Course descriptions below courtesy of the amazing race photographer, writer, and ultra runner Ben Kimball. Check out his great Trail Running Western Massachusetts book when you have a chance.
Free to Run Trail Races Course Description
The Free to Run Trail Races are held on a challenging but rewarding 12.5-mile loop located entirely within Pittsfield State Forest in Pittsfield, MA. The loop consists mostly of singletrack hiking and mountain-bike trails, with a few dirt road sections, a small paved portion at the start, and a short paved stretch near the top of the ridge. There is approximately 2,000-2,500 ft. of elevation gain per loop (with actual figures depending on whose GPS watch you want to trust; ours rarely match exactly!), and some of the climbs are definitely steep. Some sections are considered fairly technical by most standards, but the majority is “runnable” and/or power-hikeable and you shouldn’t need to use your hands anywhere. Included in the loop is a wide-open vista at which you will definitely be tempted to stop and take in the magnificent view of the Taconics. 50-mile runners complete four full loops. Marathon runners do two loops with an additional (~1 mile) paved road out-and-back at the beginning of the race. Half-marathoners complete one lap with an out-and-back at the beginning as well.
Note: As with any trail race, the actual distance and elevation gain shown on individual GPS devices will likely vary due to trees, tight switchback curves, etc. Official times are based on crossing the finish line for your distance, even if it includes extra mileage on your watch.
The 12.5-mile loop used in all races begins and ends at the Lulu Brook picnic area. Starting from near the bathroom building at the upper end of the open picnic area lawn, runners will briefly head northeast towards the paved Berry Pond Circuit Road. Marathoners and half-marathoners will complete a short (~1-mile) out-and-back segment at the start of their first loop; this portion is slightly downhill on the way out and slightly uphill on the way back.
Entering the woods at the Lulu Brook trailhead on the east side of Circuit Road, you begin climbing the Taconic Ridge on the rugged Lulu Brook hiking trail. You ascend steadily for about a mile and half to a junction with Honwee Loop Trail. Here you bear left, stay left at the next junction, cross a bridge, and arrive at the paved Circuit Road. You will turn right and go uphill on the road for a few feet and then immediately veer right back into the woods on the Wendell Berry Way hiking trail, which you will follow for a little over a quarter of a mile to a wooded junction near the spine of the ridge.
Turning left onto the Taconic Crest Trail, you will climb some more back to Circuit Road. Staying on the Taconic Crest Trail, you will turn right, follow the road for a few feet again, and veer right back into the woods on a slightly wider, grassy hiking path for a short but steep climb up past Azalea Meadow. You will bear right at a junction just below the summit of Berry Hill and then drop down a grassy path to the vista and first aid station. From the vista, descend the paved Circuit Road a tenth of a mile to Berry Pond (at 2,150 ft., the highest natural waterbody in MA), then climb another tenth of a mile to where the Taconic Crest Trail bears into the woods to the right. You ascend, steeply at first and then more gradually, to the south. You will rise and fall along the winding singletrack route for one mile to the semi-open summit of Tower Hill.
From the top of Tower Hill, you take a left and quickly drop down to the wide Taconic Skyline Trail, where you again take a left. ATVs are allowed on this section and there are several severely eroded spots where there will likely be mud or standing water. You follow this trail for about ¾ of a mile to the next aid station at a junction with Circuit Rd. From the aid station, you continue east on wide Taconic Skyline Trail for half a mile, rising at first and then gently descending. You bear sharply left at a junction with North Branch Trail, then take an immediate right onto Turner Trail. You will follow this hiking trail across the crest of a gently dropping wooded ridge for about half a mile.
This is where the fun begins. From an unmarked junction (the course will be well marked on race day, though!) the course follows the switchbacky route of the new Turner Trail (the old one drops straight downhill along an eroded path of loose stones). This singletrack trail brings you over a mile almost all the way down the slope via a tremendous number of tight, well-graded curves and turns. At the bottom of the Turner descent, veer right on a wider path that leads gently down to the west to Circuit Road.
Cross over Circuit Road and descend on a dirt road past several campsites to a wide wooden bridge over Parker Brook, then climb a few feet up the next aid station. Take a right and climb steeply along the Parker Brook hiking trail for a little over a mile to a junction with a trail leading to the right. Stay straight and then quickly veer hard left at the outlet of the Tilden Swamp beaver pond. Climb gradually for a tenth of a mile to a junction with Pine Mountain Trail. Take a left on Pine Mountain Trail and climb half a mile to the summit of Pine Mountain. There is one particularly steep pitch with a wooden handrail, but it’s short and you’ll reach the top soon afterwards.
From the summit of Pine Mountain (2,230 ft.), you begin a long drop down singletrack hiking trail to the bottom, alternately steeply and gently in places, making several key turns and changing trails a few times along the way (all well-marked on race day). About half a mile down, take a left onto the Hawthorne Trail. Staying on the Hawthorne Trail at several more junctions and intersections, you will eventually begin to level out. After passing a wooded pond to the left, emerge at an open area with the final aid station.
From the last aid station, swing left and cross Circuit Road. At the edge of a small paved parking lot, enter the woods on a hiking trail. Follow the flat hiking trail a few hundred feet to another crossing of Circuit Road. From here, follow a somewhat convoluted but well-marked route along a network of undulating singletrack trails, primarily on the Bearclaw, Whispering Pines, and Deer Hill trails, gently rising and falling a number of times along the way. Eventually you will cross Circuit Road one last time, enter the woods on the other side (there is a small network of unmarked XC ski trails here) and quickly take a left at a junction. Climb gently along the singletrack path to a junction with a wide, flat path and go right. In just under a quarter of a mile you will drop sharply down a short slope to the start/finish area.