Well, missed a race in South Hampton, N.H. on Saturday due to a prior commitment, but made it up to Cornish, N.H. on Sunday morning for a 5K—and awfully glad I did. Terrific day for a run, one of those early spring days when the winter chill is gone but the summer heat hasn't settled in yet, where the sun shines, the sky is a deep cobalt blue, the air seems like a cool glass of water, and you can see for miles.
That last part is true, not just because of the dry non-humid air, but also because it's still pre-green-up in that part of the Connecticut River Valley, about 90 minutes north of my home in Bedford, N.H., where the leaves are starting to sprout. Not up in Cornish—up there, the branches are still bare, allowing you to see the contours of the landscape with a clarity that's impossible during much of the year. Also, mud season is pretty much over, so the ground mostly solid and not a slippery sodden mess, at least up there.
I love towns like Cornish, which is Town #115 in my quest to run a race in all 234 cities, towns, and unincorporated places in New Hampshire. Cornish is one of those places that's small enough so that everyone seems to know everyone else, but somehow it avoids that "suspicious of outsiders" vibe, at least in my experience. I used to work at the area's daily newspaper, the Eagle-Times of Claremont, N.H. (next town over) many years ago, and in going up to Cornish, I always felt welcome.
And that was strange, I thought, because Cornish was the long-time home of reclusive author J.D. Salinger, whose home was only a short distance away from where this race took place. Cornish residents, respectful of the man's desire for privacy and subscribing to a "Code of the Hills," were famous for sending would-be Salinger seekers on wild goose chases on the endless back roads. I guess as long as you weren't looking for J.D., you were okay. I never put myself in that position, and anyway, Mr. Salinger passed away last year at age 91, so it's no longer an issue. (I do know where he lived, though, and was going to take my nephew from Chicago on a drive-by last December because he'd just read 'Catcher in the Rye,' but we didn't have time.)
Race registration on the grounds of the Cornish Fair, the county's annual agricultural extravaganza, which usually takes place in August. As a newspaper reporter, I got to serve as a judge for the Miss Cornish Fair Pageant of 1989. At the time, I had to fill out a long questionnaire about myself, which I did not take seriously; for "hobbies," I jokingly put "woodworking and golf."
I forgot about that, of course, so it was very funny to me on the night of the pageant to be introduced in front of a cheering crowd of thousands of people as "Mr. Jeff Rapsis of the Eagle-Times newspaper of Claremont! His hobbies are WOODWORKING and GOLF!"
Back to the present. As I experienced it, Cornish continues to exude a small-town charm. Driving into the grass lot to park my 2007 Subaru Forester, I came upon two men standing up ahead. When I slowed and pantomimed I wasn't sure which side to park on, one pointed to the left, the other to the right. They laughed, and then both switched directions simultaneously.
And even after all the years, some familiar faces emerged. Director of the non-profit that benefited from the race was Ellie Tsetsi, who had been a member of the Fall Mountain Regional School Board back when I covered it.
It was a fairly dog-friendly race, though all the canines turned out to be with walkers, I think. One was particularly impressive: a collie/black lab/Great Dane mix that was much bigger than you'd expect for that kind of dog. A weird extra-large black Lassie. Nice dog, though.
One piece of tarred road near the race mid-point was the sole paved stretch; the rest of the course was dirt or Class VI abandoned roads. Parts of New Hampshire are full of these "Class VI" roads, which typically are lightly used country roads that fell into disuse when the state's rural areas suffered from depopulation that began during the Civil War and lasted in some cases right through the Great Depression in the 1930s.
Most all towns have them, some more than others. Even where in live in Bedford, one of the most completely developed places in the whole state, there are little stretches of abandoned road here and there. What happens is that if a road isn't used or needed any more, then the town declares it "Class VI," which means the town stops maintaining it. No plowing in winter, no grading in summer. Instead, its left in the care of Mother Nature.
Well, just because you discontinue a road doesn't mean that it ceases to exist. The grade still endures, threading a patch along abandoned stone walls and former fields now growing crops of trees and cellar holes of former homesteads. In many cases, the road caused the soil to be packed down or was "paved" with ash, inhibiting plant growth in some cases for generations. So even though no one maintains a Class VI road, in some cases it can maintain itself for quite awhile.
And the course in Cornish took us on two excellent examples of Class VI Roads. One was a long extension of Peter Daniels Road, which had a stream running along one side of it. I don't know the name of the other but it was part of a long uphill that made up the toughest part of the course. The forest floor was bare and brown, and with leaves not yet on the trees, it was possible to see the terrain around you with remarkable clarity—the ups and downs, the escarpments, the big boulders called "glacial erratics" that are strewn everyone, remnants of the last Ice Age, and purposeless stone walls running up and over and seemingly to infinity.
It's a great landscape to run through, even if the ground was uneven, but I'm forever breaking my vow of no off-road trail races due to weak ankles. These roads weren't in bad shape at all—the worst thing was when one of the impromptu streams running down one side cut across and headed downhill, creating a small waterfall that you actually had to leap over. Never had that happen before.
People were friendly, the Boy Scouts directing us this way and that were appropriately gung-ho, and the little signs that someone created for the long uphill had just the right mix of color and artlessness. And coming down the final long hill on South Parsonage Road, I felt strong enough to really open up, taking off the brakes and pounding down the dirt road, passing several people in the process.
At the chute, the finish line was one of those traditional take-off-the-bottom-of-your-bib-and-stick-it-on-a-peg deals, a tried and true method if there ever was one. By the time I got there, I was #47, but that's about all I got to learn before leaving. I'm still waiting for an exact time and other info, but I can't imagine it was a fast run because of the steep upgrades. Update: Okay, results are in. My time was a god-awful 37:07, and place was 46/117. If I was up there, I'd measure the course again because yes, the uphills were slow, I really flew on the downgrades.
I have to say the one hill was really one of the major hills I've ever encountered in more than 100 races, right up there with the crazy hill in the Warner 5-mile Fall Foliage race and one totally unexpected one in Pittsfield some years ago. Usually, no matter how steep, I try to at least keep an "old man's gait" going, but in Cornish the hill won, forcing me to resort to walking for about the last third of it.
Quite a challenge, but the landscape of one of New Hampshire's most picturesque areas coupled with a perfect day was more than enough to make it worthwhile.
The only wrong note was caused by me myself. After finishing, I drove back up the hill and hiked into one of the Class VI roads to get the photos I've posted here. Lucky for me some walkers were still coming up the hill, enabling me to get some human perspective in the images. As the group approached, I noticed people were kind of hailing me from a distance, as if they knew me, and then I saw a very young child running ahead and up towards me, very excited. I snapped a few more shots, but then the kid stopped, and ever so hesitantly said, "...you're not Daddy!"
Wow, way to scare a poor kid!
P.S. I'd like to try building the audience with this blog and see where it goes. So what I'll do is have some cards printed up and add them to the pile of race brochures and other pamphlets you often see at road race registration tables. Couldn't hurt, and might lead to something. You never know. Well, the primary objective is to ensure that I stick with this, and that's one way of doing it.