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35th Bridge Race Saturday

  • Runners depart from downtown Shelburne Falls in the Bridge of Flowers 10K Classic race on Saturday. Trish Crapo photo.

    Runners depart from downtown Shelburne Falls in the Bridge of Flowers 10K Classic race on Saturday. Trish Crapo photo.

  • Winner #19 gains an early lead as runners head out of Shelburne Falls during Saturday's Bridge of Flowers 10K Classic on Saturday. Trish Crapo photo.

    Winner #19 gains an early lead as runners head out of Shelburne Falls during Saturday's Bridge of Flowers 10K Classic on Saturday. Trish Crapo photo.

  • Women's winner #10 bursts through the tape during Saturday's Bridge of Flowers 10K Classic in Shelburne Falls. Trish Crapo photo.

    Women's winner #10 bursts through the tape during Saturday's Bridge of Flowers 10K Classic in Shelburne Falls. Trish Crapo photo.

  • At the start of Saturday's Bridge of Flowers 10K Classic, male and female winners, #19 and #10 are clearly visible on either side of the line-up. Trish Crapo photo.

    At the start of Saturday's Bridge of Flowers 10K Classic, male and female winners, #19 and #10 are clearly visible on either side of the line-up. Trish Crapo photo.

  • Runners depart from downtown Shelburne Falls in the Bridge of Flowers 10K Classic race on Saturday. Trish Crapo photo.
  • Winner #19 gains an early lead as runners head out of Shelburne Falls during Saturday's Bridge of Flowers 10K Classic on Saturday. Trish Crapo photo.
  • Women's winner #10 bursts through the tape during Saturday's Bridge of Flowers 10K Classic in Shelburne Falls. Trish Crapo photo.
  • At the start of Saturday's Bridge of Flowers 10K Classic, male and female winners, #19 and #10 are clearly visible on either side of the line-up. Trish Crapo photo.

What started out as a race to spice up the 1979 Buckland Bicentennial will celebrate its 35th birthday Saturday morning.

More than 500 runners and an overflow crowd of spectators will pack Bridge Street Saturday morning for the Bridge of Flowers 10K Classic and the Steve Lewis Subaru Charity 3K Walk & Fun Run.

“Who can imagine 35 years later?” race organizer Mike McCusker asked. “It was always my hope that it would grow. It’s the community’s event.”

And grown it has. This year the race is expecting its biggest turnout ever and registration as of Tuesday evening had the number of entrants at 620. McCusker said the Bridge Race is usually between 500 and 600 entrants, but it has never had over 600 runners.

The festivities kick off at 8:20 with the 3K Walk and Fun Run, followed by the 9 a.m. 10K. The race starts with the runners congregating on the historic Iron Bridge in downtown Shelburne Falls. When the starting horn sounds, the pack makes its way through a throng of well-wishers lining both sides of Bridge Street.

While the course draws praise for difficulty and scenic beauty from those who have run it, the race offers just as much for spectators. McCusker said Shelburne Falls has a population around 2,000, so on race day the population increases dramatically.

“It’s absolutely reasonable to say that the population of Shelburne Falls more than doubles on race day,” he said. “All the coffee shops and breakfast places are open and people can take advantage of everything we have to offer.”

Spectators line the streets to watch the runners take off east through down town, looping around on Maple Street and eventually going past the Shelburne Elementary School before coming down Main Street and back onto Bridge Street, where spectators can watch the race unfold.

The runners head back across the Iron Bridge and bear left before taking on the race’s most daunting challenge, a one-kilometer climb up Crittenden Hill that’s considered to be the steepest mid-race climb of any course in the Northeast. Once runners hit the peak of Crittenden, they turn around and run down the backside of the mountain, which can be equally difficult as tired legs make the steep downhill run toilsome. At this point the lead runners typically have pulled away from the pack and make their way east along Rt. 112, past Mohawk Trail Regional High School, before heading back into Shelburne Falls via North Street. Runners make their way across the Iron Bridge one final time and across the finish line.

“It’s been said that it’s the toughest race you’ll ever love,” McCusker said of the course.

McCusker designed the course back in 1978 and took his two brothers along with him on a test-run.

“They thought I was kidding,” he said. “They said, ‘You actually want to put a race on that course? Nobody will come.’ But I felt like we needed to make our course unique. A lot of towns want races to be out of the way. But starting and finishing right in the village makes this race unique.”

Last season, Fikadu Lemma cruised to the men’s championship with a finishing time of 32 minutes, 22 seconds, which put him nearly one minute ahead of second-place finisher Tekin Deneko. Both runners are from Ethiopia by way of the Bronx, N.Y., and the duo pulled away from the rest of the competition during the Crittenden climb.

The women’s race ended with one among the most exciting finishes ever, as Amelia Landberg and Emily Raymond came across the Iron Bridge neck-and-neck before Landberg edged out her Greater Boston Track Club teammate at the finish line in a time of 38:32.

None of the aforementioned four had registered as of Tuesday night, which may open the door to new champions. McCusker has registered a number of elite runners looking to fill the voids.

On the men’s side, Justin Freeman from New Hampton, N.H., is back after placing third last season and second in 2011. He will be challenged by Amherst’s Drew Best, a 31-year-old who placed sixth last year in the Bridge Race and eighth in 2011. Greenfield’s Aaron Stone is signed back up and will look to improve on his 10th-place finish a year ago, while Michael Roda, from Albany, N.Y., is back after finishing 11th. Newcomer Amos Sang from Springfield recently ran the Westfield 5K in 13 minutes, 44 seconds and could make some noise, while Scott Lebo from Pottstown, Pa., and Bill Dixon, from Brattleboro, Vt., are also in the mix.

On the women’s side, Heidi Westover from Walpole, N.H., is the likely favorite, having placed third in 2008 and second in both 2006 and 2007. The 32-year-old was 15th at the 2012 Olympic marathon trials and has won the Burlington Marathon several times. Challenging her will be three women who run for the Willow Street Athletic Club from the Albany, N.Y., area. Emily Bryans placed fifth among women last year and was third in 2010. Shelly Binsfeld came in 10th last season, and Nancy Briskie placed 19th. Lori Kingsley, from Wysox, Pa., is making her Bridge debut but ran the Adirondak 10K Championship in 37:32 this year.

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.

The race was named the 2006 Race of the Year in New England Runner Magazine and has been among the races used in the USA Track & Field New England Grand Prix 10K Championship series. This has helped draw a number of elite runners to the event, although it also became more friendly to area runners in the past three years as the prize money has become more spread out. In the past, the top overall runners received more of the prize money, which attracted top runners to the event. But in 2009, the move was made to spread the money out more and now it is spread around to divisional winners. A breakdown of the prize money can be found on the race website.

Another feature the race boasts of is gender parity. The start on the bridge is divided, with men and women on separate sides, and flag-bearers await the lead women runners to serve as escorts near the finish line, helping spectators to see where the lead women are.

“This race and this community always strives for gender parity,” McCusker said. “We have the same prize money for men and women, we always have, and we were criticized for that early on when people would gripe that there were more men running the race. And how many times have you been to a race and the first woman sneaks across the finish line and no one notices it? We have local high school kids run from North Street to the finish line with flags to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

This year, all the pre-race programs will be held at the Buckland-Shelburne Elementary School, having been moved from the Community Center. The Spaghetti Diner will take place at the school tonight from 5:30 to 7:30 and is free, donations accepted. People can register at this time and can also register on the morning of the event from 7 to 8 a.m. at the school. The best thing about the move, according to McCusker, is the presence of 22 bathroom stalls in the school, after restroom facilities had been an issue in the past.

The balloon arch, which adorns the finish line every season, was not in place last season due to a helium shortage, but is back this year. Volunteers from the Art Garden will show up at 5 a.m. to set it up.

I'm pretty sure the pictures posted for this article are from the 2012 race. You can see the 2012 male and female winners on the far left and far right (respectively) of the group photo.

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