Teenagers run in a green field
Raj Chawla

On these trails, it's not whether you win or lose—it's how you run the race

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Ever watch the Olympics on TV? You notice how nervous tension builds before a race: In the moments just before the starting gun, the camera pans across the resolute faces of the athletes arranged on the line, taking big deep breaths to steady themselves. “On your mark …” and stillness descends. “Get set …” and their bodies coil in preparation, years of training and dedication all coming together for this moment

Ugh. Who needs that kind of pressure?

If you love to compete, but want to skip the anxiety that comes along with it, you’d fit right in on the trails at the Catamount Outdoor Family Center, an open space on the outskirts of Burlington, Vermont. Catamount is home to two of the longest-standing race series in New England: a Tuesday night mountain bike race and a Wednesday night foot race.

Dozens of people run away from the camera in a green fieldThe weeknight race series at Vermont's Catamount Outdoor Family Center can draw hundreds of people, from elite athletes to first-time racers. Everyone shares the same course, and prizes are awarded for attendance, rather than speed.Photo credit: Catamount Outdoor Family Center

Of course, say race regulars, there aren’t too many people who don’t fit in at Catamount: “You’ll see Division 1 runners lined up next to people walking their first 5k, Olympians next to kids jogging with their grandparents, middle-aged guys giving it their all,” says Kyle Darling, a Burlington resident who’s raced on the trails at Catamount for most of his life. “That’s what’s special about it: everyone competes on the same course, at the same time.”

The popular race series are the brainchild of Jim and Lucy McCullough, fourth-generation owners of the 400-acre property in the town of Williston. “It’s an amazing combination of open land, forest, and great views. You can see the Adirondacks and Lake Champlain to the west, and the Green Mountains and the Winooski River to the east,” says Jim.

Jim and Lucy McCullough in a black and white photographLucy and Jim McCullough began welcoming their friends and neighbors to explore their land 40 years ago. “We’ve always tried to welcome as many people as possible to enjoy it, share it, and benefit from the land like we have,” says Jim. Photo credit: Lucy and Jim McCullough

The McCulloughs could easily have kept this land and its beauty to themselves, but instead they created the Catamount Outdoor Family Center, inviting generations of Vermonters to explore the place alongside them. “We’ve always tried to welcome as many people as possible to enjoy it, share it, and benefit from the land like we have,” says Jim. Over the years, they built more than 20 miles of trails for skiing and snowshoeing in winter, and running, hiking, and mountain biking in summer. The center hosts camps and school groups, solo adventurers, biologists, and of course, the races—a weeknight mainstay for thousands of local athletes of every age, inclination, and ability.

Catamount’s races are special for a few reasons. There aren’t divisions or classes, meaning every participant is racing on the same course at the same time. And nobody much cares who crosses the finish line first. “You don’t get prizes for going fast—you win if you have the best attendance record,” says Pamela Gude, a retired teacher and Catamount regular since the 1990s. (Gude holds two claims to Catamount fame: the record for most consecutive starts in the bike series, 20 full seasons, and for most consecutive last-place finishes in the running series: “A full season of fourteen weeks, plus the first four races of the next season,” she says.)

Pamela Gude rides a bike on a boardwalk trailPamela Gude says she was never much of an athlete growing up, but has gone on to race throughout New England since coming to Catamount, even winning her age division in the state mountain biking championships.Photo credit: Pamela Gude

That laid-back atmosphere comes as a breath of fresh air for racers, no matter their level of athletic attainment. Sabra Davidson and her sister Lea first tried mountain biking at Catamount, and both went on to race professionally. Catamount is where they launched a mountain biking club for girls called Little Bellas—it’s now in 13 states and was recently profiled in the New York Times. “I loved training at Catamount because it was so approachable,” says Sabra. “You can be the most competitive person or the least, you can go hard or not. It’s very Vermont in that way.”

But times have changed since the McCulloughs began welcoming neighbors to explore these trails. Their land is just a short drive from Burlington, the largest city in Vermont. Its population is growing fast, and developers are eyeing the open spaces that remain—like the Catamount Outdoor Family Center. Lucy and Jim and received offers from developers to buy their land, “but we’ve always had this mantra: it’s better as open space, where anyone can enjoy it, than to become a gated community and off-limits to all but a few,” says Lucy.

Girls ride bikes in a fieldMore than 20 miles of trails criss-cross the property, from wide, mellow pathways through flat meadows to steep, technical single-track. "We tried to design the trails so there was something for everyone," says Jim McCullough.Photo credit: Raj Chawla

So as the McCulloughs began to plan for retirement a few years ago, they began looking for ways to protect this special place, and ensure that their friends and neighbors will always be able to explore and enjoy it. So The Trust for Public Land worked with the McCulloughs and the Town of Williston to purchase the property and create the new Catamount Community Forest. The Vermont Land Trust and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board hold an easement that protects the land from development. The deal means that one of the last big open spaces in the Burlington metro area—and one of the highest concentrations of great trails anywhere in New England—will remain open to the public forever.

The McCulloughs ran the Catamount Outdoor Family Center as a small family business for most of their lives, but it recently transformed into an independent nonprofit, with a mission to keep the trails open and the races running, for as long as people keep showing up to the starting line. “We’ve never really felt like we owned the place,” says Jim. “We were just the stewards of it, and now we’ve passed that on. It’s always felt like this place was bigger than us anyway.”

Ask anyone who’s spent time on the trails and they’ll probably agree. “I spent so much time out there that I was one of the ‘Catamount kids,’” says Kyle Darling. “Though I guess there have been Catamount kids for more than 40 years now.” He says his time on trails at Catamount kindled his lifelong connection to nature. He’s lived, explored, and guided trips in some of the biggest mountains and wildest areas in North America, but says no matter where he went he never found a place where so many people were so connected to a place as they are at Catamount. “Whenever I go out there, it feels like I’m coming home,” he says.

A rainbow over a green field with a mountain in the backgroundThe McCullough's 400-acre trail center is now protected and open to the public forever as the new Catamount Community Forest.Photo credit: Catamount Outdoor Family Center

For racer Pamela Gude, the great trail network is just the start of what makes Catamount special. She has lupus, a disease that causes chronic pain and fatigue, and she says it was the community around Catamount that helped her manage her health and stay active and strong throughout her adult life. “It was Catamount that saved me,” says Gude. “Being on the land, and being around the people that Catamount brings together, is healing.”

“I used to get off work and drive straight to Catamount. But I’d be so fatigued that I’d have to roll out of my car onto the grass and sleep for half an hour,” she says. “Then, no matter how tired I felt, I’d put my bike together, head out on the trails, and just ride.”

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