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Going the Distance

Why the number of Vermont marathons keeps on multiplying


Published April 29, 2009 at 8:33 a.m.

With prizes for top finishers typically worth about $25, it’s clear that no one enters Vermont’s long-distance races for money. So what has triggered the state boom in marathons and half-marathons? Why do more and more Vermonters spend months training for an event that will cause many of them excruciating pain?

Jessica Cover, 40, started running about 15 years ago because she wanted to shed some excess pounds. She’s kept at it for “the really special culture” of runners, who, she says, are “incredibly welcoming.”

At first, Cover couldn’t run more than 10 minutes at a time. Last year, she completed the Vermont City Marathon in 3:05, certifying herself as one of the fastest female marathoners in the state. It was one of 16 marathons she’s run since 1999 — roughly two per year.

Cover also serves as president of the Green Mountain Athletic Association, which organizes more than a dozen races, including the third-oldest marathon in New England. That one started in 1971, when 22 men — there were no female finishers — completed a 26.2-mile course looping through Colchester and Winooski. This year, the Green Mountain Marathon will draw about 175 runners for an October 17 jaunt around Grand Isle.

Despite its rigors, Cover sees distance running as “a sport for everyone.” Today’s marathon participant may well have been yesterday’s marathon spectator, who noticed that “some runners look a lot like them,” Cover says. “They see somebody running past in a T-shirt and baggy shorts and with not the sveltest body, and they think, ‘I can do that!’”

Another motivator may be “the desire not to miss out on something that’s on people’s list to do before they die,” Cover continues. That sense of urgency may have intensified since 9/11, she suggests, because “Hey, you just don’t know, do you?”

Running has a special appeal in a frigid economic climate, adds Andrea Sisino, director of the Vermont City Marathon. “It’s an inexpensive sport,” she notes. “And when you do something like this, you feel good about yourself. You feel in control, and you have no control over whether you’ll still have a job or what your stocks are going to do.”

Cover offers a similar view: “These days, so much is being taken away from people — their houses, their cars, their jobs. Finishing a marathon is something that can never be taken away from you.”

The resurgence of running is actually a longer-term phenomenon, says Darragh Ellerson, a Montpelier resident who coordinated the first Leaf Peepers Half-Marathon 26 years ago. She remembers the inspirational role played by heroes such as Frank Shorter, whose victory in the 1972 Munich Olympics marathon “brought back an interest in running in America.”

Back in the 1940s, Ellerson ran the standard mile competitively at her Pennsylvania high school — “instructors were convinced at the time that women couldn’t possibly run further than that,” she recalls. And female athletics “all but died after World War II.” When Ellerson resumed running at the age of 45, her main motivation was to stay in shape as a dancer with Lorraine Neal’s central Vermont company, she says. Since that year, 1975, she has completed 17 marathons.

Meanwhile, the Leaf Peepers event has been joined by about 20 other half-marathons around Vermont, with the latest addition being the Sweetest Half run held in Middlebury last Sunday. The Leaf Peepers’ field now reaches its cap of 900 runners about a month before the race, which takes place in Waterbury and Duxbury on the first Sunday in October. It’s a popular race, current director Roger Cranse says, because “the weather is usually good, the foliage is great, and it’s cheap — $30 to enter, which includes a long-sleeved T-shirt.”

Half-marathons draw growing numbers of runners to what’s widely regarded as “an obtainable goal,” says Rayne Herzog, a distance-running entrepreneur who organizes 13 races per year, including the Charlotte Covered Bridges Half-Marathon on May 9. A certified trainer, Herzog says he can help someone get into shape for a half-marathon in as little as six weeks, compared with the 16 weeks it takes to prepare for a full ’thon. Many runners aspiring to complete the classic distance view a half as “a step they can take toward the big one,” he adds. Training for and completing a 13-mile course is also “a lot easier on your body,” Sisino points out.

While Vermont’s long-distance races are generally low-budget affairs, there is money to be made from them. Herzog says he’s not getting rich as a part-time race organizer, but some restaurants and hotels do get a tasty slice of the estimated $2.2 million worth of business the Vermont City Marathon brings to Burlington.

That community rite of spring draws 8000 runners to ramble around the Queen City, not to mention 1700 volunteers, including scores of entertainers, and some 30,000 viewers.

Not everyone shares the feel-good vibe, however. “It’s always been a challenge to put on a marathon in Burlington,” says Sisino, who’s stepping aside this year after having directed the race since 1995. “Some areas of the city aren’t necessarily happy that the course goes through them,” she notes. “They’ll make a lot of noise to the Police Department about wanting to have access into and out of their houses.”

As for out-of-state runners, who account for 75 percent of entrants, they regard the Burlington race as “a boutique marathon,” Sisino says. “We’re the right size at 8000. Burlington is known now as a great place to run, and we’re known for the excellent runner services we provide. You can call our office and talk with an actual human being. It’s very Vermont.”