On The Run: Columnist John Stifler returns

Published: 7/9/2023 4:00:43 PM
Modified: 7/9/2023 4:00:16 PM

A Tuesday evening, late June. I’m sitting at a picnic table near the Northampton Community Gardens, lacing up my Reeboks, an old pair I wear when I’m going to be running on pebbles for the first 200 yards of the weekly all-comers cross-country race here. Around me, other runners warm up, sip water, chat.

A tall, obviously fit guy jogs up, looking as though he’s already been running a bit. We exchange nods. I ask, “Are you running this race as part of a longer workout?”

“Yeah,” he says. “Two miles warm-up, then the race, then a couple of miles more. It makes a good, complete workout.”

“Yeah, it does,” I say.

He asks, “What kind of workout are you doing?”

“Minimalist.” He likes my response.

Years ago, I could break 20 minutes on this hilly 5-kilometer course — one evening I actually finished third. It was a ridiculously hot day, but I had spent summers running in Atlanta. Besides, only two dozen runners had shown up.

Now? If I break 35 minutes I’m pleased. I run these Tuesday races because, even though I start in the back of the pack and pretty much stay there, after the first mile I can run hard enough so it feels like a good effort, and in the last quarter-mile I can still push myself to that lovely physical state just shy of exhaustion.

On this night, I finish in 34 minutes, 29 seconds, which places me 62nd among 69 finishers. The guy I was talking with pre-race finishes fourth, in 18:12. We’ve each had a good run.

Around the picnic table, runners nibble bananas and cookies, drink more water, talk. Don and Susan Grant, who created this race series 36 years ago and still direct it, hand out prizes. The first four finishers get modest cash prizes; top teen and under-12 finishers win bottles of healthy juice.

These races are organized by the Sugarloaf Mountain Athletic Club (SMAC), which also sponsors Wednesday evening workouts on the track at Deerfield Academy. With coaching by Dan Smith, director of the popular Bridge of Flowers race in Shelburne Falls, the workouts, which run through Aug. 16, are for runners at all levels, from novice to Olympic aspirant. Warm-up starts at 5:30 p.m., workouts at 6.

Another SMAC highlight is the club’s race series, in which you score points based on your finishing times in at least six of 11 designated races. The Northampton cross-country race on July 18 is in this series, as are the Montague Mug Run on Aug. 19, the Don Maynard Memorial race in Greenfield on Sept. 16, and others. The series concludes with the Ray Brown Memorial 9K for K9 in Wendell State Forest on Nov. 12. Details can be found online (sugarloafmountainathletic.org).

As the years go by, runners don’t all slow down at the same rate. Consider Rich Larsen, of Shelburne Falls. Now 71, Rich seems to beat more people the older he gets. Last month in New Hampshire, in the all-uphill Mt. Washington Road Race, he set a new record for men over 70, clocking 1 hour, 26 minutes, 13 seconds on the 7.6-mile course. That course – the Mt. Washington Auto Road – rises at an average grade of 12 percent. Rich’s time works out to 11 minutes, 20 seconds per mile, which gives you an idea of how steep 12 percent is.

Larsen’s record was one of three outstanding Mt. Washington performances by Valley runners this year. Twenty-two-year-old Meghan Davis of Plainfield placed third among all women in the field with a time of 1:17:46. The other big local splash came in the team competition, in which teams are compared by the total times of their first five finishers (first three for the over-60 age group division). For years, the vast, talent-rich Central Mass. Striders have dominated team competition at Mt. Washington, but this year the men’s open, masters (40-plus), and veterans (60-plus) team titles all went to the Floodwater Mountain Running Society.

Organized by Zack Livingston, owner of the Floodwater Brewing Company in Shelburne Falls, the Floodwater men’s open team -- Stephen Kerr of Deerfield, Daniel Grip of Belchertown, Jacob Barnett of Leverett, Wouter Hoogkamer of Pelham and Matt Pacheco of South Hadley – clocked a total time of 6 hours, 8 minutes, 12 seconds. That’s nearly half an hour faster than the runner-up team of Delta Dental, which included the overall race winner and international mountain running star Joe Gray, and it was 42 minutes faster than Central Mass. Striders.

Larsen was fast enough so that his time counted for the Floodwater team in the three upper divisions. He followed Grip, Hoogkamer, Glenn Caffery of Leyden, and Livingston to win the masters division. He and Caffery led Andy MacDonald of Amherst, Mark Staples of Holyoke, and David Theoharides of South Deerfield to second place in the seniors (50-plus) category, just six minutes behind CMS. Caffery, Larsen and MacDonald won the veterans title by more than half an hour over the deeply experienced Team Gloucester.

At these races, Larsen never wears a game face. He just smiles.

John Stifler has taught writing and economics at UMass and has written extensively for running magazines and newspapers. He can be reached at jstifler@umass.edu


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