Still hope for Steel Rail Half Marathon; Virtual 5K Series introduced, as Berkshire Running Center wades through coronavirus pandemic

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PITTSFIELD — While traditional starting corrals and finish lines may be on hold for a while during the coronavirus pandemic, Berkshire Running Center is trying to keep the hope alive for athletes across the county.

As of this weekend, the Steel Rail Half Marathon remains on as scheduled for May 17, and in the meantime, BRC owners Kent and Shiobbean Lemme are doing what they can to keep locals active and engaged. That means shifting and swallowing some of the joy of a traditional race to put on a Virtual Race Series of 5Ks.

"Every time there is a global pandemic, we will host a virtual race," joked Shiobbean Lemme on Friday. "That's the criteria."

The virtual series begins this weekend, with a mapped out course starting at Berkshire County Kid's Place on Wendell Avenue. Different courses will be mapped and distributed for the following two weekends.

"We have our B21 series, and people can run any of the races that we time to count toward their miles, and a lot of those have gotten canceled," said Kent Lemme. "We wanted to give those runners a chance to make up some of those miles. We've made some exceptions, but what we're trying to do with the local flavor is to pick out a race course and have people come out and run that course on their own."

As the registration email notes, participants can run anywhere and submit results to The top times and division winners of those who run the designated race course will receive gift card prizes. Registration is $25 for all three races, which includes a 'Spring 2020 BRC Virtual 5K Series' T-shirt. Donations for Kid's Place are accepted as well.

"The feedback we're getting is a lot of 'Thank you so much, I needed something to get me out the door.' I get emails like that from clients every day," said Shiobbean.

The virtual series is also serving as somewhat of a proof-of-concept for another of BRC's big events, which is also in danger of a COVID-19 cancellation, the annual Women's Running Race on Mother's Day.

Scheduled for May 10, a week before the Steel Rail, the Women's Race is the second-oldest all-women race in the country — in it's 43rd year — and serves as a major benefit for the Elizabeth Freeman Center.

"I will say we're getting a lot of response from people saying they still want to do it, and the great thing is that the Elizabeth Freeman Center would still get their support," said Shiobbean. "And it won't let our record of the oldest race die."

That race is still on as scheduled for Berkshire Community College with a kid's race and community 5K alongside it. Registration is free with T-Shirts for purchase and suggested donations to the Freeman Center. Check the BRC Facebook page for updates on whether it may become a virtual event.

As for the Steel Rail, the Lemme's have listed April 15 as the date they'll have to make a final decision on whether it can be held. With close to 500 registered to race, and another nearly 200 signed up for the 8K, it's a major ordeal to move, and there are also financial implications with vendors to keep in mind.

"We wanted to try and keep our community happy, not be the race that canceled and didn't refund money," said Shiobbean, who, as an ambassador, is using the major Freihofer's Run for Women in Albany on May 30 as somewhat of a guide. "If it came down to us not being able to have it, how were we going to work it out so we don't lose our shirt.

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"We'll just be straight. If we can't do it in May, it transfers right over to October."

The typical day of Ramblefest, Oct. 11 this year, will serves as the postponement date for Steel Rail, if it comes to that.

"Our hope is that by May, the Steel Rail is the first big event in the county," said Kent.

If it is a go for May 17, the Steel Rail will look a little different, regardless.

Due to renovation and repaving on the southern part of the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail — thanks in part to funds raised by the annual race — the starting line for the half marathon will move to the typical finish line in Adams.

The typical loops around the Berkshire Mall will instead be run in downtown Adams on a route they are working out with police chief Richard Tarsa. The following 11 miles will still be run on the Ashuwillticook, but as an out-and-back loop from the original finish line and back to the original finish line.

"We've donated over $50,000, maybe up to $58,000," said Kent of the race's fundraising for the current work being done. "We realize that the cost of that project is much more than that, but I also know that the priority for parks gets weighted by how much people are donating. So I think that all the people donating to the trail had to help the state put it as a priority for resurfacing. Which was ultimately one of the goals of putting that race on, to maintain that great asset that we have in Berkshire County."

As for the Berkshire Running Center as a business itself, things have gotten hard with the coronavirus forcing non-essential businesses to close. However, the Lemmes are making the best of a rotten situation with the help of those they serve in the running community.

"I think we have such an amazing community, and you can tell people are deliberately reaching out to make purchases, I think more for us than that they need new shoes," said Shiobbean. "It's a loss; our staff isn't working, and we aren't. People would be there right now if we were holding classes, but it got to where we weren't going to jeopardize anybody for that."

They've seen the power of running, though, and with some creativity and help, will pull through.

"The great thing is — I've been running for a long time, I ran in New York after 9-11 — running is something that is a constant," she said. "It's recession-proof. It's available to everybody. Have you ever seen as many runners and walkers as you've seen out this past week?

"It's therapeutic, and we're trying to keep it going."

Mike Walsh can be reached at, at @CLNS_Walsh on Twitter and 413-496-6240.


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