The fourth annual Steel Rail Half Marathon might just be the busiest, and it might also be the most competitive.
The latest running of the 13.1-mile race will take place Sunday morning. The race will start at the Berkshire Mall and end in Adams at the end of the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail.
"We have about 790 people signed up. Typically we have about five percent of the people who don't start the race," said Berkshire Running Center co-owner Kent Lemme. "We closed registration two weeks ago. We try to cap it at 750, plus we get some sponsor runners and so forth."
The Steel Rail starts at 9:30 a.m. from behind the mall, with the runners circling the complex twice before heading down the Mall Road to the Rail Trail. From there, it's a straight shot to the Visitors Center in Adams.
Lemme said that drivers who are not watching the race should expect some delays on Route 8 between 9:30 and 12:30 because the trail crosses the road.
Not only will the race be perhaps the biggest ever — depending on how many of the 790 finish — but it could even be faster than it was a year ago.
Two-time defending champion Eric Ashe of Boston, who set a Steel Rail record a year ago, is back to try for a three-peat. But this year, it won't be easy.
"I believe it is," said Lemme, when asked if this year's half-marathon would be the most competitive of the four.
"We have two guys, both of whom have run in the Olympic marathon trials this past January. Both have sub 1:05 half-marathon [personal records]. I expect those two to be our frontrunners."
The other frontrunner with Ashe is Jacob Sienko of Warwick, R.I.
Both Ashe and Sienko had qualified to run in the U.S. Olympic trials in Los Angeles back in February. Ashe did not finish the race, but Sienko was 71st in a time of 2 hours, 30 minutes and 14 seconds. Sienko's time for the first half of the trials was 1:10:41.
Last year, Ashe won the race in 1:10:06, breaking the course record of 1:11:48 that he set in 2014. Ashe beat runner-up Chris Mahoney of Westford by nearly three minutes last year.
"[Ashe] has used this as a training run because he's run his half-splits in the marathons at a faster pace than he's been running our halves," said Lemme. "He's just been using at as a workout."
Mark Rabasco of Pittsfield, winner of the inaugural race, is also in the men's field.
Women's champion Heather Mahoney, Chris Mahoney's wife, will not be back to defend her title. Jackie Lemme — Kent's daughter and a former standout runner at Mount Greylock and St. Lawrence University — finished last year 47 seconds behind Mahoney.
But Kent Lemme said that 32-year old Apryl Sabadosa of Westfield is a late entry. She has run a 1:20 half-marathon. She ran the Boston Marathon last month in 3:09:38, and her time in the first half was 1:28:57.
Megan Anello, who won the inaugural Steel Rail women's race and finished fifth two years ago, is back in the field this year. Anello won the Women's Running Race earlier this month.
"Our goal all along was to put a big race on in the Berkshires that drew people from outside the Berkshires to come here," said Lemme. "We spent most of our lives traveling to other places to run races. We felt like we have a beautiful place that we should be able to put a race on to get people to come here.
"We're starting to see that happen."
Contact Howard Herman at 413-496-6253.