A Great, Wet Day | Out and About Nov. 2011

Over the past two decades, Thetford’s invitational, Woods Trail Run, has become firmly established in the cross-country running lore of New England. Swelling in recent years to more than 2,500 high school runners from as far away as Maryland, athletes seeded by their anticipated 5-kilometer finish time, in one of 12 different starts throughout the day, test themselves against 200 other runners in their heat, as well as the tough, hilly course through the forest. What we consider typical terrain for Vermont, seems like the Himalayas for runners from suburban Connecticut or New Jersey.

I admire runners for a number of reasons. I’m impressed that they often train, and even compete, in relative obscurity, rarely receiving recognition in the sports pages. I like the way runners can spill their guts out in a sprint to the finish, then, seconds later, throw a sweaty, congratulatory arm over the shoulder of the competitor who just nipped them at the tape. And I love how runners take any weather conditions in stride; sweltering heat, pouring rain, even snow. This year, participants at the Woods Trail Run endured torrential rain and the resulting muddy, slippery course. So the loyal race volunteers donned their Gore Tex, the visiting teams erected their colorful tents, the athletes adjusted their race strategies, and the events went off on schedule.

Working in the finish area provides a unique perspective on the competitions. It is not uncommon to see the winners of the 12 different heats glide, almost effortlessly, across the finish line, scarcely out of breath. Many minutes later, the slowest runners in each heat jog across the line, impressive in their determination, perhaps a compensation for lack of physical ability. Between these extremes are the majority of runners, some elated by a terrific result, others crushed by the fear of “letting down the team.”

This is the part of the race that typically contains the most drama. In one of the top seeds, it is not uncommon for more than 100 athletes to cross the finish line in a minute. The greatest challenge for the finish line crew is to accurately establish the order of finish, and to maintain that order as the athletes decelerate and file into the chutes where their numbers are recorded. You can imagine how stressful this job becomes if half a dozen, highly motivated, high school boys are thundering toward the finish in a pack, closely followed by scores of others. Then, crossing the line, one of the first pack slips in the mud, tripping two others who go down with him, while the approaching runners attempt to dodge and vault to fallen finishers. You get the picture. We refer to this scene as a “train wreck,” and those of us recruited to work the finish line have nightmares about it. Consider how the rainy weather and a slick, soggy course increase the possibilities for such a disaster.

The other predictable entertainment occurring between the winners and the cabooses are the drama queens. Although there are typically more girls in this category, there are plenty of boys who earn recognition as well. These are the runners, almost always in the middle of the pack, who find some creative way to draw attention to themselves as they approach the finish line. A com would mon ploy is the “sprint to the death,” usually resulting in a total collapse across the finish line, an effort that be far more convincing if the athlete hadn’t comfortably jogged the entire course prior to the near-fatal sprint in front of the finish line crowd.

Then there are the floppers, usually girls, who make it through the race only to collapse into the arms of a volunteer. Often they are sobbing, sometimes they appear nearly comatose, but almost without exception, after a few minutes of attention and reassurance, they are once again cavorting happily with their teammates.

In spite of the grim weather and challenging running conditions, this was a banner year for the Woods Trail Run. No train wrecks, virtually no floppers, and very few tears. There were several competitors who finished missing a shoe, a few with bloody knees, and everyone was covered with mud. As the old saying goes, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” We were inspired by the gutsy performances of more than 2,000 tough kids in this year’s Woods Trail Run.

John Morton

John Morton is a former Olympic biathlete and Nordic ski coach. He lives in Thetford Center, where he designs Nordic ski trails. You can reach him through his website, www.mortontrails.com.