My Back Pages: Running to Belchertown

On Sunday, thousands of people walked some or all of the Boston Marathon course as part of the 2014 Boston Marathon Jimmy Fund Walk. In fact, one of the girls on the Concord Academy Cross Country team walked, and her intention was to complete the entire 26.2 miles.

Now perhaps you will judge her for doing such a thing in the middle of a competitive season, or judge me for allowing it, but I should mention that she’s been doing this for several years and is well aware that it will affect her running for a few days or more. In any case, the reason I bring this up is that it reminds me of my own experience participating in a charity walk when I was in high school.

I think it must have been late summer or more likely early fall of 1975, just before my senior year at Amherst Regional High School. My friends and I on the cross country team heard about a 20-Mile Benefit Walk for the Belchertown State School, and we had a brilliant idea: we would sign up to walk and then run the course instead. How cool would that be?

(The history of the Belchertown State School is a long, sad story. According to Wikipedia, the school “…became known for inhumane conditions and poor treatment of its patients, and became the target of a series of lawsuits prior to its eventual closing in 1992…” Obviously, I knew nothing of this at the time that we ran there.)

In case you’re wondering, it wasn’t out of the question for us to run 20 miles. We frequently did 10-mile runs in practice, and several of us tried to do longer runs on the weekend. I think my longest run at the time was probably 15 miles, so twenty sounded pretty reasonable. At least it sounded reasonable to a bunch of teenagers looking for an adventure and the chance to be famous, so we all signed up.

Well, actually, *I* signed up, and eventually two of my friends managed to sign up, as well, but somehow the other guys on the team never got around to it. So when the Saturday morning of the Benefit came around, there were only three of us to drive over to the start in Northampton.

It strikes me now that the route of the walk was almost entirely on main roads, without any real traffic control. The route began at the fairgrounds of the 3-County Fair in Northampton, an annual agricultural event that was held every August and September and that continues to this day. From there, the Walk route crossed the Coolidge Bridge into Hadley and proceeded along the busy and charmless Route 9 all the way to Amherst, and from Amherst, to Belchertown. At some point, the course left Route 9 and made its way along smaller country roads to the campus of the school.

After getting a ride to Northampton from someone’s mom, we set off on our trek. I recall that we weren’t the first to leave the fairgrounds, so perhaps we were a little late. Or maybe the walkers were starting in waves. In any case, as we trotted off, we began to overtake walkers who had started before us. At this point, it must have been a little past 9:00 in the morning.

At first, everything was great. It was a nice day, not too hot, and it felt fantastic to be passing walkers and to be making such rapid progress towards our goal. After a couple of miles we reached a water stop, and the people manning the station cheered us on. It wasn’t long before we were “in the lead” of the Walk.

And so we continued. At each of the first few stops, we were hailed as heroes. And then, at some point (probably 8-9 miles, something changed. Specifically, there were no more water stops or volunteers cheering us on. We had gotten so far ahead of the walkers that water stops hadn’t been set up yet, or if they had, they weren’t manned and we didn’t see them. We had completely failed to account for the fact that even the fastest walkers might manage only 4 mph, while we were averaging close to 9 mph. Twelve miles into the run, we were roughly an hour and a half ahead of the walkers, and we were completely isolated.

The last eight miles were pretty sad. One of my buddies bailed as we ran through Amherst, and the other decided to walk for a while somewhere around 14 miles. I ended up running the last 6 miles by myself, on roads I didn’t know, following small signs that had been posted at the intersections. There were no water stations. There were no volunteers. Several times, I thought I was lost, and was sure that I had taken a wrong turn.

When I finally arrived at the school, there was no one to meet me. I wandered around for a while until I found someone, who went to find someone else, who finally found someone else who knew where they were keeping the sandwiches and drinks that they would be putting out later in the afternoon as the walkers started to arrive. I ate two egg salad sandwiches on white bread, called my mom, and sat down on a step outside to wait for my buddy, who arrived a half hour later. Some time after that, my mom arrived, and we drove back towards Amherst. It wasn’t until we were almost in town, a good 6-7 miles from the school, that we saw the first vanguard of walkers making their triumphant way to Belchertown.

I wish I could say that the whole experience taught me a valuable lesson, perhaps about the value of timing, but that would be stretching the truth. Mostly I remember that it was my first 20-mile run, so that’s something. Also, I still remember how much I enjoyed those egg salad sandwiches, and I retain a fondness for them even now.

belchertownThe overgrown grounds of the former Belchertown State School, closed in 1992.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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