The first-ever "Race for Reading," held on Saturday, May 29 at the "100 Acre Wood" complex in Bartlett, N.H., was also the first race I've run that included warnings to the runners to look out for bear. But I almost didn't make it after cutting things way too close on the two-hour ride from my home, and then taking a wrong turn at the last minute.
The race was promoted as being in "Intervale," but that's one of those New Hampshire communities that doesn't really exist. It's actually an area within the sprawling township of Bartlett, which includes a large area south of Mount Washington and into the mouth of Crawford Notch, one of the most spectacular parts of New Hampshire's White Mountains. I knew about Intervale, however, because my Aunt Bunny and Uncle Bunk lived there in the 1950s when he was stationed up here as a state trooper. Anyway, whether Intervale or Bartlett, it's Town #111 for me.
For the ride up, the only way to get to this part of the Mount Washington Valley is over state highways that thread through many towns of the Lakes Region, and so continuously go from 50 mph to 30 mph. It's a nice drive but if you get behind a slow-poke, things can get bottled up fast. So even if it's a two-hour drive from my home in Bedford, N.H. (and I left at 6:30 a.m.), you may get slowed down, as I was, and not get to North Conway (the area below Intervale) until something like 8:45 a.m., which is when seconds count, especially if you don't know exactly where the race is, which I didn't.
The description online included something called "100 Acres" and "opposite Town Hall Road," which was the only named road I could actually find on my map. So the plan was to get as far as Town Hall Road, anyway, and then go from there. Heading up Route 16, I find it no problem, swing a left, and begin to look. And look. One mile. Past Town Hall, okay. Two miles. No sign of anything. Road narrowing. Three miles. I was thinking 8:50 a.m. as my turn-around time to rush back in a last-ditch effort to to not waste a whole weekend morning driving up here for nothing; before that, the road becomes a dirt washout heading up a steep hill with a sign that saying, cryptically, "ROAD WIDTH VARIES," so I swing around and bomb back at a high rate of speed.
I'm thinking of those words "opposite Town Hall Road," and it comes to me: though there seemed to be nothing on the other side of Route 16 where Town Hall Road started, that might be where I want to be. All the way back, there's nothing about any road race, and I get to Route 16 at 8:54 a.m. No traffic, so I roll across the highway and there it is: A dirt road and a sign saying "100 Acres." So I head in and finally see the first evidence that I'm in the right place: a "ROAD RACE IN PROGRESS" sign. Well, not just yet, I hope.
I follow the road, which becomes paved for a bit and seems to lead through a construction site, then goes back to dirt and up a hill. Finally, a parking lot filled with vehicles, but not a person to be seen. I park, get out, and notice a small sign saying "Road Race" and with an arrow pointing down a path. It's 8:58 a.m., so I grab $30 in cash and my keys (but forget to lock the car, as it turns out) and jog down the path, which leads to an overlook; below me are two enormous, dazzlingly white geodesic dome-like tents in the middle of the wilderness, and still no one in sight. I felt like Woody Allen in "Sleeper," in that part when he runs across the farm in the middle of the forest. But there's yet another sign for the road race, leading around these, and I begin to think it's some kind of trap. But just as I begin to have second thoughts, I round the corner, and sure enough, there's everything: a registration table, cars, music (which somehow couldn't be heard on the other side of the tents), a timing crew, and a group of people cutting a ribbon with a giant pair of cardboard scissors.
I came up to a woman who looked like she was an organizer, apologized for being so late, and asked if I could still register. No problem, she said: they were still doing a ceremony to mark this first-ever running of the "Race for Reading" 5K trail race. I filled out the paperwork and glanced at the route map, which snaked all around the property in confusing series of loops that reminded me of the picture of the human intestine in my doctor's office, but the lady assured me the trails were well marked and I'd have no problem. Which was good, because the moment I stepped away from the table, someone announced that bears had been sighted on the trail that morning, so watch out. And then the race started, and off I went, without so much as a chance to stretch. One of the all-time close calls, considering the distance I had to travel, but at least I made it.
And yes, the course was a series of constantly twisting trails, some of which looked freshly bulldozed. The property was mostly level, though, and not too tough if you paid attention to your footing, which I HAVE to do on trail races after too many twisted ankles. A highlight was the crossing not once but twice of the old Maine Central's "Mountain Division" railroad line, which traverses Crawford Notch as part of the link between Montreal and Portland, Maine. The line, which runs through the "100 Acre" property, is now used only by the North Conway Scenic Railroad for occasional tourist trains, but organizers still had someone stationed at the tracks to make sure runners got over safely.
Nice shady course, though the last half-kilometer was uphill in an open area, with the sun just hot enough to make it a tough slog after all the cool time under the trees. Finished in 32:01, pretty slow but not bad for a trail race, I guess, and for a guy who did a two-hour hilly bike ride the night before. I was officially 21st out of 33 entrants, including, amazingly, a guy pushing a stroller who finished in like 40 minutes. (Must have been a bumpy ride!) Afterwards, I met a woman with four collies, all part of the same family, including one on three legs, the victim of a car accident seven years ago. He seemed to be coping fine.
This was the last race before one of this season's major challenges: the 10-mile all-uphill "Pack Monadnock" race on Sunday, June 6. I have one more longish run scheduled before trying to tackle that, weather permitting. If it's hot and humid that morning, forget it. Right now, the weather calls for a high of 76 and "scattered thunderstorms," which could mean anything. So we'll see.