On The Run with John Stifler: See you on the hills

Published: 06-02-2024 2:01 PM

You can probably beat me in the Bridge of Flowers Road Race on Aug. 10. Here’s why:

I like running up hills. Somehow my gait and posture seem well adapted to uphill running. In many cases if someone is the same speed as I am on flat ground, I can run up a hill faster.

There’s a famously steep hill in the Bridge of Flowers race, Crittenden Hill, ascending for what seems like half a mile. But that’s the problem: when I’ve run this race, I have passed at least 30 or 40 runners going up this hill. They must be impressed, I’m thinking.

If they are, it’s only for a few minutes. Crittenden Hill comes in the second mile of the race, followed by three miles mostly downhill – which is where those runners I passed all catch up and pass me, along with a bunch more who were behind me from the start.

The lesson: If you run the Bridge of Flowers race, don’t show off on Crittenden Hill. In fact, don’t even feel obliged to run it; walking is entirely acceptable and possibly a good strategy, since varying the way you are using your legs in the course of a race helps avoid excessive fatigue in any particular muscle group. And it is one steep hill.

Inaugurated in 1979 by market proprietor and formidable runner Mike McCusker, this race was so well organized, and the setting so picturesque, that it promptly became one of the most popular races in New England. The one change in recent years is that the distance, originally 10 kilometers, has been shortened to five miles (8K) to omit a stretch that was on a highway. Race director Dan Smith, who ran the race six times when it was 10K and twice after the change, remarked last week, “The 8K wasn’t any easier than the 10.”

No surprise. The hill is unchanged. When Lou Serafini set the men’s five-mile course record of 24 minutes, 25 seconds in 2019, he ran four of those miles at a steady 4:40 pace but clocked 6:02 for the mile that includes Crittenden. The women’s course record is 28:47, set in 2022 by Ann Marie Tuxbury.

Besides the memorable course, the atmosphere of the whole day is ebullient. Festivities begin at 8 a.m. with a 3K (1.8-mile) family fun run, followed by the headline event starting at 9 a.m.. The entry fee also gets you ice cream from Mo’s Fudge Factor afterward, plus one free beer from Floodwater Brewing Company if you’re 21 or older, at the Blue Rock restaurant, which is also the location of the awards ceremony.

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Last year’s combined fields for the two events was about 600, and Smith says this year’s advance registration is on pace to pass that number. Register online (runreg.com/bridgeofflowersrace). Registration closes on Aug. 7, and there’s no day-of-race registration. The entry fee ranges from $15 to $35 depending on your age, distance and how soon you sign up – except if you’re 70 or older your registration is free.

Speaking of beer, this year the race is the third of seven races in New England Runner magazine’s Pub Series 2024 Malt & Hops Tour, a creation of that magazine’s editor and Northfield Mt. Hermon School alumnus Bob Fitzgerald.

For a hill longer than Crittenden, if not so steep, try the 4.8-mile Lake Wyola race on June 9. This hill takes up most of the first half of the course, and because it is so long, I tend to run it more thoughtfully. Maybe you will too. You’ll still probably beat me.

Now in its 42nd year, this charming race, which includes the option of walking the whole distance or entering the 1.5-mile fun run/walk, makes the most of Shutesbury’s secluded, shaded roads. Those roads are unpaved for almost the entire second half, so the downhill portion involves less pounding than you’d experience on pavement. Course record holders are Steve O’Connell (25:12) and Cheryl Abert (29:31).

Walkers on the main course start at 9:30 a.m. The run starts at 10 a.m., followed at 10:10 a.m. by the shorter fun run/walk. The first male and first female finisher win cash prizes; age-group winners get merchandise prizes. Every entrant gets a chance to win something in a drawing. You can register on race day at the Lake Wyola Association building on Shore Drive, or any time before then online (runreg.com/8648). Stick around afterward to enjoy the beach.

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