On a Saturday morning in early spring, the roads of Roxbury had the fascinating consistency of slowly thawing chocolate ice cream. The ruts were deep enough to swallow a Prius.
It wasn’t pretty, but there I was, hobbling, hopping, and shuffling along Northfield Road.
Aside from my regular forays on skis, winters are a period of hibernation for me. But with the sun’s return, every cell in my body screams to move and I feel a deep unrelenting itch to shake off the cobwebs. Efficiency will come later. Power will wait. Grace is reserved for those who have been doing this longer. In spring, what I need most is a little external motivation.
So, in early March I signed up to take a few runs with the Central Vermont Runners, not knowing that in the weeks ahead, social running would be replaced by social distancing.
The Central Vermont Runners is a club that has been attracting athletes ranging from weekend warriors to elite triathletes for 40 years and hosts regular training runs and a full schedule of races.
The weekend distances range between six to ten miles on quiet backroads. On the day of my first run with the group, most headed out from the Roxbury house where we met on an out-and-back to the end of Holstrom Road, but I decided to peel off with a few others and head down Gilpin Road for an eight-mile jaunt.
This is how I found myself running with USA Triathlon Hall of Fame member Donna Smyers.
Smyers grew up in Connecticut before Title IX. When she was in high school the two sports women were allowed to participate in were gymnastics or cheerleading. “We’ve had 100 years with the right to vote and 48 years with the right to run,” she told me as we climbed another sloping grade.
Smyers didn’t know she was an endurance athlete when she moved to Vermont in the 1980s. In what she calls “another life” she worked for IBM in Essex, she mountain biked, rock climbed and backpacked.
Her need for structured training is what led her to the Central Vermont Runners. A friend wrote down the phone numbers of a handful of club members —including one who would later become her boyfriend. Smyers made some calls and joined up for a run. She’s been a regular ever since.
Smyers started doing distance runs on the dirt roads near her home in Adamant, participated in her first triathlon in 1985 and found herself hooked.
She placed third in the women’s 35-39 age group in her first Ironman World Championship in Kona in 1993 and second in the 55-59 age group in her most recent Ironman Kona in 2012 with six age group wins between 1997 and 2009. She came back from a quad tendon rupture and repair in late 2012 to become the 55-59 age group USAT Olympic distance National Champion and 55-59 age group World Champion in sprint and 70.3 distances in 2014.
In 2018, Donna Smyers was inducted into the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame, a place she shares with her sister, former pro-triathlete and former International Triathlon Union World Champion Karen Smyers.
Running with the CVR gang has been part of Donna’s training regimen for the last two decades. “This is an amazing group of people,” she says. “On the hard days or the slow days, this keeps me consistent and having fun.”
THE RISE OF RUN CLUBS
Back at John Valentine’s house in Roxbury, wet shoes piled up by the garage door as runners changed into dry clothes and dove into the pan of sticky buns and coffee waiting for us. People stretched on the floor or leaned on the counters.
Seated in the sunshine outside, founding member Bob Murphy, 80, of Barre Town told me how the club started 40 years ago.
As massive numbers of people started running and jogging in the 1980s, clubs started popping up in cities and small towns. Before CVR gave central Vermont runners a place to lace up their shoes, many of the current members made the drive to New Hampshire to participate with the North Country Athletic Club.
“After being a member of that for a few years I thought, ‘We’re all Vermonters, why are we all running around with the Old Man on the Mountain on our chests?”
At the time of CVR’s founding, it had 30 members and two races. Now, the group’s membership sits at 200.
“Since then, we’ve developed a large number of races and aside from that, I think nearly every night of the week we have had a different group going out somewhere” Murphy said.
Before the pandemic hit, Tuesday nights were fun runs and Wednesday nights were for speedwork. Another group would meet at Berlin Pond on Mondays. In the winter, the club consistently had groups of 20 to 25 showing up to run in temperatures as low as four degrees below zero.
“The fact that we’ve managed to grow the membership is what’s kept this club alive,” said Murphy. “We have a lot of active younger runners now and that keeps the group going.”
The club’s trick to attracting new members: word of mouth.
“We have races that attract people and they learn about the club and before you know it they’re joining.”
As the pandemic spread and social everything came to a halt, it hit club members hard.
“I felt like I was running in place,” Andy Shuford, the club’s president emeritus said when I called him in April. “It’s frustrating not being able to run because the group aspect is a huge part of the motivation. We’re happy we can run, but not happy to be doing it in such an isolated fashion. Running is a very important social structure.”
SOCIAL RUNNING DURING COVID-19
For CVR runner Darell Lasell, social running helped him lose 80 pounds and drop his 5K run time from over 30 minutes to a personal best of 23:30.
Four years ago, Lasell weighed 265 pounds. He knew something had to change and decided to take up running. “It was something I had to do for myself, for my body and for my mental health, too. Every five pounds I took off I noticed I could run faster.”
Lasell, 62, who lives in Williamstown and works for AADCO Medical Inc. in Randolph (an essential business that has helped distribute PPE in mass to hospital workers) had heard about the Central Vermont Runners and signed up.
“On my first run Donna Smyers ran beside me the whole way,” he remembers. “It was only after the run that I found out that she was a much, much faster runner and she was staying with me just to make me feel welcome.”
As Lasell’s running progressed, Smyers and other club members gave him tips. “They told me to focus on distance, not speed. And Donna taught me that I really needed a different pair of shoes for different runs.” (Lasell now uses Salomon Speed Cross trail shoes for off-road runs and lightweight zero-drop shoes from Hoka and Altra for road races.)
CVR members told him about upcoming races and often members would carpool together to them. He’d meet for runs and for the regular monthly social hours at Julio’s in Montpelier. “One of our most memorable meetings was at Jim and Barb Flint’s house in Craftsbury. We did a woods run up to this secluded waterfall and then came back to their house for a barbecue,” he recalls
In 2019, Lasell set a goal of running 100 races between January and December. “About half of those were either trail or mountain races —three were marathon length and four of them were half-marathon length,” he says.
In December, he met his goal.
“I think the camaraderie and encouragement from club members helped a lot,” he says. “They were very supportive. They gave me tips and would often caution me to be careful not to get an injury and would recommend races.”
But in March, all that came to a stop.
“Since Covid-19 I’ve been depressed about not seeing the run groups I used to hang out with,” Lasell says. “I’ve done the CVR social distance virtual run. My wife and I do a run on the bike path and submit our times. My wife is a relatively new runner but she’s ambitious and she just started a challenge herself to run 5K every day.”
Another of the other groups Lasell ran with regularly, the Runderachievers, is an informal group that was started by Good Measure Brewing on Wednesday nights.
“Good Measure’s Ross Evans and Scott Kerner started the group two years ago as something as a joke,” says Colin Bright, a Northfield resident and Runderachiever regular. “It began as fun run around the Northfield Common at 5:30 pm as way to get folks into the brewery after on a Wednesday night.”
At first, it was mainly casual runners and families with kids in strollers. “It’s grown now to nearly two dozen and a group of us Roverachievers sometimes do a longer run too,” says Bright.
Lasell quickly became an integral part of the group and took the group photo each week. “One week, Darell missed the run so I Photoshopped him into the group picture,” says Bright, a graphic designer who has created logos for the Catamount Ultra, as well as Good Measure Brewing, Citizen Cider and others.
That gave Bright an idea.
As Covid-19 hit, Bright reached out to the runners and asked them to send photos of themselves on their individual social-distancing runs. He then began Photoshopping the Runderachievers into one setting—the Good Measure Brewing storefront, a former member’s house in Spain, and even the moon. “It was one way of bringing us all together,” he said.
On May 7 as Governor Scott announced a relaxation of social distancing guidelines and the opening of many forms of outdoor recreation, Lasell saw some light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. “I sometimes run with a Friday night trail group out of the Upper Valley Running Club,” he said by phone.
“Yesterday, the group’s leader Savannah Gravel sent me an email, noting that things were easing up. She asked ‘When do you feel comfortable getting together for a lunch time run?’”
Evan Johnson is a former assistant editor at Vermont Sports. Opening photo illustration by Colin Burch