Sunday, June 3, 2012

Sunday, June 3: Effingham (#134) and Freedom (#135)

Today's scheduled 5K up in Effingham was cancelled, which I only found out via a note on the elementary school door after driving 90 minutes to get there. But that didn't stop me from claiming the town and neighboring Freedom as well.

Yes, today marked a new stage in my quest to run a 5K or better in every city, town, or unincorporated place in New Hampshire: my very first "Do-It-Yourself Double 5K" in which I ran 3.1 miles back-to-back on either side the border between two towns, or a 5K in each of them.

I wasn't planning to do this today, but the cancelled race kinda forced my hand, or feet. I don't know why the race was cancelled, but if it was because of the weather, that would have been ironic, as conditions were perfect for a long slog: overcast, cool, and with a slight mist coming down. (I just read where the Saco River in nearby Conway did reach flood stage on Sunday morning, so maybe that has something to do with it.)

Pulling out of the empty Effingham Elementary School parking lot, I resolved to stage my first "Do-It-Yourself" 5K, in which I run the distance, but not part of an official race. After running in 133 cities and towns, this was bound to happen: at some point, you run out of towns that hold races, even once in awhile. (I was surprised to find one scheduled for Effingham, actually!)

So, without really planning, it was time to try out my plan for staging an impromptu do-it-yourself race. Unfortunately, I didn't have a camera with me, so word pictures will have to suffice.

A quick check of the map showed that not only could I bag Effingham, but also neighboring Freedom. I just had to find a spot on the town line between the two communities, then drive 1.6 miles into each town (just over half a 5K), finding a turn-around landmark in each case.

Then, starting at the border, I would run 1.6 miles into one town to the first turn-around spot, then turn around and go back, making for the first 5K. Then I'd cross the border into the other town, run 1.6 miles to the second turn-around spot, then turn around and go back. Voila! Two 5Ks in two towns.

To do this, I followed Route 25 east to the Maine border, at first because I was looking for a bathroom and thought I'd find one there. (No luck.) But in doing so, I spied a perfect staging point for my back-to-back 5Ks: just off Route 25, an old box girder bridge over the Ossippee River, which marked the border between Effingham and Freedom.

Right next to the bridge was a little dirt parking area, perfect for the operation. So, to measure off the distance, I set my odometer's trip meter at 0.0 and drove into Effingham. The road quickly turned from paved to dirt, and then headed ruler-straight ahead (a rare thing for a dirt road) through a marshy wilderness area for nearly a full mile.

It then went back to pavement and hit Route 153, a minor state highway. To the left was a steep upgrade, so I headed right. (There are advantages to choosing your own route.) The car's odomoter hit 1.6 miles exactly at a yellow mailbox, so I had my landmark. I then made a U-turn to head back to the start, crossing the bridge into Freedom and resetting the trip meter back to 0.0.

Almost immediately, I was on Route 25, a fairly two-lane busy highway connecting Portland, Maine with New Hampshire's Lakes Region. Heading east for about a half-mile put me on much quieter Old Portland Road, a modest route full of broken pavement and presumably bypassed long ago by the highway.

In a series of modest hills, the road gained some altitude, then passed by a trio of classic hilltop New Hampshire farmhouses overlooking open meadows to the south. It then dropped off into a gully, the bottom of which was exactly 1.6 miles from the bridge, thus marking my turn-around point. So I turned around and headed back to actually start running.

How weird to park the station wagon on a quiet back road, stretch, put on my wet running shoes (yesterday's run left them soaked) but find they weren't really damp anymore at all), lock the car, and then just start running. None of the excitement of the starting line, none of the chatter, no one singing the national anthem or thanking the sponsors. It really was a "do-it-yourself" race, with emphasis on "yourself." Because I don't wear a watch, I just waited for the clock on my dashboard to turn to 10:28 a.m., and off I went.

The solitude was underscored by the long straight stretch of dirt road through a marshy wilderness preserve, during which I saw not a single vehicle. (Same on the way back, except for a sole Chevy pick-up which appeared just as I was rounding the last turn to reach my car.) My right achilles tendon was acting up a bit even at the start, so I was concentrating on that rather than the landscape around me, but it sure was lonely and wet. Really wet—for most of the route, the swamp's water table was high enough to be lapping at the edges of the dirt road.

Turning around at the yellow mailbox put me at the quarter mark, and I felt stronger on the way back. Because I was by myself, I could indulge in behavior that wouldn't be possible during a race. I could have brought one or two dogs along with me, for example, but just didn't have them this time. Also, I was able to test how far away from my car my key fob can be and still work. (Answer: very far, like 3/10 of a mile.)

At the car, I opened the now-unlocked front door and saw the time: 11:03! That means it took 35 minutes for me to run a 5K? Even allowing for a little extra distance, that's still a pretty lousy time for me, especially on such a cool day. Just shows you how important it is to be in a race to stay motivated to push yourself. (I think the achilles tendon thing was a factor as well, though it seemed to stop bothering me after awhile.)

Okay, then across the bridge and into Freedom. Just to illustrate how close the Maine border I was, the stretch of Route 25 I ran on was between the state line and the "Welcome / Bienvenue to New Hampshire" sign. I scooted along the highway until turning with relief onto quiet Old Portland Road, which offered only a handful of vehicles during my time on its crinkum-crankum pavement. Still, I felt strong as I powered up the grades, and even stronger coming down, which sometimes happens after four or five miles. Although my feet were starting to feel it, the rest of me seemed to be really strong in the second half.

By the time I got back the highway, the sky seemed to be lightening. I picked up the pace for a quick finish, sprinting down the mini-slope before the bridge and the crossing the border/finish line to the cheers of a completely imaginary crowd. Any cheers would have been drowned out by the Ossipee River below, which was absolutely raging after recent heavy rains.

So imagine my disappointment when the dashboard clock read 11:41 a.m. Sheesh, 38 minutes! Either I measured the distance incorrectly (not likely, given the simplicity of the operation), or I really do need the atmosphere and competition of an actual race to achieve a respectful time.

But that was that. No post-race water (except what I had in the car), no cheering on the slow-pokes unfortunate enough to come in after me, no checking the school gym wall for print-outs of finishing times. Just change my shirt into something dry, towel off my hair, hop in the car, and go.

And that's it. Towns #134 (Effingham) and #135 (Freedom) completed, and the unexpected start of a new phase of my quest. But it's about time, as I can't wait much longer for any communities if I'm to have hope of finishing my quest by the self-imposed deadline of May 14, 2016.

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