Mike Walsh | On Sports: Carrie Holland back in Berkshires and getting people active

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As I've grown over the past year as a first-time dog owner, I've come to relearn something I was first taught in elementary school by a Laura Numeroff book.

Before every run I've taken during this pandemic, I grab a slice of wheat bread, open the cupboard and take out the jar of Teddie Peanut Butter, load it up and fold it over. It's an extra boost of protein and carbs my no-longer-20-something body needs. But I never eat the whole thing. As soon as the lid comes off that jar, Jory patters into the kitchen and sidles up beside me performing an excellent 'sit.'

So, I tear off a corner for him and go get my shoes on. Jory follows.

"If You Give a Mouse a Cookie."

I caught up this past week with Carrie Holland, a Pittsfield native who returned to the Berkshires a few years back and now serves as managing director for Mill Town Capital. The local investment group released a major outdoor recreation initiative this week, but perhaps of late, Holland has become more known as de facto race director for a pair of virtual series that have gotten people up and outside during quarantine.

"We had our sights set on doing some trail races and sponsoring some running series, and that took a very different turn," she said. "We were interested in the appetite for that. Especially early on when there was just nothing and we couldn't escape the house. The outdoors was all we had. It was really just something to do, something fun to look forward to."

So, the Berkshire Virtual Race Challenge was the initial pivot. Six weeks of fun logging miles across various terrain, in various outfits and with various goals in mind later, the challenge came to an end.

"I was thinking maybe a dozen, two dozen people, mostly related to me, who would go out and explore and compete against each other," said Holland of the expected participation. "I was pretty shocked to see the turnout for the first series. It was a nice surprise."

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More than 550 folks joined the BVRC, logging over 3,300 miles, and with nearly $1,000 in gift cards to local business given away. Holland and her crew gave a moose a muffin, though.

"After it was done, we got a lot of notes from people saying `no, no, no, keep it going,'" said Holland. "A lot of people offering help as well, and we've got a lot of people supporting the races. So we thought with the nicer weather, we could extend it out and broaden it out to the cycling community, the paddling community, and some of the sillier challenges that will come out will get more kids involved."

She said she felt naive in assuming that by summer we'd be closer to some sort of normal, and kids would be playing sports and going to camps like she did as a youth in Berkshire County. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has been a lingering plantar injury that has dragged into summer, and thus the group has continued pivoting on its good foot.

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The Berkshire Virtual Olympics began three weeks ago, by integrating the popular Mass Audubon Pleasant Valley Wild Things 5K/10K trail race — which turns into a 15K real quick when you don't pay attention to the signage throughout Kennedy Park — and the Ride for Roots Rising bicycle challenge. Prizes this time around are going to lean more toward the donation side, with funds going to local non-profits or as sponsored donations to classrooms.

Over the Fourth of July, participants were challenged to take on any Olympic activity for 17 minutes, 76 seconds, or if you're not great at checking your watch, rack up 1,776 strokes while navigating your paddleboard into the letters USA via some Strava GPS art on Cheshire Reservoir.

Weather has postponed this weekend's Olympic events, but I'm excited for what's next. It's been a saving grace to have the outdoors of Berkshire County available during this scary stretch of history.

In fact, it was just that that brought Holland and her husband back from Washington D.C.

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"Part of the draw was to walk out of your house and have trails, or a quick drive for a good hike. We were kind of drawn back to the Berkshires for that outdoor access. To be closer to nature," she said.

And that is what has led her and Mill Town to this new outdoor recreation plan.

"A lot of the locals enjoy outdoor recreation, but we don't really think of it as an industry or an economic sector. It's just what everyone does around here," Holland said. "The last 10 years there's been more and more discussion about what people are into, how they want to spend their time, and what they will spend disposable income on. Outdoor recreation has become more and more of a topic."

The Berkshires, she notes, are kind of perfect for the core of that. If there's one thing the BVRC has shown, it's that locals enjoy getting outside. The cultural tourism economy and the infrastructure to support it are already in place, albeit taking a dramatic coronavirus hit this summer, "so why not think of them together."

"I didn't figure I'd be organizing a virtual race challenge, but I also never imagined we'd be purchasing and operating Bousquet, renovating a historic building. Really all these things I never thought I'd be a part of. But it's just exciting. I have great personal memories of all these places," said Holland. "We assume a lot of flexibility within our roles at Mill Town. Things are always evolving and different opportunities come up. But it's all based on making the Berkshires a great place to live."

Jory has now lived here for a whole year and he agrees. But I'm putting my foot down when he asks for some of my post-run chocolate milk.

Mike Walsh can be reached at mwalsh@berkshireeagle.com, at @WalshWrites89 on Twitter and 413-496-6240.


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