Joining a Running Tradition
By Tim Butterfield '12, Copy Editor
Hey, you! Do you like to run around like a little kid? Are you a fan of the beautiful world of nature this region boasts? Do friendly neighborhood gatherings make you feel particularly warm inside?

Yup, me too. So I’m going to let you know all about a weekly cross-country race series that takes place in Northampton for the rest of the month.

The Northampton 5k Race Series begins every year on the first Tuesday in April and concludes on the last Tuesday of September. The race is a pretty standard length — 3.1 miles — which is perfect for beginning runners to work up to and for experienced runners to try to improve upon previous times. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with showing up with a pal and walking the entire thing, either. Trust me — that type of thing goes on, too.

I found this weekly race series on a local event calendar and checked it out last spring. Calling the race organizers — the Grant husband-wife team — one Monday night, I received a splurge of verbal directions to the race site. However, as friendly as the conversation had been, at some point I had gotten lost in the verbal flurry of local locations and roads. So, relying on my half-page MapQuest directions and buzzing with excitement, I began the drive to Northampton with my sister, Liz, the next day. I hadn’t run a real cross country race since high school, and I was eager to be able to run through some trails again.

After a pleasant 15-minute drive, I parked next to a community gardening area and headed into the park where the race would be held. Underneath a tent was an older guy — maybe in his early 70’s — who talked to me for a few minutes about how he’d been participating in or working at the weekly race for several consecutive decades. He collected my $4 entry fee and briefly explained the course to me. Then I was led to the other side of the tent, where Sue Grant, the race director, asked me to predict my finishing time. Awards were to be presented to the runners who came closest to their predicted times.

About 50 people lined up at the starting line at 6:00, and the race commenced once Don Grant stood on a picnic table and informally declared: “On that fateful word… GO!” Several dozen watches beeped, and we were off.

Never before had I enjoyed a 5-kilometer race so much. I ran hard but still felt willing and able to converse briefly and encourage other runners whom I encountered. That’s the thing about cross country racing — even though you may or may not be trying to win, improve or just work hard, the fact of the matter is that you are out in nature, cruising along trails through the woods and fields. The setting is beautiful, and you can’t help but be grateful to those folks who are experiencing the whole thing with you. Thus, I encouraged them.

I remember climbing the first hill, which happened to be a pretty long, U-shaped, climb. I was not leading the pack by any means, but, when I reached the top of the incline, I looked behind me, down the hill, and was inspired to see dozens of other runners lined up behind me, all working toward the same goal of reaching the top.

After about five minutes of running, I hit a fork in the road, where Don pointed me in the right direction and Liz cheered some encouragement into me. Before I knew it, I’d hit the second mile marker, and, for the first time that I can recall in my running career, I found myself wishing that I wasn’t so close to the end of a race.

Coasting down a wide dirt path parallel to a bubbling brook, I made a 90-degree turn and began to ascend one of the shortest but steepest hills I’d ever encountered in a race. I reached the top in about eight seconds, checked my watch, and realized that I probably only had about half a mile to go. That half mile ended up being almost completely downhill, so picking up my pace wasn’t all that hard to do. I crossed the finish line, which also happened to be the starting line, in about 14 minutes, give or take six.

A good result? Yes, I was happy with it, considering it was my first race in some time and that I had finished a whole minute faster than my predicted time. A fun course? Absolutely! It’s not every day that we runners have the chance to participate in cross country races without being on a competitive school team, and this course was top-notch.

But the event didn’t end as I crossed the finish line, nor did it end as the last runner finished roughly 20 minutes later. There was an all-you-can-eat buffet of bananas, oranges, cookies, juice and birthday cake — as one of the runners took the chance to celebrate her special day. Don and Sue gave out free registration passes for future races to the age group winners and those who had predicted their times accurately. A record board of the fastest times ever run in every single age group was on display (and chock-full of the speedy times once clocked by Amherst’s own coach, Erik Nedeau). Every racer and spectator laughed, mingled and made friends. After giving such an intense effort in the race, this relaxed and intimate community interaction meant the world to me.

It’s simple, I think. This race is a super way to achieve your running goals — whether they are time, fitness or pleasure-related. It’s the purest way for a runner to commune with nature, as it takes him or her away from the monotony of the track or road, and I personally appreciate getting away from the student community every once in a while and spending time with the locals. The registration fee is lower than any around — and I mean any — and Don and Sue post the results of each race by Thursday, along with a personal comment beside most of the runners’ names. The website is easy to access, so you can even send Mom and Dad the link to the results page.

So there’s my plug. I just think you might enjoy pushing yourself, meeting some refreshingly regular and genuine people, and seeing the nicer parts of this region that Main Street just can’t offer. All you have to do is Google this thing, lace up your shoes and make your way down Route 9 to Northampton on any Tuesday before the end of the month.

Issue 02, Submitted 2010-09-15 04:17:39