Deep field set for Bridge of Flowers 40th anniversary

  • The runners make their way through town near the start of Saturday's Bridge of Flowers 10K Classic. Eventual winner John Busque (5) is at the front of the pack. RECORDER STAFF/JEFF LAJOIE

  • Defending champion John Busque of Manchester, Conn. and two-time champion Glarius Rop of Agawam battled throughout last year’s Bridge of Flowers Classic in Shelburne Falls. Both men return this season and will compete for the title in a very deep field. Below, last year’s women’s champion Holly Rees of Cambridge was a first-time runner at the event. She returns this season to defend her title against an impressive women’s field, which includes several returning champions as well as some strong newcomers to the race. STAFF FILE PHOTOS/JEFF LAJOIE

  • Spectators cheer on Holly Rees of Cambridge, as she crossed the finish line as the women's winner in Saturday's Bridge of Flowers 10K with a time of 37:05. RECORDER STAFF/JEFF LAJOIE

  • Larius Rop, of Agawam, leads the Bridge of Flowers Classic 10k as he turns onto Bridge Street in Shelburne Falls before crossing the iron bridge Saturday, August 13. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt

  • Glarius Rop (left) and Amos Sang will each compete to take home the men’s crown in Saturday’s Bridge of Flowers Classic in Shelburne Falls. staff file photo/paul franz

  • Karen Bertasso, of Albany, N.Y, is a two-time Bridge of Flowers champion and finished fourth last summer. She returns to compete in the new 8K course. STAFF FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 8/9/2018 11:31:43 PM

The Bridge of Flowers Classic may be short on traditional length, but it certainly won’t be short on talent when the starting cowbell sounds Saturday morning at 9 a.m. for the beginning of the 40th annual road race on the Iron Bridge in Shelburne Falls.

The race will be preceded by the Steve Lewis Subaru Charity 3K Run/Walk, which begins at 8:15 a.m.

This year’s main event has been shortened from a 10K to an 8K race in order for organizers to cut out the part of the course that had competitors run along Route 112 in Buckland, which was the lone street that is not fully closed down for the race. While some folks expressed initial concern over the shortening of the race, the number of registrants was up as of earlier this week and the field includes many top runners from New England.

Rather than the former 10K, the race is essentially a 5-miler (an 8K is 4.97 miles) and the change in size has not deterred some of the top runners from New England from making the pilgrimage to Shelburne Falls.

Last season, John Busque from Manchester, Conn. showed up on the morning of the event and registered for the race. He then went out and won.

The way that Busque won the event was somewhat fitting, as he tracked down defending champion Glarius Rop of Agawam on the stretch of course that no longer exists. He passed Rop and wound up beating the two-time champion by 43 seconds. Busque averaged a 5 minute, 8 second mile in winning the event, while Rop finished second. 

Those two men are back this season and both will be among the favorites to win the race. The third-place finisher from a year ago, Scott Mindel of Burlington, also returns.

Rop is part of the Western Mass. Distance Project, and has four teammates joining him. One of those is his running partner, Amos Sang of Chicopee, who won the 2014 Bridge of Flowers race. Sang knows a thing or two about running 5-mile events as he won the New England 5-mile championship this season with a blazing time of 24:36 and should be one of the favorites on Saturday.

Another person to keep an eye on is Northampton’s Ben Groleau, another Western Mass. Distance Project runner, who is the UMass record-holder in the mile with a time of 4:01. Groleau was fourth at the New England 5-mile championships in 25:27. Dennis Roche of Springfield is another WMDP runner and finished fifth last year at the Bridge of Flowers. He is preparing to run the Hartford Marathon and recently ran a 26:15 5-mile race.

The top local runner in the field may be Shelburne’s Dan Smith, who is the Elite Athlete Coordinator for the Bridge of Flowers and is himself an elite runner. Smith just won the Master’s Division of the Beach to Beacon 10K in Cape Elizabeth, Maine and finished eighth at the Bridge of Flowers a year ago.

One newcomer to keep an eye on is Collin Leibold of North Grafton. Leibold just ran a 4:10 mile and has run a 10-miler in 51 minutes. Another newcomer to look for is Teague O’Connor from Burlington Vt., who has been known to run races barefoot in the past. Justin Freeman of Hampton, N.H. has run the Bridge of Flowers in the past and finished third in 2013, the first year that Rop won the race. One final man to keep on eye on is Jerry Learned of Foxborough, who is now 70-years-old but ran a 7:20 pace last season at the age of 69.

The women’s field will be just as deep if not deeper. Last year’s champion, Holly Rees from Cambridge, is returning to defend her title and is one of the fastest runners in New England according to Smith. Rees ran an average time of just under 6 minutes a mile in winning the women’s crown in 37:05, which was more than one minute over her next closest competitor.

Rees will get a challenge this season as Semehar Tesfaye of West Roxbury returns after taking last year off. Tesfaye won the Bridge of Flowers in 2016 in 39:03. Tesfaye won the USA Track & Field Grand Prix 5-Mile event in 27:25 this year. Rees did not attend the event this year, but she won the same event in 2017.

“Basically, we have two of the fastest women’s five-milers in New England this year,” Smith said.

Another major challenger to sit atop the podium is a newcomer to the race in Aisling Cuffee, who is a Stanford graduate who now lives in North Grafton and runs for Saucony under coach Ray Treacy in Providence, R.I. Treacy is well-known in running circles as one of the top coaches in the country. Cuffee has a 15:11 personal record in a 5K. 

The third, fourth and fifth-place finishers from a year ago also return in the women’s field. Apryl Sabadosa of Westfield took third last year. She joined Busque atop the winner’s podium at the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day 10K Road Race this March and will once again contend. Karen Bertasso of Albany, a two-time Bridge of Flowers winner, was fourth last year. The fifth-place finisher from a year ago was Jenna Giglioti of Northampton, who joins Sabadosa as two of the top female runners in the Western Mass. Distance Project.

Another person to keep an eye on is newcomer Kim Nedeau of Leverett, who is a top hill runner in New England and placed second at the Mt. Washington Road Race in 2016.

There are plenty of other runners to look for in the age groups. Plainfield’s Meghan Davis, a star distance runner at Mohawk who is a rising senior, returns after placing 10th last year. Ashley Krauss of Easthampton recently placed eighth at the James Joyce 10K in Dedham, which served as the U.S. championship for the Master’s (ages 40-49) Division. Sidney Letendre of Florence returns after running an 8:11 pace on the course last season at the age of 62. Margaret Degrazia from Slinger Lands, N.Y. is now 67, and ran a 8:32 pace on the course last season.

While the course is now an 8K, it does remain largely unchanged for spectators. The race begins and ends on the Iron Bridge on Bridge Street in Shelburne Falls, which will be closed from 6 a.m. until 11:15 a.m. on Saturday. Runners will head into Shelburne Falls at the start and loop around side roads there, turning left onto Maple Street and heading out toward Buckland-Shelburne Elementary School, which once again serves as race-day parking for runners and spectators, as well as the registration area. Runners will make their way back toward the center of town via Main Street, and will then turn right onto Bridge Street and head over the Iron Bridge to the Buckland side.

Once there, things get interesting as runners begin their ascent up Crittenden Hill, the one-kilometer climb that is considered the steepest mid-race climb in the Northeast, and begins to thin the contenders from the pretenders. Once reaching the top, runners then immediately descend down the backside of the hill. At the bottom, runners will take a right onto Rand Road, which is the new portion of the race. In the past, runners went left at the bottom. After navigating down Rand Road, runners will head onto North Street, as they begin their trek back toward the Iron Bridge, where they will sprint across for the finish line.

The free spaghetti supper will take place tonight at 5:30 at Buckland-Shelburne Elementary School where runners can pick up their bibs. Anyone wishing to still register can do so at the supper, as well as on the morning of the race.

And who knows. Just like Busque did a year ago, someone registering on the day of the event could very well win it.

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