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Record field expected for Bridge race

With perfect race weather predicted and 692 runners already registered for Saturday's 36th running of the Bridge of Flowers 10K Classic in Shelburne Falls, expect the start to be even more crowded than last year's (above).
Submitted photo/Megan Haley

With perfect race weather predicted and 692 runners already registered for Saturday's 36th running of the Bridge of Flowers 10K Classic in Shelburne Falls, expect the start to be even more crowded than last year's (above). Submitted photo/Megan Haley

This Saturday could prove to be the largest race in the history of the Bridge of Flowers 10K Classic.

The participants and a throng of spectators will crowd Bridge Street in the center of scenic Shelburne Falls on what is forecasted to be a perfect summer morning when the 36th running of the 10K Classic and 3K Walk and Fun Run. The 3K kicks off at 8:15 a.m., and the 10K starts at 9 a.m. Both races begin and end on Bridge Street.

The event had its largest turnout ever last season when 588 runners participated in the 10K. If those already registered show up, this year will easily break that mark. When online registration closed Wednesday night, the 10K already had 692 runners registered, while the 3K had 200. Race director Mike McCusker, who hatched the idea for the race to coincide with the Buckland Bicentennial in 1979, said he believes the increased participation is due to the return of free T-shirts, as well as the fact that runners 19 and under pay their age to participate, and those over 70 are free.

The race will once again kick off with its traditional start on the historic Iron Bridge and runners will make their way out of town as well-wishers look on and cheer the pack. The event brings out hundreds upon hundreds of spectators, who line the streets on the morning of the race and pack the coffee shops and breakfast spots in the quaint town. Upon leaving town, runners head down Maple Street and go past Buckand-Shelburne Elementary School, the site that serves as a make-shift parking lot on the day of the race. Runners make their way back down Main Street and come flying back out onto Bridge Street as spectators get another look at the runners.

The participants head across the Iron Bridge and take a quick left and then right to head up Crittenden Hill, which is considered the steepest midrace climb in the Northeast. At the point that runners hit Crittenden, the lead pack has already begun to establish itself, but the one-kilometer climb up that mountain separates the true contenders from the rest of the field. Many a runner has fallen back into the pack during the ascent, and typically those who lead at the top of the hill are among the top three or four at the finish line.

As if the climb up Crittenden was not difficult enough, once runners reach the top, they must run down the backside of the mountain, a task that can prove equally as daunting given the fact that after the long climb, runners’ legs can turn to jelly. From there, runners head out onto Route 112, eventually head past Mohawk Trail Regional High School and make their way back into Shelburne Falls via North Street. One last jaunt across the Iron Bridge is made before crossing the finish line in the center of town.

Last summer, training partners Glarius Rop and Amos Sang, both of Springfield, ran together for much of the race before Rop pulled away late to win the race. The two top finishers from 2013 will both be back, according to McCusker, as Rop returns to defend his title. Last year he won with a time of 32 minutes, 8 seconds, beating runner-up Sang, a training partner . Both men are neighbors in Springfield, and natives of Kenya.

Justin Freeman, from New Hampton, N.H., is another returnee with title aspirations after placing third in the race in each of the past two seasons. Last year’s fourth-place finisher on the men’s side, Michael Roda from Albany, N.Y., also returns this season.

As of Wednesday night, the top five women’s finishers from a year ago had not registered, which would assure the women’s division of a new champion. That included last year’s winner Heidi Westover, who cruised to an easy victory last year. One woman looking to claim the vacated seat is Albany’s Karen Bertasso, who finished second in the James Joyce Ramble 10K in Dedham earlier this year with a faster time than that run by Westover in the Bridge of Flowers last summer.

There are also a number of runners from the Western Mass. Distance Project, a club for post-collegiate distance runners. Dawn Roberts, a West Springfield resident who has finished in the top 10 multiple times at the Bridge of Flowers, should be in contention, as should Belchertown’s Nancy Cook. Easthampton’s Ashley Krause has been running strongly this summer and set personal records in multiple events, while Chicopee’s Kristen Tetrault is another western Mass. runner looking to contend.

The race will likely have many more elite runners, as it attracts many of the top runners in New England every year due to factors like being named the 2006 Race of the Year in New England Runner Magazine, and earning the distinction of being among the races used in the USA Track & Field New England Grand Prix 10K in the past, although it is not this season.

Although elite runners will certainly be in attendance again this season, the event has also become even more friendly to area runners, which swells numbers. In the past, much of the prize money was awarded to the top overall finishers, but in 2009 it was decided that prize money be distributed more evenly among divisional winners. The distribution can be found on the race’s website.

Also, as has been the case in recent years, the start of the race will be divided with men and women on separate sides, helping give the race more gender parity. And it doesn’t end there. Flag bearers will also be waiting for the lead women runners as they cross the bridge to the finish line, helping spectators to see where the lead women are. Also, prize money is split evenly among men and women. As of Thursday night, McCusker said he believed that more than 50 percent of those pre-registered were women, a goal he is proud of.

“We are really happy to have achieved that,” he explained. “We’ve always prided ourselves on our gender parity.”

For the second consecutive year, prerace activities will be held at the Buckland-Shelburne Elementary School. The Spaghetti Diner will take place at the school tonight from 5 to 7 and is free, but donations are accepted. All money raised from the dinner will go toward the sixth-grade class at Buckland-Shelburne, which is going to Nature’ Classroom. Tom Derderian, the author of “Boston Marathon: The History of the World’s Premier Running Event” will be a guest speaker at the dinner.

People can register at this time and also on the morning of the event from 7 to 8 a.m. at the school. McCusker urges people wishing to register on the morning of the race to get there early, because registration must close promptly at 8 a.m.

McCusker also said the event is still looking for volunteers on the morning of the race. He admitted that this year, registration for volunteers was moved online and the process was a cumbersome one, leading to numerous people not returning. He said that anyone wishing to volunteer on the morning of the event should call him at 834-3477.

Bridge Street will be closed from 6 to 11:15 a.m.

For a full list of all those registered to run, visit the race’s website at www.bridgeofflowers10k.com and go to the registration page. Click on the runreg.com link and look on the right side of the page for the “Who’s registered?” link.

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