Memorial Day weekend may still be a week away, but for the Berkshire County running community, Sunday marks the official start of the outdoor season.
The Steel Rail Half Marathon returns this weekend with plans to be bigger and better than ever.
According to Berkshire Running Center, the half marathon portion of Sunday's event sold out its 750 slots about two months prior to the starting gun. The 8K race, a recent addition to the Steel Rail, sold out its 200 spots a couple weeks later.
"We want to make it as big as we can accommodate," said BRC co-owner Kent Lemme. "We've looked at ways to slowly increase the number of spots, but in small amounts so we're sure we can handle it and keep it as the best race possible."
Half marathoners will head to the Berkshire Mall in Lanesborough for the starting line. The gun will sound at 9:30 a.m., and runners will be off looping around the mall twice before banking a hard left onto the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail for about 11 miles.
The course record is held by Eric Ashe, who completed the Steel Rail in 1 hour, 9 minutes and 43 seconds back in 2016. Ashe will not be contending in the 2018 race, but several other past champions will be on hand. Two-time winners Apryl Sabadosa and Mark Rabasco will be on the course looking to defend their 2017 titles. Sabadosa set the female course record last spring in 1:19.56, repeating as champion. Rabasco returned last season to win in 1:14.23, after also claiming the inaugural crown in 2013. Fellow 2013 champ, Megan Anello will also be racing Sunday.
Lemme says Sabadosa will be tough to beat if she is on her game, but also mentioned Lauren Philbrook, Jackie Lemme and Nick Curelop as runners to keep an eye on at the front of the pack.
The Masters record holders are Mark Mayall (1:15.59 in 2014) and Ann Marie Swann (1:32.58) in 2013.
The race itself still serves as a fundraiser for the Ashuwillticook. The Steel Rail has raised more than $40,000 for the trail over the last five years, and is hoping to only add to it in 2018. The money, according to Lemme, has mostly gone toward purchasing small equipment that helps with the upkeep and expansion of the trail.
As the Steel Rail continues to grow, Berkshire Running Center is pushing for it to become more of a community event. The regular prize money this year instead went to quarter-zip shirts for the first 350 registrants. The Bounti-Fare, which will set up shop next to the finish line at the Adams Visitors Center, has brought in a live band to provide free entertainment. There will also be beer and food for sale at the after party, beginning at 4 p.m.