Top 10 Reasons to Run Vermont
Though I doubt that any marathon experience will ever equal the sensation of running New York City for the first time, the Vermont City Marathon in Burlington this past Sunday, May 24, was the “best” of the six 26.2 milers that I’ve raced, for the following reasons:
This event runs like clockwork. (Though, of course, a race is meant to run like clockwork – where would we be without digital watches? – so perhaps we should consider it a well-oiled machine instead.) My runner’s manual was easy to read and understand, and not laden with excess information. I booked one of the hotels that offered discounts for runners, a simple Best Western, and found it perfectly pleasant, with indoor and outdoor pool, a decent bar and restaurant, friendly staff, and the bonus of being within walking distance of the Sheraton, the race headquarters. Package pick-up at the Sheraton on Saturday afternoon took all of two minutes. (Try that in NYC.) Had I gotten into town earlier, the Sheraton had been showing indie movies about crazy runners all day long. Had I gotten into town even earlier than that, a series of kids runs (1/2, 1 and 2 mile distances) Saturday morning apparently attracted 2,000 competitors. Hotel shuttle buses ran to the start and from the finish line on Sunday without complication. There was copious parking in downtown Burlington – some of my friends knew well enough to park right by the finish line – and all of it free. Baggage check was easy. The post-race food line was swift. The organization during the run itself – a task made complicated by the various relay races – was exceptional. Seriously, people, this was one very well-run race.
2) The City of Burlington
I’d been to Burlington once before, many years ago, and had been longing to come back. After all, Burlington (as with Vermont in general) has a great liberal tradition. It’s a college town. It sits on beautiful Lake Champlain. The people are friendly, with a warm glow to them. You could spend days hanging out in the shops, bars and restaurants downtown. And for a city of its size and location, it’s got a great live music scene. It’s the kind of place you briefly entertain thoughts of calling your home.
3) The Numbers
You don’t want too many people out there with if you can help it: one of my Staten Island starts, pushing and shoving alongside 30,000 other people all trying to run across a bridge at the same moment, turned into a classic New York “f*** you”’ moment. Then again, you don’t want too few runners either: in Albany in 2005, there were only 500 if us, and the last few miles were so solitary that I ended up walking most of them. Burlington gets the balance right: 2350 marathon runners at the start, another 6500 joining the field at various points doing the various relays. That’s enough for it to feel like an event, and to develop a sense of camaraderie; never so many that you couldn’t claim your personal space.
4) The Weather
Most marathons are run in spring and autumn in the hopes of amiable conditions, but the nature of weather is that (unless you live in California) it’s inherently unpredictable, and there are no guarantees against excessive heat, such as I had two years in a row in New York. Indeed, the forecast for this Sunday in Burlington was a peak in an uncomfortably high mid-70s – but then, the Vermont City Marathon gets going at 8am, ensuring we would all be done before the temperatures started hitting their daily highs. Though it was a warm morning – in the mid-50s when I hit the staging area at 6:30am, having woken at 4am, a bundle of pre-race nerves, and not been able to get back to sleep – it was raining lightly, which kept us all cool. It carried on raining long enough on the run to start weighing our clothes down, and then, right at the point that it was pissing me off and my socks were starting to feel really heavy, around 9:30-10am, it dried up; by about 11am the sun was out, making for the most stunningly beautiful Sunday spring afternoon. I was done at 11:30, before it got too hot; almost everyone was home by 1:30pm. And being by the lake, there was a fresh breeze throughout. I was well due perfect running weather; that doesn’t mean I dared expect it.
5) The Crowd
You might run one of the big city events, a London or a New York, purely for the buzz of the crowd, the million people who come out and make you feel like a superstar for a day. But at the smaller marathons, any public support is a bonus. Especially when the start time is 8am on a Sunday, on a holiday weekend, and it’s raining. So my hats off to the thousands who lined the streets and parks and bike paths and hills and bridges of the Burlington area to cheer us all on, and then cheer us on some more. We never seemed to be lacking for encouragement. Part of this was perhaps down to Burlington’s small-city camaraderie, but it was also down to organization again, namely the…
6) The Route
The Vermont City marathon is craftily routed to maximum use of the downtown area and, therefore, reinforce crowd participation. The race starts at Battery Park, close to but high above the lake front; it runs south east for a couple of miles and comes back through the start line; it runs north for a few miles and comes back though the start line; it runs south for a few more miles and back through the start area; and finally – you guessed it – it heads north again, through some suburbs and back in along the lake-side bike path to the finish line at the Waterfront Park. The crowd has no reason to go home; by the time they’ve finished cheering their friends coming through the center of town for the third or fourth time, they may as well walk down the hill to Waterfront Park to cheer everyone through the final few hundred yards. This route benefits both the public and participants. Better yet, for runners like me who detest the very thought of a flat 26.2 mile run, the course has considerable variety, and not just in scenery. There are several hills, including a sharp one around mile 8, and a very long and tough one at mile 15. That means there are some downhills too, especially in the last few miles, where the bike path at the end offers pleasant relief (and even some dirt alongside to give potentially blistered feet a break). Judging by one of the pictures I took an hour after I finished, our last few hundred yards were right alongside the lake, but I have no recollection of that whatsoever: I was too busy trying to make it home on time!
7) The Music
There is no greater way to have your spirits lifted on a marathon than to have people play music to urge you on. Especially when the start time is 8am on a Sunday, on a holiday weekend, and it’s raining etc. I lost count of the number of bands that had found some way to plug in their amps on the sidewalks. I appreciated the bagpipers too. And I have to give props to the drum circle that was strategically placed halfway up Battery Street’s steep mile 15; that one put a special smile on my face. Thanks to all of you for showing up so early in the morning to rock out, braving not just the elements but also the risk of electrocution.
8) The Swag and the Stats
You don’t run a marathon for the swag any more than you run it expecting good weather or large crowds – but like all those extras, it certainly helps. The Vermont City souvenir t-shirt is a proper runner’s race shirt, by far the coolest looking item I’ve ever picked up for my entry fee. The medal weighs twice as much as any of my NYC ones. (The event is sponsored by KeyBank; glad to see some our bank charges have come back to us!) And as a bonus, the race stats supplied by RunPix are just the kind of thing us statistics junkies live for. I’m prouder than punch to see my splits spread out in a straight line. And though I would have survived had I not been informed that I passed 174 runners on the second half marathon, and that only 7 passed me, you can imagine how pleased I was to see it up on a screen? How did Brendan Foster ever survive?
9) The Pacers
I used to think that pacing teams were cheating. That if you couldn’t run a race according to your own watch and your own abilities you didn’t really deserve to be there to begin with. That might be why, once I got a solid first marathon under my belt, I messed up the next four of them, running the first half so fast that I hit the wall each time, right around mile 20, walking far too many of the last few miles. (The fact that my finish time got faster with each race didn’t feel like suitable compensation for the disappointment of having to walk at the end.) On this race, determined to scrape in under 3hrs 30mins and qualify for Boston at last, I set a more cautious goal, planning to run the first mile or two a minute under pace and then pick up that time with solid 7min:55sec miles for the rest of the race. I did just that, passing the halfway mark in exactly 1hr, 45 mins. I started looking for the 3:30 pacer at that point and didn’t catch him until mile 17; turned out he’d deliberately put a good half-minute “in the bank,” as he called it. I was glad to then run with him, because the last few miles were extremely tough work, and I needed not just the company but also the assurance that I was running well and had nothing to worry about except to keep on going just as I was. Purposefully, he sped us all up a little towards the end to make sure we had more wiggle room; I ran the last two miles as fast as I did any of the other two miles over the entire race. I didn’t see him afterwards to say thanks for the conversation and camaraderie and encouragement. If he’s reading this, it was well appreciated.
10) The Beer!
Burlington is a beer drinker’s town. There are proper pubs all over the city and enough microbreweries in the area to ensure the bars stay well-stocked with interesting ales. But that’s all for another time and day. This one is for the people who held out plastic cups of beer around mile 25. God bless them. Personally, I was too focused on the finish line to partake but I know a few who did. Similarly, I found the line at the beer tent near the finish line too long to bother with, but I was glad to see that my fellow marathoners had their priorities right. (It can’t be worse for you than coca-cola and they were giving that away in the food tent, too.) Later in the afternoon I joined several other runners up from the Catskills at their B&B for a post-race picnic, and brought a six-pack of local brewery Otter Creek’s Copper Pale Ale for refreshment. I may have said this before about a post-race drink, but I’m not sure a beer has ever tasted so good. Because not only was it a good beer to begin with, but I was celebrating the fact that…
11) It’s on the road to Boston
…I finally qualified for Boston. At 3:29:12, I only had 118 seconds to spare, but that was all I needed; the point is that I didn’t blow it by trying to go too fast. It might be difficult for non-runners to fully understand what this means, so excuse me for laying it on thick at the end here: what it means for us qualifiers is that we’re in an upper percentile of runners who have met the strict qualification standards of the world’s oldest annual marathon. I guess it makes us elite runners, and at a point in life where many other ambitions are no longer appropriate or achievable, that’s not a bad badge of honor. Oddly enough, I’d focused so hard on this marathon – from the Saturday morning long distance runs through winter in sub-zero temperatures, to the full 26.2 miles I did just 3 weeks ago, to the endlessly stop-watched one-milers during my morning workouts to get that 7:55 pace built into my DNA – that rather than a sense of elation, or tears of joy, I felt just a sense of quiet satisfaction, knowing that for once in my life, practice had made perfect. Besides, at our post-race party I was surrounded by Catskills runners who put my own achievements to shame: a woman my age running 3:14, two 60-year olds running in the 3:20s, a 50-year old coming in under 3 hours. At the hotel Monday morning I even met a 74-year old from Texas who ran 4:19, which is absolutely phenomenal when you think about it. This is why runners ultimately set their own goals, run against no one but themselves. Because when you stay the course, keep your pace and make it to your destination on time, nobody can feel better about your achievement than yourself. You feel like you’re living your life well. In this case, the fact that it was such a fun weekend all round made it that much more rewarding. Cheers Burlington, Vermont; the next Otter’s Creek or Magic Hat is for you!