Where: Swanzey, NH
Date: Sept 6, 2015
Time: 9:00 am
Distance: 13.1 miles
Terrain: Single loop, rolling hills
Entry fee: $45 + fees ($49 total)
Swag: Finisher medal, long-sleeved tech shirt, magnetic car bumper sticker, cash prizes for top 3 male and female winners, maple syrup (different sizes) for top two age group winners
Post-race Food: Hamburger, roasted corn, watermelon, oranges, bananas, apples, protein bars, crackers with peanut butter or with cream cheese
Performance: Overall: 54/219; Age Group (30 – 39) 2/36
Weather: 57 degrees, 82% humidity
Sometimes you just find a gem of a race where you least expect it. Swanzey Covered Bridges Half Marathon, not to be confused with the more famous Vermont Covered Bridges Half Marathon, is a delightful small half marathon in New Hampshire that is truly a community affair. It was founded in 2006 by Elijah Barrett, a local trail runner and triathlete who grew up in Swanzey. He became a PE teacher and started the race to benefit the students of Monadnock Regional High School. In 2007 his life was tragically cut short by an 8-month battle with cancer just days before the race. In memory of Elijah, his family and the community continue the race to honor him and his dedication to the community. Swanzey Covered Bridges Half Marathon is also known as Elijah’s race.
I did this race because I wanted to do a half four weeks before Wineglass and I love covered bridges. Surprisingly it’s difficult to find a half marathon in the New England or Mid-Atlantic states for the first weekend of September. After thoroughly searching Running in the USA, I found Swanzey and decided that a 4-hour drive was not too far (Ben disagreed. We went to Swanzey, so you can figure out who won the argument.).
We drove up the day before and stayed in Brattleboro, VT (charming town). If you’re ever in Brattleboro, we highly recommend eating at Top of the Hill Grill. It’s a wonderful BBQ/Southern food stand on top of a hill and outdoor seating overlooking the famed green mountains of Vermont. The brisket and jambalaya were delicious and very reasonably priced. The next day we found a nice little store, Paradise Farm Sugarhouse, that sold freshly baked cider donuts, which was our pre-race fuel (donuts = breakfast of champions) along with coffee. We had a leisurely half hour drive to the high school. Yay for having plenty of parking, indoor facilities, and post-race showers! Tip, if there is a long line for the restroom before the race, go to the shower because there are toilets there and no lines! The race is so small that bibs and medals are given to you before the race. We joked that since we got our medals already, we didn’t need to run the race anymore.
We casually strolled to the start line, which was a quarter mile away. The race director arrived with a couple members of Elijah’s family. After giving us instructions, Elijah’s mother said a few words about him and the race. It was clear from their sorrowful faces that the pain of losing him hasn’t gone away. I looked around and saw that many of us were touched by Elijah’s memory and the impact that he has had on this community. This race is the perfect way to remember and pay tribute to Elijah because of how much he loved running and Swanzey.
At “Go!” the 10th annual Swanzey Half Marathon started. I really wanted to PR at this race, but I had no idea if I would be able to. I know that marathon training has improved my fitness, but I’m also fatigued much of the time. The week before I did a mini-taper with reduced mileage to give myself an opportunity to race this half hard if it were in the cards. Within the first mile there was first covered bridge, Cresson Bridge. It’s so cool to run through a covered bridge. The first two miles I ran around an 8:00 pace, which was what I wanted, but I knew I wasn’t going to PR. At that early on in the race, the pace needs to feel easy. I was working. After we ran through Cresson, we made a left turn onto a trail on an improved railroad bed. The trail was beautiful. The ground was nicely packed so you don’t lose any speed. Tall evergreen lined both sides. The shady trail was nice and cool to run in. I appreciated the drop in temperature because it was getting warm quickly. Although the recorded start temperature 57 degrees, the humidity made it feel warmer and the temperature was rising by the minute.
The trail portion is 1.2 miles long. We crossed a rail bridge that wasn’t a part of the covered bridges in the race. I love bridges, so I was very happy to run over an unexpected bridge. Realizing that I wasn’t going to keep that pace and that I needed to conserve energy if I didn’t want to completely implode, I slowed down until I found a pace that felt right. The race is advertised as being “mostly flat, fast terrain with a few gentle, rolling hills.” The course is flat – for New Hampshire or Vermont. It’s not flat if you’re used to pancake flat ground. Because of the rolling hills (all 13.1 miles of them), I wanted to run by effort by a pace on Garmin. The rolling hills are very gentle. At no point did I think the incline was too steep or lasted for a long period of time, but several miles of them can be tough if you’re not used to it or if you start out too fast. At about the third mile, we crossed Thompson Bridge. This was my favorite bridge because of the pretty lattices for its sides. Because I slowed down people were passing me like I was standing still. It was hard letting them go. I muttered to myself, “Run your own race. Run your own race.”
At the fourth mile we had Slate Bridge. This bridge was destroyed in a fire in 1993, and was rebuilt in 2001.
One of coolest aspects of this race was the themed aid stations. Members of the high school marching band are responsible for an aid station; there are six of them placed two miles apart. We runners got to vote for the best station at the end of the race. The themed aid stations made the race more fun because I was looking forward to seeing what each station would bring me. The first two stations had Grease and the 70’s as their themes, respectively. The students dressed up in costumes; I actually had my water handed to me by Danny Zuko at the first water station. I have to commend the students/percussionists who did the third aid station. They were by the far the best in terms of the cleverness of their station. Before we got to the station, there were signs welcoming us to Jurassic Park, complete with the theme song. As we ran by, guides dressed in khaki with “guns” (water guns or Nerf guns) were fighting dinosaurs (more students in costumes). A student yelled at us to be careful and to keep running through because the guides would fight the dinosaurs and keep us safe. A row of scientists in white lab coats handed us water in dinosaur cups. There were even dinosaur tracks on the road! It was the coolest and best water station that I’ve ever experienced.
The other themed water stations were Twister, Mario Brothers, and Disney Princesses. The students with the Mario Brothers water station had the next best costumes; I liked the ones who were dressed like turtles. I wish they had signs saying “Punch here for Flower Power.” That would have been fun.
The third water station (Jurassic Park) was an exciting area, partially because of the music and the dinosaurs, and partially because this was the exchange place for the relay teams. There was a lot of screaming and hugging as team members found each other and fresh legs took off. Again, I had to let the fresh runners go.
As I ran along, I realized that I could catch a runner ahead of me. I focused on her and ran methodically. I concentrated on keeping a steady pace and not burning myself out by chasing her down. We still had several more miles to go. After I passed her, I slowly picked off other runners. Usually in a race, other people pass me late in a race, so it was fun being the one doing the passing.
Around Mile 11 (?) we went through our last covered bridge, Carlton Bridge. By then it was very warm. I focused on not slowing down. At the last water station at Mile 12, I picked up the pace a bit because “I can do anything for one mile.” I muttered this mantra over and over. Finally I saw the finish line off in the distance and ran harder. When I had about 50 yards yet, I could see the clock ticking down to 1:50. I had 20 seconds left. I desperately wanted to be sub-1:50, so I kicked it into full gear and sprinted down to the finish line. Final time: 1:49:55. I made it with five seconds to spare.
Ben, who had been pacing me, was really happy that I made it. We got some water, rested, and then got our lunch of hamburgers, watermelon, and roasted corn. Yum! As I munched on my food, Ben offered to look for the results to see how I did. Based on results from prior races, I had a chance of getting an age group award. I really wanted one because this would be the longest distance. Ben came back and said regretfully, “You were three minutes behind . . .”
My face fell in disappointment.
“the first age group winner. You got second.”
Ben totally fooled me. 🙂
For getting second, I got a little bottle of real New Hampshire maple syrup. I love that they gave out something local to the area as awards. Plus the maple syrup will taste so much sweeter. This is indeed sweet sweet victory.