Popular race is geared toward the average runner.
This piece first appeared in The Vermont Standard.
The top finishers at Sunday’s Covered Bridges Half Marathon (CBHM) dashed cool-as-cucumbers across the finish line to courteous applause and pleasant cheers. A rowdier scene prevailed an hour or more later when clumps of ten-, eleven-, and twelve-minute milers alternately trotted and stumbled in. Woo-whooing spectators packed the perimeter of the finishing corral; they congratulated hands-on-hips, panting, sweat-drenched racers with greetings like “What’s happening, old lady?” and “Phew, I’m relieved, you’re not last!”
It is these casual runners, the men and women who enjoy the sport but entertain no hope of sustained and blinding speed, that event Co-Director Bill Blaiklock of South Woodstock says the event is geared toward. “The niche for us is not the top runners, it’s the rest of the pack,” he says, “and we want to create an experience for them.” The race has become a happening so fun and satisfying that there’s a huge demand for its 2,300 slots; the on-line only registration each December perennially closes quickly, this year in less than twenty minutes.
Runner’s World Race Finder calls the CBHM “the best 13.1 miles in New England.”
And it isn’t only because of the four namesake bridges that runners pass by or through, although they are impressive. First is the circa 1870 Meadow bridge that crosses Barnard Brook in a field just off the course, next is the Woodstock Village Middle Bridge, which replaced a metal structure in the 1960’s. Between miles seven and eight, runners pass the third oldest covered bridge in the state at Taftsville, and near the race’s end go by the Quechee bridge, a more modern but still stunning structure.
The relatively flat course, which net descends about 200 feet in elevation from start to finish, has other attractions. It meanders by buttercup-dotted meadows, horses and cows grazing in hillside fields, and lush banks of ferns, Queen Anne’s Lace, and fragrant purple and white Dame’s Rocket. Runners loop past the energizing crowds in Woodstock village, parallel the cool and quiet banks of the Ottauquechee, and pass the graves of Revolutionary War soldiers. “It’s Vermont in a little capsule,” says Blaiklock. And, the CBHM may be the only race with music all along its course. Twelve bands, one at each mile marker, play for the runners as they jog along; this year’s musicians included bag pipers, a brass band, guitarists, steel drummers, and the Pomfret Drum Corp.
To honor the race’s 20th anniversary, Hanover resident and race Co-Director Mike Silverman recruited Cupcake Queens Kathryn Page of Hanover and Sarah Barnes of Lyme to create a special treat. So in addition to the abundant oranges, bananas, bagels, yogurts, pretzels, and cookies at the finish tent, runners also enjoyed the “Big Sap.” That’s a maple buttermilk cupcake with maple buttercream toffee crunch frosting, topped with a slice of homemade toffee.
For Silverman, though, what’s most special about the race is that it engages local volunteers, charities, and merchants. “I bought 650 tee shirts for volunteers,” he says, “and I have a feeling that we won’t have any left.” Race proceeds go to recreational organizations for baseball, soccer, and the like in Woodstock, Hartland and Hartford. In return, those groups supply volunteers to set-up the start and finish areas, help with parking, man the water stops, and work other jobs on race day.
And, race officials hold back a few hundred entries, so some runners who miss out on the initial on-line registration can subsequently get in the CBHM by raising money for one of three charity “teams.” The idea has been very successful; Blaiklock estimates it’s amassed over a million dollars in contributions over the last 5 or 6 years.“People are very happy to do it, they often run for charity anyway,” he says, and since so many out-of-towners run the race, nearly three-quarters of the participants come from surrounding and distant states, Blaiklock adds, “we bring in money from the outside to local charities.”
This year’s team members ran to benefit Alzheimer’s Disease programs, David’s House, a 15-bedroom home for families of children being treated at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Hospital, and the Upper Valley Haven, an organization that helps families fighting homelessness and poverty.
Vermont’s Commissioner of Tourism and Marketing, Megan Smith, who was on hand to present awards, says events like the CBHM are great for introducing the state to would-be future tourists.
“It brings in people who might have never come to Vermont, and their families experience it,” she says, “they become believers, they get to love Vermont like we all do.”
Co-Director Silverman adds that race organizers made a special effort this year to work with local merchants, many who provided in kind donations of food or merchandise. In his regular emails to registrants in the weeks leading up to the race, for example, he included local coupons and links to websites describing other nearby activities. “We want to make sure that Upper Valley towns and Chambers know that we want to help them,” he says. It’s estimated that every CBHM runner brings along three spectators.
Sunday’s weather was race-perfect, with mild temperatures and only a gentle breeze. Justin Montgomery, 35, of Claremont, New Hampshire crossed the finish line first, with a time of 1:12:42, an improvement of 33 seconds over his time for a fourth place last year, and more than six minutes better than his initial go at the course three years ago. A first-timer took the women’s race; 23-year-old Kate Hails of Somerville, Massachusetts turned in a time of 1:23:18, she was nearly two and a half minutes ahead of her nearest competitor.
But as race Co-Director Blaiklock predicted, most of the field took on the country roads at a more moderate pace. About eighty percent of the 1,849 finishers averaged eight, ten, or even seventeen minutes per mile. And perhaps the comment emblazoned on the shirt of one spectator summed up the humor and esprit de corp of those masses: “if found on ground, please drag across finish line.”
Photo by Davis Staedtler, https://www.flickr.com/photos/voxaeterno/30607626286/