If you’re familiar with fables of Sasquatch (Bigfoot) and get a kick out of those superstitions and enjoy spending time outside, then chances are you’d enjoy a trail running event hosted by the burgeoning-yet-grassroots Sassquad Trail Running organization based in New Jersey and its surrounding trails.
Typically, the events average 200 runners depending on the venue. Though, within the last year, the turnout has exploded, notes Kim Levinsky, the founder of Sassquad Trail Running, which first debuted a race five years ago. The 2022 Squatchy Leftovers multi-distance event sold out to 275 racers. In March that same year, the Squatchapple event hit the ceiling of 300 registrants. The following month, the Big Bear Squatch North half marathon and 50-kilometer races filled up to the cap with 325 participants.
“I’m enjoying the ride right now and seeing it grow. I’m not sure it’ll ever be 1,000 people in a race, because I’m a runner as well, and I think that takes away from local feel. As a race director I feel once you get over 200 people it’s hard to interact with everybody. We will be intentional about keeping races on smaller side,” she says.
Levinsky grew up in the town of Caldwell, New Jersey, an hour south of where she lives now in Vernon Township. The suburbs of Caldwell sit 20 miles outside of New York City, and are full of commuters that buzz in and out of the Big Apple every day. Vernon is more than an hour’s drive outside of the city: a rural area with a couple of ski resorts and a handful of farms.
A lifetime athlete, Levinsky grew up playing basketball and softball, which she honed through college at a quaint NCAA Division III school, where she also earned a degree in digital communication. Post-college was when she started running. “A lot of college athletes get to the end of their career and they feel, ‘Now what?’ There’s a hole that athletics always filled,” she says. In 2013, she’d gone to grad school at Cedarville University in Ohio where she was a graduate assistant and coached softball. Her younger brother, who played basketball in college, asked if she wanted to train for a half marathon. At first she was apprehensive. Running had been a form of punishment in her collegiate career.
But she trained for and ran the Queen Bee Half at the Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her brother bailed but he did cheer her on from the sidelines, and she’s not upset at the outcome. “I was head over heels with running. I loved the training and vibes around it. I have the typical ultrarunner all-or-nothing personality. I went from half to full marathon, to 50k on trails to 50 miles in 1.5 years,” she says. She got hooked on trail running through running friends at work, who also worked as athletic coaches and trainers, who invited her to run a 50k, which was “just a few more miles than a marathon.”
Alongside her friends, she signed up for the “no-frills” 2014 Mayapple Trail Run 50k, a looped course in New Jersey’s 2,110-acre South Mountain Reservation, filled with a valley floor, two mountain ridges, double-wide gravel roads and technical singletrack chockfull of roots and rocks. There were rolling hills and a few steep climbs totaling 1,500 feet of ascent.
Now Levinsky’s passion is running on dirt singletrack. “The year I first did the race they were still using an analog kitchen clock — something you’d have hanging on your wall at home — to start the race. I was coming from doing road races where it’s really intense, and here everyone is hanging out with friendly vibes and manually recording the finish times. Once I started helping them, we got a digital race clock,” says Levinsky, who is now the co-race director of the Mayapple Trail Run. Today, the event uses a chip timing system and bibs.
After coaching in Ohio for six years, she moved back to New Jersey in 2016, and picked up a job at a therapy rehabilitation center doing administrative work. After less than two years, Levinsky “wanted to pull her hair out with nine-to-five,” and had always wanted to start her own business. At the time, she was coaching youth sports workouts and wanted to get more involved with the trail community, who had become her core group of friends. She’d gotten involved in a Moms RUN This Town chapter (now called She RUNS This Town). “They are welcoming, inclusive, and I started sharing thoughts and dreams of putting on a trail race locally. This group of women were incredibly supportive and said to put it on and see what happens,” says Levinsky.
She created a traditional no-cost fat-ass race, in 2018. No swag. No aid. There were six-hour, three-hour, and 5k looped options. The race was a fundraiser for the South Mountain Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the South Mountain Reservation, where the race takes place. One hundred runners and hikers showed up to that first event. “They were all really excited there was a new event in area and wanted to know when next event would be,” says Levinsky. That original event is now known as the Frost Fat Sass, which is held, still in bare-bones style, every January.
Clearly there was a huge demand for trail running and hiking events like this one. Levinsky launched a couple more races and, by 2020, the momentum snowballed. She left her full-time job to pursue being a race director and running Sassquad full-time.
“Our goal is to welcome all peoples’ paces and ages. We want Sassquad to be a safe, approachable space for people to come out. We have a lot of newbies who have never tried trail running or races before,” says Levinsky, and that includes getting more women on trails.
Today, at least 50% of participants at Sassquad events are female. There are also generous cutoff times, which encourages back-of-the-packers and masters runners to sign up, such as Sassquad regulars 90-year-old Arch Seamans and 77-year-old Kathleen Davies.
“As a race director, you see and hear a lot of really incredible stories. It’s such a neat privilege. A lot of people pour out their heart and soul to you at finish line about what they’ve overcome to get to start or finish and what the race means to them. Seeing how transformative running and hiking can be for everyone else is a huge purpose,” says Levinsky.
Sassquad offers a dozen events of various distances. There are 5,600 runners registered for the Sassquad email blast. That’s anyone who has signed up for a race or subscribed to the email list. Usually, runners from the tri-state region show up for events — New York, New Jersey, Connecticut — as well as Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware. The November race, Squatchy Leftovers, usually draws runners from across 15 states, because it’s a holiday weekend and visitors are in the area. Last year, there were even a handful of international runners from Argentina and France.
The events each fundraise to give back to an organization including the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, Bigger Than the Trail, The New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, and Operation Chillout.
To help troubleshoot obstacles, Levinsky says, “We have an awesome community of race directors here in the New York-New Jersey area. I’m in regular contact with my fellow race directors. We openly support each other online and in-person through running or volunteering at each other’s events. I feel lucky to have those great relationships. We are able to chat, swap ideas, and problem-solve.”
Each race runs off the backbone of the Volunteer Dream Team, a crew of five of Levinsky’s foundational friends behind-the-scenes that cheered her on to launch the race organization in the first place.
“We have a six-person group chat that we’ve had for years, and it’s absurd. Everything gets out of control, especially the event naming process, which is very fun and has to involve ‘Sass’ or ‘Sassquad’ or ‘Squatch,’” says Levinsky. All of the events are referred to as a “Trail Party” and have a silly twist. For instance, the Squatchy Onesiefest is “where everyone wears onesies. Nearly every runner is a grown adult, and everyone is in onesies. Thankfully, we lucked out and it was colder this year. Last year, the temperatures were in the 40s Fahrenheit and runners were ripping off onesies,” she says.
The focal point of Sasquatch, also called Bigfoot, comes from a love for Sasquatch folklore that is had by Levinsky and her sister Debbie, who is also a runner. While getting ready for a half marathon that they were running together, they got a kick out of making a t-shirt that combined the words “Sasquatch” and “squad” into “Sassquad.” The name stuck.
“The Sasquatch is universal symbol. Everyone knows the silhouette. It’s fun, goofy, and mythical. Squad is all about community, so being in a place where everyone is welcome,” explains Levinsky.
Between sanctioned events, Sassquad also organizes plogging meetups, no-drop run meetups, trail running 101 clinics, and trail maintenance days. This September 2023 will be the inaugural Wild Goose 100 Mile, the organization’s first-ever 100 miler. In step with being inclusive, the cutoff is 36 hours. The route features 11,000 feet of climbing over three loops, that all return to the central aid station. The event is aimed at new and competitive runners alike, as well as hikers. Shorter distances will be offered, too. Levinsky notices that some participants enjoy hiking the entire race. The 50 miler will also have a 36-hour cutoff.
Levinsky says, “I get feedback at races that a lot of folks are newer runners and are trying a race for the first time. My favorite thing to hear, that gets me teary-eyed and gushy, is when I hear that they were nervous to come out and then they felt at home and comfortable. When they say, ‘I came to Sassquad and found my people.’ Seeing people get plugged in and get connected with people they never would have connected with had it not been for trails is the best.”
This July, Levinsky plans to run and hike the 358-mile Long Path Trail in New York, and is fundraising for the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference and Bigger Than the Trail along the way. The route starts in Albany and finishes in Manhattan, in New York City, by crossing the historic George Washington Bridge. She plans to sleep on the trail in the Catskill Mountains, as well as in hotels and the back of her truck at various points with crew support. She was inspired to build off of her 2022 fundraiser, when she ran the Tahoe 200 Mile and raised $1,500.
Levinsky says, “I’d only done two 100-mile efforts before Tahoe, and I felt like those were incredibly transformative. But the 200 miler is so long. So much happens in four days, and there’s so much sleep deprivation. Your soul separates from your body and it was amazing. The whole time during I was like, ‘I’m never doing this again.’ It wasn’t even 24 hours after the race ended and I was like ‘I have to do this again.’”
Call for Comments
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