Free Spirit 50K Offers Trip Through History with New Ultra

When Laure and Tom Van den Broeck Raffensperger founded the New England Green River Marathon, they crafted an event that took runners on a scenic journey through rural communities and past 1800s-era infrastructure while traveling through two states.

For their newest creation – the Free Spirit 50K Ultra – they invite runners to turn back the clock even further.

Similar to the marathon course, the Free Spirit 50K will also take runners through two states – Massachusetts and Vermont – on hilly dirt and gravel roads through the countryside. It’ll even include one of the same notable landmarks — the Green River Covered Bridge — that was built in the 1870s. Still, the classic bridge will be among the younger bits of history along the ultramarathon route. Some of the history along the course dates all the way back to the 1700s.

Runners will journey through wide-open spaces, as well as gravel roads through thick forests, on the Free Spirit 50K course. Photo courtesy of Ben Kimball.

The connections to the area’s history are some of what inspired them to create the new race three years after moving to Leyden, Mass., where the race will start and end.

“Tom and I moved to Leyden in 2020, and we fell in love with the hills that surround us,” Laure Van den Broeck Raffensperger said in an email. “We had already designed one race (the New England Green River Marathon) because we wanted to share the beauty of Green River Road. The Free Spirit 50K takes place in the same area but up in the hills. These are places that we run every day, with local runners, and we love them so much we want to share them.”

Though the courses are in the same general area, the only part that overlaps between the marathon route and the 50K is the crossing of the Green River Covered Bridge. The marathon was a point-to-point, while the Free Spirit 50K is a loop course. The race will start and finish in front of Leyden Town Hall. In between, it will take runners on a journey through the surrounding towns of Guilford and Halifax, Vt. and Colrain, Mass., crossing the state border three times along the way. Runners will race on hard-packed dirt and gravel roads and amass more than 4,200 feet of climbing, which may make it an ideal tune-up before the Vermont 100 in July or the Vermont 50 in September.

One of many panoramic views of the northwest Massachusetts countryside along the Free Spirit 50K course. Photo courtesy of Ben Kimball.

Runners will encounter history with every step and every turn.

As runners depart the starting line and head through the streets of Leyden, they will pass through places where former British soldier William Dorrell organized his religious sect, the Dorrellites, and preached free love and vegetarianism in the 1790s. They’ll also pass places where the Brotherhood of the Spirit commune formed and began its expansion in the region from the late 1960s until the late 1980s.

In Vermont, runners will pass the homes and farmsteads of a diverse assortment of artists, writers, farmers and off-grid homesteaders. They’ll spot sculptures from local sculptor Mark Fenwick, whose work has enriched the community since 1969. Later, they’ll pass the 1700s-era homestead of former slave Abijah Prince and his wife, poet Lucy Terry.

Dialing the history even further back, every step of the course originated as Abenaki, Pocumtuc, and Squagheag land prior to being forced out by settlers.

A forested and sure-footed section of the Free Spirit 50K course. Photo courtesy of Ben Kimball.

“Beauty is abundant in this area, and history runs deep,” Van den Broeck Raffensperger noted. “When you’re running a race, you don’t really expect to learn much about the land that you traverse. We wanted to give runners the opportunity to learn a little about the history of the places they run through, and the people who lived there before. The further you go back in time, the more people also traveled on foot, and knowing about them provides a connection for runners today.”

The Free Spirit 50K will start at 8:30 a.m. Sunday, May 21, in Leyden. Runners will have nine hours to complete the course. Pacers are allowed.

The race is taking place in conjunction with the Leyden Running Festival, and Van den Broeck Raffensperger encouraged runners to bring their families and support crews to partake in the shorter distance options and additional festivities.

“The Leyden Library is hosting a 5K fun run/walk and a 0.5K dash on the same day, so bring your families!” she said. “The church will be selling food, and there will be a food truck, beer and music. The town common is a fun and scenic place to hang out and there should be plenty of stuff going on!”

Registration for the Free Spirit 50K is being handled online at RunReg. The entry fee is $100 per runner and the field is capped at 200 entrants. The race organizers hope to donate some of the proceeds from the event to fire departments in the towns along the route.


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