Devotees of the Boston Marathon know the legends of that race well, and few of the legends are better than that of Clarence DeMar, who won the race an unequalled seven times. The first of these victories - in 1911 - was at the age of 22; the last of these victories - in 1930 - at the age of 41. Four of these times he set a course record. Along the way, Mr. DeMar, who found himself working up the road from Boston in New Hampshire, earned a master's degree from Boston University - by walking, running, and hitchhiking the 90 miles each way each week. Could there be a better inspiration for a marathon?
Back in 1978, the folks in Keene, New Hampshire, decided that this was, indeed, a great inspiration, and they organized to form a marathon in Clarence DeMar's honor; 2010 represents the 33rd annual running of the event. The Clarence DeMar Marathon is a marathoner's marathon: short on frills, easy on the entry fee, but full of all the things that a runner truly needs - things like aid stations (staffed by the local cross country team) and accurate mile markers. These things alone would all lead me to choose the Clarence DeMar for my New Hampshire marathon, a choice I made many years ago, when I first started down this crazy 50 states quest. The fact that the marathon is in the fall - in the peak of fall foliage season - was a bonus. The added fact that my friend Leann also wanted to run the race this particular fall closed the deal.
Leann and I meet up at the Manchester, NH, airport on a warm Friday afternoon, and head directly out to do some sight-seeing along the way to our hotel in Brattleboro, Vermont. Our drive takes us through the southern tier of New Hampshire, all ablaze in fall colors. The leaves are a few weeks shy of being at their peak, which means that every truly colorful tree catches our attention. We take the advice of the nice ladies at the information booth at the airport and make a detour up to the historic mill town of Harrisville. We stop next to a beautiful, placid little lake, and I announce "I want to move here!" as we step out of the car. It's a sentiment I'll repeat many times over the next few days.
I've managed my running shoe rotation badly leading up to this marathon. This means that I have brought two choices of footwear for the race: an old pair of shoes with more than 300 miles on them, and a brand new, fresh-out-of-the-box pair. I'm reluctant to start out a marathon with the old shoes, but not quite daring enough to go with the new shoes without at least putting a few miles on them. That means I do something Saturday morning that is out of the norm for me: run. Lucky for me, Leann normally puts in a few miles the day before a marathon, so I have a running partner. We drive around the Brattleboro area, looking for a suitable place, and stumble upon Fort Dummer State Park. The park is closed for the season, so we park at the fenced-off entrance, and have the leaf-covered, shady road through the park pretty much to ourselves. Well, except for the snake that we roust. It's a lovely short run, and the shoes feel great. Time to go sight-seeing!
We spend the rest of the day enjoying fall in New England, starting out with a trip to a local diner on one of the many scenic byways outside of Brattleboro, where we do an admirable job of carbing-up for the race on Sunday. Breakfast consists of scrambled eggs, hash browns, half a waffle, and a couple of pancakes. Mmmm. We meander around the hills, seeking out covered bridges amid the foliage. By mid-afternoon, we've made our way back into New Hampshire, and to Gilsum, where the race starts. The race is billed as a net-downhill course, and we've decided to scope out the race course. It sure feels a lot more like rolling hills in the car than like a constant downhill, and that worries me some. But the scenery - especially in the first half - is spectacular: heavily wooded with trees that are turning, the scenic Ashuelot River on the left hand side of this narrow rural road. This, I think, might just be one of the prettiest marathons I've run.
Sunday morning we are at the Keene State College location bright and early to board buses that will take us out to Gilsum. Friday and Saturday were both warm days, but the forecasted cooler weather has hit New Hampshire, and it's pleasantly chilly as we wait in Gilsum for the race start. Every time I shiver or say "brrr!", I follow up with "but that's not a complaint!" I'm praying for the cooler temps to hang around until I finish this thing.
Leann has informed me that this is merely a training run for her (she has several more races - including a couple of ultras - coming up in the next few weeks), and that she plans to run it slowly. "The plan is: no miles faster than ten minutes per mile." I think that sounds fairly reasonable for me, also, given that I have a lousy base coming into this thing, after cracking my knee back in late June. Leann and I have run a few marathons together in the past, and I love her company. When she asks me my plans, my reply is "just to hold on and try to finish this thing", although I'm actually thinking that I'll tag along with her as long as possible.
Final race instructions from the race director include a message about mile measurements. Because there is road construction in mile 13, we will have a short detour there, which adds a couple hundred feet to the route. In order to keep the same finish line, the race crew has moved the start line up to make up for the extra distance we'll run later. But they haven't bothered to move all of the mile markers, so our first mile will be short, and mile 13 will be long. Leann and I agree that with the downhill start, and race nerves, and now this short first mile, we'll come in somewhere under ten minutes, but otherwise, she is dedicated to her game plan. The RD yells out the starting command, and we're running.
As we leave Gilsum, I thank the race directors for the downhill start. We soon make a couple of turns, and then run across the Gilsum Stone Arch Bridge, a historic landmark which is billed as having the highest vault of any dry-laid bridge in New Hampshire. The bridge spans the Ashuelot River, which we'll follow for the next ten or so miles. It's pretty, with round river rocks and clear water and just a bit of sunlight making it through the heavy foliage overhead.
We pass mile one, and hit our watches. 8:42. A tad faster than the 10 minute pace that Leann has in mind. Ah well. We run along, and now I'm watching my feet. This road is asphalt, badly cracked and pot-holed. We noticed the bad roads on our drive yesterday, so are extra careful today. Mile two comes up quickly, in 9:05. Leann makes noises about needing to slow down, but I find myself struggling to keep up with the pace that she's setting, and the next couple of miles go by in 8:47 and 9:10. I look at my heart rate monitor, and it tells me that I'm not working all that hard, so I just go with the flow.
Finally, around mile 5, we settle into a pace zone that we'll pretty much hold through mile 18, with our splits averaging around 9:50. This is a nice comfortable pace, and we chat away. I'm wearing a 50 States Marathon singlet, and that always attracts attention and questions. One woman, Carmen from New York, joins us and adds to the conversation as we talk about other marathons, other states, plans to finish.
The road is not closed to traffic here, but there are few cars, and we start to recognize most of the cars as race supporters. One guy in a Jeep lead-frogs along the course with us, and blasts music for our benefit as we go by. The vibe reminds me of why I like small races.
Carmen sticks with us until mile 12, when we run our first mile that clocks in over ten minutes (10:08), and then she takes off and we don't see her again. The first 10 or 11 miles of the course have been a steady downhill, more pronounced in the early miles but still a nice grade, but mile 12 goes uphill noticeably, on a stretch that parallels a pretty golf course. The little detour at mile 13 comes along, as advertised, and then we're through the halfway point in 2:04 and change. Not exactly a ten minute pace, but a very comfortable first half.
The second half of the race course winds around many residential districts in Keene, and it just doesn't compete in terms of scenery or support or joy. The temps have climbed a little, but are still bearable; the terrain is much flatter now. Leann and I run along, side by side, out of conversation, just working at the task at hand. I'm feeling remarkably good given my lack of training. And then Leann finally says, "at eighteen, I'm going to go back to my original plan, and do a run-walk combo to make this truly a training run". I'm not interested in run-walk - I just want to get done with this thing, so at the 18 mile mark, we split company.
The next mile is a lonely one, still in the residential zone. At mile 19, we enter Wheelock Park, where we get some more shade and a change of venue: we're on a paved bike path. Mile markers disappear, and I'm grateful for this since it feels like I'm slowing down quite a bit. I've started to count my steps - something I do to keep my mind occupied, and to keep track of where I am in each mile - and I know that I've missed the marker at 20, and now 21. I start to like this: it's better to not know exactly how much I've slowed. Finally, back on city streets, I see a marker for mile 22, and hit the split button on my watch. 29:58 for the last three miles, almost exactly a ten minute pace. I'm immensely relieved to learn that I haven't really slowed much at all.
But then there's mile 23 to look forward to. This was the biggest revelation when we drove the course yesterday: the monster Mount Everest in the 23rd mile. It seems downright sadistic of the race organizers to put a hill of this steepness at this point in the race, but there it is, staring me right in the face. I have been dreading this sucker all day long, and now that it's here, I do the only thing I can: I scale the thing. I do not slow to a walk, but a fast walker could pass me at this crawling pace. But I do not walk. I scale the thing, and start dreaming of the finish line.
The problem with big hills late in a race like this is that they destroy your pace. It takes me 10:49 to cover mile 23, and I'm quite amazed that it wasn't closer to twelve minutes. But the hill has conquered me, and I just can't get my legs to move. Mile 24 is the slowest of my day at 10:57. I've been chasing a guy in a "100 Marathons" shirt for a long time, and now I come alongside him, and we exchange greetings. Chasing this guy improves my time in mile 25, but I'm crawling again in the final mile.
Finally we make the last couple of turns to the finish. I've been chasing a younger woman for a mile or so now, and I have delusions of catching her before the finish line. It's not meant to be today, and I finish a second behind her in 4:17:49. It's not one of my faster efforts, but given the level of my training, I couldn't ask for any better today.
Leann comes loping across the finish line just a few minutes later, and she's in much better shape than I am. I think the run-walk thing was a good idea. Me, I'm bonking big-time until I swallow a Pepsi in about three gulps. The sky is nice and cloudy now, and it never did really get hot today. For that, I'm extremely grateful. Next up: showers at the college gym building - something that has rarely felt this wonderful.
Once revived by the soda and the shower, Leann and I head out to complete our sight-seeing. We follow our tourist map and head south out of Keene to see six or seven more covered bridges. When we've exhausted the supply of bridges - and nearly the supply of daylight - we make our way to the Kimball Farm Ice Cream Restaurant for fish-and-chips, and then ice cream. It's just starting to drizzle as we pull away from the restaurant, on our way back to Manchester. The rain makes it feel like fall, my favorite season of the year. Running in the fall: the stuff legends are made of.