was really sad, and the silver lining I kept thinking of was that I started my relationship with Vermont 100 as a runner. The disadvantage as an RD is that I don’t get to run it anymore. I thought if I’m not RDing that weekend then I can run 100 myself, whether it’s running at my house or somewhere else.”
With that, Rusiecki’s personal 100-mile fundraiser for Vermont Adaptive was born.
Rusiecki set up a fundraising website. She said she would run one mile for every $100 raised, up to 100 miles, around her town of South Deerfield and the surrounding area.
“I’m fortunate to have this platform as an RD to reach a lot of people, so I just threw out there what seemed to me a preposterous goal to raise $10,000. I just put it out there and thought I’d see how far I can get and give people a little motivation that I would run a little more for every dollar. I was hoping that would make people be a little more generous, which would ultimately benefit Vermont Adaptive.”
Rusiecki’s friends and community dug deep into their pockets and amassed a fundraising total that far surpassed her goal: $12,576. Once they did their part, it was Rusiecki’s turn to do hers.
On what would have been a scorching-hot VT100 weekend with a heat advisory in Massachusetts, Rusiecki set up a pop-up tent and aid station in her backyard and headed out at 7:30 p.m. with her husband Brian to run the first of her miles.
“I set it up with a bunch of different loops from my house and tried to be back every two hours or so so people could join me,” she recalled. “It worked out really well.”
Several friends logged miles with her or stopped by to wish her well. Another friend, VT100 Spirit of 76 aid station captain Nick Tooker, prepared a mini aid station for Rusiecki outside of his Amherst home so she could refuel while running by, and also set up the inflatable Uncle Sam that typically looms over his VT100 aid station.
Rusiecki hit a low point around mile 65, she admitted, so she went in her house, took a cold shower and changed clothes to reboot before heading back out for the final 35. She was greeted by a small gathering of friends when she returned to her backyard for the final time, reminiscent of a finish line at a small community ultra, and for a little while everything felt normal.
“Without access to the ultra community during all of this, that’s been emotionally hard for me,” Rusiecki said. “I remember thinking after I finished, I was sitting in my backyard with a half-dozen people – that’s not a big crowd, but I have finished 100-mile races with less people at the finish line – to me it was very similar to when I finished the Vermont 100. It’s just you, your crew, the timer and maybe a small handful of people. There was this sense just sitting there, being completely fatigued, legs tired to the core, beer never tasted so good, and being surrounded by friends telling random stories about the day that it really captured the essence of an ultra as much as you could in this environment. That was what I really needed at this moment. We always try to capture a feeling of family and have a welcoming community at Vermont 100, and that’s what I got in my backyard.”
Shortly after Rusiecki concluded her successful solo fundraiser, she was approached about another opportunity to raise funds for Vermont Adaptive. Steve Roszko, the founder of RunReg, BikeReg and SkiReg, sought to adapt his race registration websites (RunReg handles VT100 registration) to adapt to the virtual racing scene, including virtual leader boards, by plotting runners’ status along the Long Trail. Having never been a Race Director, Roszko enlisted Rusiecki’s help.
“He had never RDd before, and I was intrigued to take on a little more of a role in that so ultimately that’s what we decided to do,” Rusiecki said. “He was going to just do a mileage challenge, and I thought it would be fun to add in the elevation (of the Long Trail), too, just to differentiate it from other challenges.”
With that, the Vermont Long Trail Virtual Challenge was born. For an entry fee of $35, runners had from Aug. 1 to Oct. 31 to virtually run the 273-mile trail and/or virtually complete the 65,370 feet of climbing that is amassed on the trail.
“We thought we would be really happy if we got 100 people to sign up, and we had 271 people sign up,” Rusiecki said. “I was surprised and overwhelmed to see that. It was a fun challenge, and I participated in it as well. We had maybe 85 people that finished both the mileage and elevation, which was awesome, and 200 people finished at least the mileage.”
Even more awesome, the event raised around $15,000 for Vermont Adaptive.
“It’s not a super-high amount, but with pretty minimal effort on a lot of people’s part we made a decent contribution and had a real impact,” Rusiecki said.”
For Rusiecki, the virtual event was another opportunity to support an organization that she cares deeply about, but it also allowed her to feel close to the community that she loves and misses.
“One of the really fun things about being an RD is connecting with the athletes,” she said. “I don’t know if people understand how many people connect with me to ask a question or share a story, but I do a lot of email interaction with people and get to know them over time. Through the Long Trail Challenge, I ended up interacting with a lot of people in a really positive way.”
With solo and virtual challenges over, Rusiecki’s COVID-ravaged year is winding down. She paced Justin Hetherington to his first 100-mile finish at the Midstate Massive Ultra-Trail in October, and then paced Robidoux during his 100-mile finish Nov. 7-8 at The Hamsterwheel in New Hampshire while also cheering on one of the athletes that she coaches. She’s on the start list for the Hellgate 100K on Dec. 12 in Virginia, but is uncertain if she’ll get the opportunity to race given the travel restrictions that may be in place by then.
Regardless of if that happens, she knows she’s made the most of an upside-down year and is optimistically making plans for a better – hopefully more normal – new year.
“At this point I’m focusing on what we can do for 2021,” she said of her efforts to find ways to allow racing to happen. “Races might look different, but I think there’s a lot more possibility of making things happen. There has to be a way to figure it out for next year with some advanced planning and with what we know about COVID now that we didn’t know earlier. There’s still going to be a lot of shifting, changing things around and trying new things, but I think we’re in a better place now to think toward next year and try to make things happen.”