Hitting the hill without hitting the Wall: a running tour of the Bridge of Flowers 10k
Glenn Caffery, who returns to the Bridge of Flowers Race after an injury forced a long hiatus, runs on the Route 112 section of the course.
Graphic courtesy of Mike McCusker
This graphic shows the elevation profile of the race, indicating the changes in elevation faced by runners, from the start at left, to the finish at right.
Caffery and reporter Chris Curtis come off Crittenden Hill Road.
Reporter Chris Curtis and Glenn Caffery make their way up Crittenden Hill. Recorder/Paul Franz
This graphic shows the race course, with the 10k route in blue and the 3k route in red. For more information on the race, see its website: www.bridgeofflowers10k.com.
Graphic courtesy of Mike McCusker
This file photo shows the start of the 30th annual Bridge of Flowers 10K Classic in Shelburne Falls.
Recorder file photo/Geoff Bluh
As packs of runners leave the shade of Water Street next Saturday, two miles into a 6.2-mile run, they should see the village’s main street thronged with cheering crowds for the 36th running of the biggest race in Franklin County.
“It’s a really enthusiastic welcome,” said Glenn Caffery, one of the many area runners who have made the Bridge of Flowers 10k Classic a personal tradition. “Around across the bridge, there’s just a pack of people cheering, like big races and it’s in Shelburne Falls, it’s just such a thrill.”
Founded in 1979, the race draws at least 500 runners a year, including locals of any and all abilities and elites at the top of regional and national rankings.
This year’s edition takes off at 9 a.m. on Aug. 9, preceded by a 3-kilometer walk and run. More than 700 people had already registered online by the last week of July, said race director and founder Michael McCusker, putting the race on track to draw just over a 1,000 runners according to the registration website’s calculations. This could make it the biggest year yet, McCusker said — crediting reduced fees for young runners and a return to free T-shirts.
Caffery is not a newcomer. The 52-year-old Leyden resident is returning to the Bridge of Flowers after seven years on the sidelines with a hip injury. He thinks this will be his 15th or 16th race. Caffery agreed to a running interview with me to give his take on the race. While an experienced runner, I have never done the Bridge of Flowers 10k.
Starting out on Bridge Street, we run two miles of paved back streets. The two-mile point marks the end of a relatively level section Caffery said is undeservedly known as the flat two-mile start.
“This is part of the ‘flat’ two-mile start and by most people’s standards, this is not flat, only when compared to Crittenden Hill,” Caffery said, as we took a right off Maple Street onto Warren Avenue in this back street stretch. “We haven’t gone a mile yet and you could have easily ruined your race at this point.”
Nearing the 2-mile mark, the course loops back toward the starting line on Bridge Street, in front of the Iron Bridge and the pedestrian-only Bridge of Flowers.
Exiting the tangle of streets and returning to Bridge Street, runners hit a short, flat, stretch. This is the last stretch of relative flat before the hills begin in earnest and it holds its own danger: the course is designed as a rough figure eight to bring runners three times through the center of town, and this is where the crowds will be.
The Bridge of Flowers 10k is the biggest footrace in the county, it is in the center of town rather than the usual secluded parks and reservoir circuits, and it draws crowds of friends, family and running enthusiasts. McCusker predicts attendance of 3,000 to 5,000 this year.
The upshot is that runners will be moving through the energy of a finish-line atmosphere at the start of the race, near the two-mile point and again at the finish.
“You need to be not over-exerting, not clenching your fists, not striding more than you need to to move you through the course. But, when there are people cheering, it’s really hard not to think of yourself as a Greek marathoner and look the part,” Caffery said. “There’s every temptation to overdo it starting out.”
Over the bridge
Careening over the Iron Bridge into Buckland, the “flat” two-mile start ends at the mouth of Clement Street.
Based on mile-splits from the 2013 race — the average minutes per mile based on a runner’s finishing time, which does not factor in terrain — top finisher Glarius Rop had run for a little over 10 minutes at this point.
If you’re running a 6-minute-mile pace, it would have been 12 minutes since your start and you’re on track for an 11th place finish out of 589 competitors, if you can hold that pace. Half a minute slower per mile and you’re on track for a respectable 40-minute 10k and 25th place. If your watch or the volunteer at the two-mile marker shouts 18:30, you’re dead-center in last year’s field.
The third mile will, on average, be a solid minute slower than the others, McCusker said, making these calculations estimates.
Back in the race and with our backs to the Deerfield River, things are about to get very briefly very difficult. Crittenden Hill is ahead, the hill that gives the race its grueling reputation.
Clement Street begins uphill, but nothing too serious.
“That was two miles and I should say this is not the hill yet,” Caffery says.
Still running uphill, past Sears Street, we, again, are not on the “the hill.”
“So, you’re into oxygen debt and your legs are filled up with lactic acid,” Caffery remarks. “And then you have the hill.” At the top of this second short, steep hill I’m running flat footed. This feels like “the hill.”
Then the road takes a right onto Prospect Street and a left onto Green Road, where things really pick up. A right-hand turn and it’s Crittenden Hill Road.
The hill’s reputation appears to be deserved; it is about as demoralizing as you could hope for in a hill during the first three miles of a 6.2-mile race.
“The very top runners, men and women, literally bound up this hill, and very few after that do,” Caffery says, who finally starts showing he’s having some difficulty running.
From bottom to top, the hill is something like a kilometer, or 0.6 miles, but the effect of all the tree-lined rights and lefts at the base of the hill and as you advance is, first, to hide the hill. As your spirits and legs flag, the turns begin to provide moments of false hope; the punishing grade appears to level out but, in reality, nothing but another turn up hill.
“I’m never sure if it’s better to know what’s coming or not,” Caffery says after the first such turn. I foolishly decline forewarning.
“I think this curve is actually a kindness of the route,” Caffery says at the next. “You can imagine that that’s the end.” It isn’t.
At what Caffery says is the top of the steep stretch, we’ve only spent 31/2 minutes running up Crittenden Hill, but there’s a bit more relatively level road to go before the long descent begins.
For the record, at 25, I am theoretically in the prime of my running life and fast enough to keep to the top 10 in the smaller area 5ks. I was gasping like a stranded fish, legs barely lifting.
A ‘gem’ of a race
Caffery first ran the race in the 1980s and is looking forward to a return to the race — now in its 36th year — after a hip injury forced a hiatus beginning in 2007.
Surgery and physical therapy have since corrected the problem, and the 2014 Bridge of Flowers 10k will be Caffery’s first race back. If all goes well, he said he may sign up for a couple of others this year.
Caffery said his reason for focusing on the Bridge of Flowers is two-fold.
“It’s such a gem of our region that it’s absurd to call myself a runner and not (do it), and second is I thought it would be just the right motivation to help me prioritize running in the summer just a little more so I would go into the fall feeling good,” he said.
Running, work and family are a difficult balance, he said, but he finds that a little emphasis on running enhances his productivity overall, although the individual runs may cut into work or family time. Caffery is a lecturer in resource economics at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
Before his hip injury, which was possibly related to running, Caffery was in the race’s upper tier. According to online results, he finished 23rd in 2001 with a time of 35:57, a pace of under 6 minutes a mile. Caffery doesn’t mention this. At his last race, in 2006, he was 46th overall with a time of 39:04, in a field of over 500 runners.
Caffery said he has been running again this year — he views it as a social activity and runs regularly with friends — and hopes to finish in under 39 minutes, although he doesn’t know if this is realistic.
Be smart on the downhill
At the top of Crittenden Hill, the road turns to gravel and the trees close in.
Caffery tries not to put too much into the supposedly flat start or the legitimately steep Crittenden. Instead, he concentrates as much as possible on a fast, efficient descent, running as lightly and smoothly as possible.
“You can see between the gentle footing and the shade and the downhill that you could really hammer this, but only if you didn’t overdo the beginning, which is much, much easier said than done,” Caffery said at the top of Crittenden.
McCusker has similar advice. “Chill on the hill,” McCusker says. “If you redline on that going up, you’re cooked, your legs are going to stay cooked for quite a ways.” For most participants, that means power walking the steepest stretches, he said. Both McCusker and Caffery recommend training on going down hills, rather than focusing on the uphill climb.
Braking your descent on the downhill — sneakers slapping as you descend — is instinctive but spills energy into the asphalt. It also wears the muscles at the front of your shins and thighs more than you may notice, Caffery said. If you have hip or knee injuries, this is where they may become problematic. Even running at a pace that allows both of us to talk — with some gasping on my part — by the last mile of the course, I am obliged to walk the downhill portions. There was a nagging pain in my left knee from a chronic running injury sometimes called runners’ knee, in which the knee cap goes off track. It isn’t particularly serious but will end a running season and set you limping down flights of stairs if ignored.
The first year, the course was reversed and runners descended the steepest stretch of Crittenden. The field was small enough McCusker said he could circle everybody up after the race and the consensus was they weren’t putting their shins and knees through that again. McCusker took the suggestion. “A big part of the longevity is we’re a runner’s race,” he said.
The hill stayed, however, giving the race a feel different from most 10-kilometer races.
“We are considerably slower and I think it is safe to say nobody is ever going to set any kind of national record or anything like that on this race, it’s just too ferocious,” McCusker said. “It’s only a 1-kilometer climb, but it’s as fierce as Mount Washington.”
Over the hill
At the top of Crittenden, there should be music on race day. African and Native American drum rhythms played one year were a personal favorite of Caffery’s. McCusker said live musicians, typically including a bagpiper and drummers, volunteer to encourage the runners at various points. Other spectators blare the “Chariots of Fire” and “Rocky” theme songs from loudspeakers, McCusker said.
If you have the strength left for a smooth descent, it should be a much faster race from here on out.
At the bottom of the hill, descending via a left on Rand Road to Route 112 then Woodward Road, the course loops back onto Route 112 or Ashfield Road.
At this nexus of several roads, Caffery points out, by name, neighbors who have cheered runners for years and, he suspects, plan vacations around the early August race day.
McCusker began the race in 1979 and continues to direct the annual event with a cadre of volunteers including locals and people like Caffery, who volunteered when his hip gave.
The course marks four miles by the turn from Woodward road back onto Route 112, and it’s a flat mile from there past the Mohawk Trail Regional High School to the five-mile marker, a little before the Route 2 overpass. This stretch of tame road is where Caffery finds it the most difficult to keep the pace.
Mile six: last chance
We then run past the overpass is North Street and a return to a slight incline before encountering a sharp downhill to State Street and the six-mile mark, with downtown Buckland spread out below.
This last full mile is Caffery’s favorite stretch and where competition pushes back to the surface through the heat and exhaustion.
“We’re definitely feeling the finish line at this point and if you’re competing — for anything, really, people compete for all different things throughout the field, like they’re competing for an age group, or wanting to beat a friend, or a child for one last time — your brain is really working on strategy,” he said.
At the foot of North Street, you tap into whatever you have left for the last 0.2 miles across the Iron Bridge for the last time and on to the finish line in the heart of downtown.
“If there’s any heat or humidity, it’s really, really hard to sustain that level of exertion, but at the same time, the town is filled with cheering crowds and Mike on his P.A. system, so it’s hard to slow down,” Caffery said. At this point, he and I are walking to pander to my weak knee.
The Iron Bridge crosses the Deerfield River alongside the beautifully gardened Bridge of Flowers, on which the race began in its first year, for which it is named, and which it is likely no runner would be paying attention to at this stage.
After the actual race, there’s food up the street, a post-race lunch overlooking the Glacial Potholes.
“It’s the best run race anywhere,” Caffery said. “Big races have a lot of the same professional qualities, but they don’t have the warmth and community support, nor the incredible food spread at the end, that this one has.”
Information on the race and registration can be found at www.bridgeofflowers10k.com.
Online registration for the 10k and the associated 3k remain open until Aug. 6. Fees are currently pay your age for ages 19 and under, $40 for runners 20 to 69, free for those 70 and over. Early sign-up costs less, with the 20 to 69 fee $30 before June 1. Walk-in registration on Aug. 8 or 9 is $45, still free for those over 69 and pay-your-age for those under 20.
Details on parking and other information can be found on the website and McCusker recommends 10k runners arrive before 7 a.m. to avoid the traffic of the 3k, which will block the streets to the registration and parking at the Buckland-Shelburne Elementary School, 75 Mechanic St., Shelburne.
Spectating is best done from Bridge Street, the center of the figure-eight course. McCusker said he picked the shape to give spectators more of a show and to build the race into the community, rather than the self-imposed exile to the edges of town usual with footraces.
Staff reporter Chris Curtis started at The Recorder in 2011. He covers Montague, Gill, Erving and Wendell. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 257
Staff photographer Paul Franz has worked for The Recorder since 1988. He can be reached at email@example.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 266. His website is www.franzphoto.com.
Editor’s note: The print edition, the first paragraph had the wrong date for the race.