Slip & Slide – 7 Sisters Race Report (5/8/2016)

After being a runner in Boston for about 5 years, I finally took on the classic New England trail race: 7 Sisters. The reputation of this race is pretty notable: an unrelenting out-and-back filled with steep climbs, jagged rocks, and plenty of roots. As a rule of thumb, I heard that to estimate your time for this race, take your half marathon time and add an hour…or double it. Without a doubt, I came into the race with a bit of hesitation with all the notoriety and claims of difficulty. Obviously, I want to make it through the year injury-free, and tumbling head first down a shale covered descent was the last thing I wanted. But this was absolutely a bucket list race, and after finishing it I cannot wait to go back.

To add to the risk of injury, it decided to rain all week in Massachusetts leading up to the race and was forecasted to rain right as the race was starting. Nothing better than some mud to break up the slick, lichen covered sections of rock. The forecast absolutely made me hesitant and nervous about my goal of breaking 3 hours. I was coming into the race completely blind, and several friends said sub-3 was a reasonable goal. But with the rain and thoughts in the back of my head saying “this is stupid” I wasn’t sure whether I should stick to my goals or just go for it.

A car full of November Project folks made our way to Amherst early Sunday morning and got slightly optimistic when we saw blue skies. After parking at the race and picking up our bibs, it became pretty clear that we were not going to be spared as a thick fog made it abundantly clear that it was going to be wet and we would have limited visibility.  Our crew got our bibs, got our gear ready and waited for the gun to go off.

7 Sisters has a wave start to help decrease congestion on the trail which is entirely single track. Somehow I got slotted in Wave 1, so I lined up after the elites took off and waited anxiously. The rain hadn’t started yet, but I knew it would be starting soon. In no time, we were off and working our way up the way to the ridgeline. Essentially the race was a big climb up to the ridge, a run across the ridge, and then a descent on the other side of the range. After that, you turn around and do the entire thing in reverse. The major climb out from the start was somewhat technical, with portions of loose shale. Not knowing what I was in for, I quickly got into power-hike mode and marched up the mountain.

At the top, there was a steep descent. And then a steep climb. And then a steep descent. Then a little bit of runnable stuff. Honestly, the way out was such a blur that I don’t remember much more detail than that. There were a few moments of scrambling up hyper-steep sections of the trail that I knew would be interesting coming down, but it was such technical trail it was hard to make note of anything specific. About 2 miles in the rain started coming down, soaking the runners and the trail even more. Roughly 5 miles into the run, there is a beautiful overlook (I imagine, fog made it impossible to see anything) and a building with a patio that the runners must walk over. After that, we began the biggest descent down to the turn around point. At this point the trail was nothing more than mud and rocks. To be honest, I’m not sure what was worse, the rocks that you might slip on or the mud that you couldn’t stop in. Serious “style points” were earned sliding several feet down the trail at a time.

I got to the turn around in 1:14, refilled my bottle half way and took back off the trail. The mud made climbs into a game of finding hand holds to support forward movement. As runners came pouring down the trail making their way to the halfway mark, it was a tough  mix of staying out of the way and making progress. The climb from the turn around is the biggest of the entire race, so I did my best to run and hike quickly to make quick work of it. After reaching the patio again, I tried to push it as much as possible, but the mud and slippery rocks frequently had me on all fours. I lost confidence in my shoe grip and relied on tree limbs for braking. At about the 10 mile mark, Bear Mountain started to catch up with me and I felt my quads weaken. Downhills became even more treacherous but I was able to climb strong. After a few other big ups and downs, we were back at the first summit. I remember thinking on the way up that I would be able to fly down the initial section of trail, but at that point I had little faith in my legs so I took it easy. I made it to the short stretch of pavement and bolted to the finish for a time of 2:39.

I am pretty happy with my time and I think on a dry year I could probably break 2:30. As for strategy, I tried to be conservative on the out and push on the back, but given the congestion early on in the race I think a hard push up the first up hill can save a lot of time. Without a doubt I will be back to run 7 Sisters. I cannot think of a single race that I have run that has such challenging trails and climbing crammed into such a short distance.

Strava:

7 Sisters

Gear

  1. Saucony Peregrine 4
  2. Salomon Hydro Handset
  3. Garmin Fenix 3
  4. Gu, Tailwind
  5. Ciele Fast Cap

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