BURCS’ Free to Run Trail Races Return at Pivotal Moment, Amass Large Donation to FTR

When the United States military and NATO forces withdrew from Afghanistan in August 2021 and the Taliban returned to power, the country was thrown into turmoil as its new leadership set about rolling back all sorts of rights people had gained and enjoyed in years prior. No group was more targeted than women and girls, as the Taliban sought to deny them access to education, freedom of expression and movement, and so much more. In a very real way the Taliban sought to deny women and girls their own identities.

One of the many consequences of the US and NATO withdrawal and the Taliban’s ascent to power was that many organizations that assisted Afghans were forced to shutter and flee the country. That was the case for Free to Run, a non-profit organization founded by ultrarunner Stephanie Case that has worked in conflict regions since 2014 to create opportunities for women and girls to take part in sports and other physical activities. That has included work in South Sudan, Hong Kong, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and current work in Iraq. Free to Run’s largest effort took place in Afghanistan where it operated for eight years before being forced to rapidly shutter and evacuate staff.

The organization continues to operate on the ground in Iraq as well as support its participants in Afghanistan from a distance through a new program called Omid – the Dari word for “hope.” Free to Run provides training and resources to its Afghan participants from a distance while in-country leaders direct indoor fitness activities.

Finishers of the Free to Run Trail Races earned wooden medals for their efforts. Photo courtesy of Benn Griffin.

During a time of such rapid, unexpected and disruptive change for Free to Run, the return of the Berkshire Ultra Running Community for Service’s Free to Run Trail Races couldn’t have come at a better time. The BURCS began playing host to the Free to Run Trail Races in 2015 under the leadership of race directors Michael Menard and Jake Dissinger after Menard learned about the Free to Run organization by reading Case’s blog posts. Through the years the BURCS’ event has raised more than $25,000 for Free to Run, as well as collected running shoes and hand-held bottles and hydration packs to support the program’s participants. The races were canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. New race director Alex Bancroft is on the Free to Run Board of Directors. She organized virtual races during the two pandemic years to help fill the fundraising gap, and she was thrilled to bring back the in-person event in 2022 at such a critical moment for the Free to Run organization.

“This past year has certainly been challenging and quite honestly, pivotal, for Free to Run, Inc. due to the takeover of the Taliban in Afghanistan,” Bancroft said. “The North Face’s film on Free to Run’s founder, Stephanie Case, during both the collapse of the Afghanistan government and her training and racing of the Tor des Glaciers 450 km really helped to spotlight what was going on behind the scenes as the organization was working to make sure all its program leaders there were able to be safely evacuated. Programs continue in Afghanistan in a safe capacity to focus on wellness since women are not allowed to participate in sport under the Taliban rule and the Iraqi program is growing and expanding in such exciting ways. Because Free to Run lost its US embassy funding, it was more important than ever for this BURCS race to be a success.”

The sixth in-person running of the Free to Run Trail Races and first since 2019 took place Saturday, Sept. 17, at Pittsfield State Forest in Pittsfield, Mass., and the BURCS community stepped up to run some tough trails and amass a sizable haul in support of the Free to Run organization. The runners took on half marathon, marathon or 50-mile distances with runners in the latter distance completing four 12.5-mile trail loops while amassing around 10,000 feet of elevation gain in total. Hard-earned finishes were their reward for running, but the biggest feat was the $4,600 they raised for Free to Run, as well as a large assortment of sports bras that were donated.

Participants in the Free to Run Trail Races amassed a $4,600 donation to Free to Run and collected 100 sports bras to be sent to the program’s participants in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Alex Bancroft.

“We raised $4,600 to donate to Free to Run! And the sports bras … can I just say how floored I was by the outpouring of support for the collection of sports bras to send over to Free to Run’s Iraqi participants,” Bancroft said. “We collected exactly 100 sports bras.”

Emotions were high among the runners and volunteers as they gathered for the start of the race. They were eager to see the event brought back, but they were also moved by the cause they were supporting.

“The day before the race, I put a call out to the runners on our Facebook page to watch Stephanie’s film as I thought it would really give them an outside purpose on race day,” Bancroft said. “I still can’t watch it without bawling, so it was very touching that so many of the runners came up to me, with tears in their own eyes, to tell me how much the film inspired them. That is what BURCS is all about – connecting the running community with a greater cause and helping to shine a spotlight on other organizations near and dear to our hearts. I am truly honored to do this work with Benn (Griffin) and the great BURCS community”

Though the turnout on race day was smaller than in years past – at least five entrants stayed home due to COVID-19 – those who toed the starting line and took on one, two or four loops of the course raced with passion.

Racing just his third ultra and first 50-miler, 21-year-old Aaron Motis of Fairbanks, Alaska, spent his first two loops in second place and about 10 minutes behind early leader Jeremy Shafer, 45, of New Hartford, Conn., an ultra veteran and finisher of numerous BURCS races. Motis moved to the front during his third loop and built a seven-minute lead with 12 1/2 miles to go before ultimately pulling away for the win in 10:26:41. It was Motis’ first ultramarathon victory.

Shafer followed 23 minutes later in second place in 10:49:15. For Shafer, it was just the latest in a long line of strong performances at BURCS races; he finished eighth overall at the Sweltering Summer 8-hour, fifth overall at the Jug End Loop Ultra 6-hour, and second overall at the Notchview Ultra 100.7-miler, and ninth overall at the Vegan Power 50K earlier this season. BURCS newcomer Jon Cluett, 48, of Chestnut Hill, Mass., finished third in 11:27:54, and first-time ultrarunner Jordan Safer, 26, of Somerville, Mass., earned fourth place overall in 11:50:40. The race was also the first 50-miler for fifth-place finisher Andrew Shirman, 34, of Waltham, Mass. (12:38:19), sixth-place finisher Wes Lambert, 30, of Brooklyn, N.Y. (12:43:37), and seventh-place finisher Benjamin Crawford, 26, of South Boston, Mass. (12:50:49).

Hester Glaeser closes out one of her four loops through the course in the 50-mile race at the Free to Run Trail Races on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022. Glaeser was the women’s champion in the 50-miler. Photo courtesy of Alex Bancroft.

In the women’s field, 39-year-old Hester Glaeser of Brookline, N.H., earned her first ultramarathon victory with a solid final tune-up race before making her 100-mile debut in October at the Midstate Massive Ultra-Trail. Glaeser topped the women’s field in 13:20:11 while placing eighth overall. Rebecca Doring, 33, of Cornwall Bridge, Conn., capped her first 50-mile race by placing second in the women’s field in 14:39:48. Rounding out the women’s field was Carla Halpern, 53, of New Salem, Mass. Halpern donated a kidney in mid-July, and Free to Run was her third – and longest – ultra since surgery. She built upon her efforts at the BURCS Sweltering Summer 8-Hour and the recent Village Ultra (which she also directs) by finishing 50 miles at Free to Run in 18:29:24.

Additional finishers of the 50-miler included 45-year-old Aaron Terranova of Greensboro, N.C. (13:32:18); Kyle Wright, 31, of Malta, N.Y. (14:36:49); and Scott Johnson-Yasufuku, 44, of Hampden, Mass. (14:08:16). Fifteen runners started the 50-miler, and 13 ultimately finished.

“The runners that did show up were amazing and inspiring,” Bancroft said. “It’s no secret that Free to Run is the BURCS’ most physically challenging race and I was surprised at how many runners told me it was their first time running their distance or even that it was their first trail race. Considering that, the high finisher rate was amazing. The course was extremely well marked by volunteers Jay (Durand) and Ben (Manning), and the aid stations were covered by wonderful people from the BURCS community.”

Saez, Allen Top Marathon Field

Ten runners logged a mile on the road followed by two loops of the course, amassing around 5,000 feet of climbing on their way to marathon finishes. DJ Saez, 25, of Jim Thorpe, Pa., led the race nearly wire to wire. He knocked out the first 13 1/2 miles in 2:27 and built an 18-minute on his closest competitors, Ayaz Asif, Cullen Sweeney and Elaine Allen, 54, of Hamden, Conn., by the time he began his second loop through the course. Saez continued to pull away from the field during his second loop and won comfortably in 4:46:47. Asif, 46, of Springfield, N.H., finished second overall in 5:37:46, followed a few minutes later by Allen, the first-place female and third overall finisher, in 5:43:40. Grayson Llerandi, 29, of Raleigh, N.C., was the women’s runner-up and fourth overall finisher in 5:55:47. Robert Breckenridge, 51, of Keene, N.H., was the final runner to dip under the 6-hour mark, finishing in 5:56:00.

Other marathon finishers were Sweeney, 25, of Scituate, Mass. (6:10:32); Christine Da Silva, 35, of Everett, Mass. (7:38:12); Jennifer Smith, 44, of Scituate, Mass. (7:47:16); Alex Smith, 45, of Scituate, Mass. (7:59:24); and Nancy Mead, 57, of Wendell, Mass. (8:56:11).

Wright Wins Half Marathon in Trail Debut; Duncan Fends of Pack in Battle for Second

Owwen Wright’s trail-running debut saw the 24-year-old from Amherst, Mass., cruise to victory on the one-loop course with 2,500 feet of climbing. Wright became the fourth runner in race history to finish in less than 2 hours. His winning time of 1:57:20 was the third-fastest in course history.

Twenty minutes behind Wright, a tight battle unfolded for second place overall. The top two women and next two men were separated by less than two minutes which made for a drama-filled final two miles as runners made their way from the last aid station to the finish. Ultimately, 24-year-old Frances Duncan of Red Hook, N.Y., held on and placed second overall while also finishing atop the women’s field in 2:17:22. Barely a minute later, 24-year-old Jared Nussbaum of Framingham, Mass., crossed the finish line in third overall in 2:18:30. Thirty seconds later, 32-year-old Mike Barnes of Boston, Mass., finished to round out the men’s podium in 2:19:00 while placing fourth overall. Sarah Barnes, 32, of Boston, Mass., followed closely after in 2:19:24 for fifth overall and second in the women’s field.

Thirty runners finished the half marathon.

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