Keeping Score (From the vault): Race day, 2010

Published: 5/22/2020 5:07:09 PM
Modified: 5/22/2020 5:06:55 PM

(NOTE: With Chip Ainsworth “on assignment” for a few weeks, we’re taking this time to run a few classic columns from his extensive vault — with his approval, of course. This column ran in the Saturday, Aug. 21, 2010, edition of The Recorder.)

Good morning!
The field at last week’s Bridge of Flowers Road Race was lined up by speed — fastest at the starting line, followed by six-minute milers, seven minute-milers and so on. I was back with the fathers and mothers who were pushing their toddlers in baby strollers. A computer chip was laced in my running shoe, presumably for when I collapsed down Crittenden Hill and the paramedics had to come find me.

I’d picked up the timing chip the night before inside the Shelburne Falls Community Center, where runners were eating spaghetti and picking up their race packets. Over at the registration desk, Ray Willis let out a joyous whoop.

The 81-year-old Charlemont resident looked at Richard Larsen and exclaimed, “Joe’s not registered!”

He was referring to his nemesis, 82-year-old Joe Fernandez of Fairhaven, who’d beaten him the last two years at the Bridge of Flowers. Without him in the race, Willis was assured of winning the men’s over-80 division. He walked over and high-fived Larsen, then caught himself and said, “Of course, I don’t want him to be dead.”

And of course, Willis himself would need to survive Crittenden Hill. Five years ago, he was on the downhill portion of the local peak when a pain shot through the back of his foot like a shotgun blast. “I’d ruptured my Achilles tendon,” he said. “The whole thing just snapped. That’s the only injury I’ve ever had in all my running.”

It was no coincidence that Crittenden Hill would factor in the lone injury of Willis’s running career, for it is the Heartbreak Hill of all 10K’s, looming like the volcano over Pompeii, ready to sear lungs, turn legs to jelly and destroy any hope of a decent finishing time.

“A lot of people have a tough time dealing with gravity,” explained Larsen with classic understatement.

The 59-year-old Larsen is short, slim and bald with blue eyes and a youthful exuberance that’s underscored by his talkative nature. Three years ago, he finished third in his age group at the national cross country championships.

Of tackling Buckland’s summit, he said, “There’s no air movement because you’re going slow, and you’re hot from running the first two miles, so you get to the top and blow a gasket.”

Consequently, Willis said to simply walk it — “You won’t be able to run any faster than you will walking” — but putting one foot in front of the other on the steep, relentless incline was drudgery. Next to me, 56-year-old Tom Clark of Longmeadow looked over and said, “Every year I come in thinking the hill wasn’t that bad ”

By the time I was being sprayed with a hose by a merciful Samaritan at the top of Crittenden Hill, the winner had already crossed the finish line. This was discouraging since there were still three miles to go, but the fact is the Bridge of Flowers is a race composed of haves and have-nots.

Race director Mike McCusker is paid $5,000 — “Less than a dollar an hour” — to organize an event worthy of being part of the eight-race New England Grand Prix Series, and he lured some of the top team talent from across the country. All but 15 of the top 150 finishers were affiliated with running clubs like the Boston Athletic Association, New Balance and the Oregon Track Club.

With nearly 85 percent of the field being from outside Franklin County, the local talent was left in the dust. Only three county runners — Leverett’s Drew Best (13th), Greenfield’s Aaron Stone (73rd) and Colrain’s Al Ladd (82nd) — finished in the top 100. The first local woman to cross the finish line, Sue Williams of Shelburne Falls, placed 231st overall.

No wonder Shelburne’s Graham Warder muttered moments before the starting gun sounded, “Every year I dread this race.” Normally a top finisher in local events, Warder placed 160th.

Others like myself were pushing physical extremes simply to stay ahead of the next person. At the bottom of Crittenden Hill, we turned left onto Route 112 and then trekked up a side road where a violinist under the shade of a maple tree serenaded us with music while he leaned against the hatch of his SUV.

From there, it was on to the New Jersey portion of the race, a mile-and-a-half stretch along Route 112. “It is just bleak,” said Dave Lorenz, referring to the heat off the pavement mingling with the exhaust fumes of passing dump trucks, pickups and motorcycles. One motorist even stopped, rolled down his window and asked a runner for directions.

As we turned off Route 112 onto North Street for the final mile, a spectator asked runners to smile. “There’s a smile,” he’d say.

“It’s a grimace,” someone replied.

“Same family,” he said.

Close to the bridge, I could hear Kevin Hollister announcing runners’ names as they approached the finish line. At the end I grabbed a bottle of water and a race official asked if I was all right.

I had finished 613th in slightly over an hour and four minutes. Yeah, I was all right, just a little woozy.

It had been a terrific experience, enhanced by volunteers who diligently read out mile splits and police who worked traffic control and the townsfolk who shouted encouragement. There were bagpipers and drummers and families who stood on lawns and waved, while others handed out cups of water.

An hour after Brian Harvey of Allston was bestowed the winner’s crown, the 738th and final runner crossed the finish line. She was Maggie Lapan, a 24-year-old receptionist from Brighton who grew up in Brattleboro. Her father Patrick had also run and finished a few minutes ahead of her. Later that day, he’d walk his other daughter, Sarah, down the wedding aisle.

“I’m totally fine with finishing last, but it was very tough,” said Lapan. “It was nice to do it in a small town near where I grew up.

“People were at the finish cheering me and they announced my name at the end.

“They were there for the first runner and they stayed for the last, and that was kind of cool.”

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for five decades in the Pioneer Valley.

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