PITTSFIELD — The running community in the Berkshires always has been a small and hardy group, but for many years, it was not a united one. Running news traveled either slowly or not at all among the north, south and central regions of the county. Runners in one area often didn't know about road races in another.
Veteran Berkshire runners Kent and Shiobbean (pronounced Sha-VAWN) Lemme saw a need to bring all these factions together, and they founded the Berkshire Running Center in Pittsfield 10 years ago in order to do so. The couple, who have been married for eight years, have become fixtures on the Berkshire running scene. The Berkshire Running Center now manages most of the county's annual road races, and provides the timing for a lot of them, too.
One of the Lemmes' signature races has been the Steel Rail Half Marathon between Pittsfield and Adams on the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail, a race that they founded eight years ago. In May, because of a partnership between the Berkshire Running Center and the city of Pittsfield, the Steel Rail will hold its first marathon, which will start and end in Pittsfield because of the rail trail's expansion from the Berkshire Mall in Lanesborough to Crane Avenue. The race will serve as a qualifier for the Boston Marathon.
We spoke with the Lemmes recently about their passion for running, why they started their business, how they became a couple, and why they believe the Steel Rail Marathon can become as popular and lucrative for Pittsfield as similar events have been in other communities.
Q: I read somewhere that you have 50 years of running experience between the two of you. Is that true, and if it is, explain it to me, because that seems like an awful lot.
Shiobbean: Between the two of us, we're probably more than 50 now (Shiobbean is 54 and Kent is 55). I think I started — Do you call it a running career? — in my mid-20s, so, that's 30 years ago. But, I started coaching and training and everything else about 20 years ago, before I met Kent.
Kent: I've been an athlete all my life, but I thought that running was something that you did to get into shape to play a real sport. Then, on Sept. 11, 2001, I went on a vision quest to become the best runner that I could become, and that's when I started learning about the sport and training properly [Kent Lemme is a highly ranked masters runner in USA Track & Field, the sport's governing body].
Q: How did 9/11 lead to this?
Kent: It was just the whole realization when everything happened.
I was actually playing in a golf tournament that day up in Vermont [Lemme is a former golf course superintendent at Berkshire Hills Country Club in Pittsfield and Taconic Golf Club in Williamstown] and listening to Howard Stern on the drive up and hearing about the planes crashing. We played in the tournament, and on the ride back, I went home and kind of evaluated where I was.
I was probably 35 at the time, and said the only two things I had ever been passionate about were music and sports, and I had never done either one to the best of my potential. So, I decided that I would be good at this running thing.
Q: Where did it lead from there?
Kent: I just started reading books, talking to people, running with people, learning everything that I could. The whole idea of the Berkshire Running Center started after about eight years of serious running; we'd have to drive over an hour each way [from the Berkshires] to get to a run-specialty store, and I thought, 'Man, shouldn't we have one of these in the Berkshires?" That's when I started looking around and met Shiobbean. She was already doing a training program [at Berkshire Nautilus in Pittsfield].
Q: Were you guys married then?
Shiobbean: We didn't even know each other.
Q: How did you meet?
Shiobbean: It was at the Josh [the Josh Billings RunAground triathlon, in 2009]. Kent had ironed [competed as an ironman, or solo performer, in all three events. Lemme won the ironman at the Josh from 2015 to 2019, and set a course record in 2017 that was broken this year].
They have a little party afterwards. I was on the committee, and we were giving out the mugs and we started talking. I don't even remember what we were talking about. I think I said I was working at Nautilus and he said "I've always wanted to open a running store."
Q: It sounds like a marriage made in running heaven.
Shiobbean: So, we went out one night for drinks ... no, I'm just kidding. ... We found that running was such a big part of our life and we liked each other. ... We had a great surprise wedding. I didn't realize we were getting married that day.
Q: How did it happen?
Kent: At the time, I was the race director of the Monroe Trail Races up in Monroe State Forest. I told her we needed to go up and continue marking trail after I got home from coaching cross-country at MCLA [the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts]. ...
It's called Raycroft Outlook. It's not on the racecourse, but I was telling her that it's a shame, that it's the prettiest spot there is and [the runners] never get to see it. And we went to walk down there and her friends had dressed it all up. ... There was a justice of the peace.
Q: You didn't go running after you got married, did you?
Shiobbean: No, but I had running shoes on, and my hair was still wet.
Q: Why did you see a need for forming the Berkshire Running Center?
Kent: There was no functional home.
We always said we wanted to be like the Grand Central Station for running in the Berkshires. There were all these clubs and groups that ran in North County and South County, but there was no cohesiveness to the Berkshire running scene. So, we thought that would be one of the positive benefits of opening up a store. ... People could say, "Hey, we're putting on a run in South County; can you let people in North County know about it?" ... By and large, anyone who wants to put on a running race in Berkshire County contacts us.
Shiobbean: We produce 25 races a year. We time every [high school] cross-country meet. ... We are hired by virtually every other race in the Berkshires to time their race, so, Kent invested in the timing system ... and then we came up with the Steel Rail idea.
Q: Where did that idea come from?
Shiobbean: It may have been as easy as Kent likes [Steel Rail] beer, and there's a bike path and it used to be steel rails [a former railroad track]. ... We look at it as an economic driver for the city. ... In our last Steel Rail [in October], I think we had 22 states represented [by runners]. ... Mayor [Linda] Tyer has asked us year after year to put on a marathon. It wasn't until the bike path was extended that it was feasible for us.
Q: How would the marathon be an economic driver for the city of Pittsfield?
Shiobbean: I ran the marathon in New York a couple of weeks ago. A report has come out that of the 30,000 people who ran in it, the average amount of revenue spent was $1,800 per runner over the weekend. If you came to the Berkshires to run the Steel Rail, which people from 22 states did [in October], you have to eat three meals a day, and usually when you're doing an event, somebody is coming with you.
Kent and I go to events, and there's no reason why Pittsfield or anywhere else in the Berkshires can't have a 10,000-person event that brings millions of dollars into the community. ... So, what we need is proof of concept. You support us in doing these events and it's going to come back to your community. We know it works, because we've seen it.