06 June 2019


My clubmates and I debated the idea endlessly. Just who’s idea was this, anyway? How did we manage to drag fifteen runners (plus a few family members) to the middle of nowhere to run a marathon? (To be precise, a dozen for the marathon and a few more for the shorter sister event, but nevertheless…) Clearly this was a fine example of groupthink, or perhaps just a stone rolling downhill and, against all odds, picking up moss, which may be an apt metaphor since the Sugarloaf Marathon serves up plenty of downhills.

This mass mileage migration wasn’t my idea, but I’ll admit I encouraged it, because I was one of only two of us who’d done this one before. I did offer positive reviews to those who asked, but still, not my idea, nor was I the first in, even though I’d signed on in December, since even then I had an inkling that I might need a do-over if Boston didn’t go so well. Which, as you’ve read, it didn’t. Gee, I was so wise (he says in hindsight, ignoring the times he wasn’t.)

That rolling rock picked up momentum, adding people, adding a rental house which almost guaranteed this would be not just an event but an Event, adding the synergistic contributions that happen when a dozen-plus mildly crazy and heavily motivated people all get closer to Time Zero and toss in more ideas (custom jerseys for our “Loafers” team!), more support (every mechanical muscular recovery device known to man!), and, as it would turn out, more (much more!) food. And beverages, of course. Goes with the neighborhood.

The result was probably the finest race weekend I’ve ever enjoyed. Not the finest race, though that wasn’t so bad, either. (Spoiler: Yes, I’m back in for Boston 2020, my ticket is punched for number fourteen.) But as far as club camaraderie, mutual support, and just plain fun, yes, the finest. And I say that with fine thanks to my ‘mates.

Sugarloaf is a net downhill course. That doesn’t make it easy. Boston is a net downhill course, too, and nobody will tell you that makes it easy. But Sugarloaf does have a little more marathon-friendly hill profile going for it, in that you do the big climbs in the second five miles, when you’re still relatively fresh. Or at least you should be; the previous time I ran this race three years back, I suffered a mental death on the biggest climb around mile nine and pretty much wrote the day off, only to find a miraculous rebirth just past the midway mark, where you are treated to one of the finest gravity assists in the business. That day’s rebirth led to what was my last (and may well forever remain my last) sub-three day.

That gravity assist, a winding, scenic, rollicking river-serenaded chute from miles twelve to seventeen, is enough to lift anyone’s spirits significantly while lowering their elevation dramatically, rocketing you into the relative drudgery of eighteen through twenty-five with just a bit more juice than you might have otherwise had. It’s because of this that Sugarloaf is said to offer a boost of anywhere from a few to ten minutes off your Boston time. It’s because of this, and the fact that being five weeks later, you can recover from Boston but still reap the benefits of your training (indeed, Boston itself is training for this one) that Sugarloaf is an excellent choice for that do-over.

Galileo proved (supposedly, whether the experiment actually happened is disputed) that gravitational acceleration is independent of mass. Our gang, acting like a bunch of climate-denying anti-vaxers, ignored science and tried to prove quite the opposite.
Anticipating that downhill course and apparently assuming more mass would increase velocity and reduce rolling resistance, we ate our way north, starting Friday in Portland (Salvage Barbeque!), continuing unabated (with interruptions for mirth and shenanigans) through Saturday night’s immense pre-race dinner that, as Arlo Guthrie might say, could not be beat, ensuring we hit the line Sunday morning fueled with a ton of bricks and ready to roll on down the hill to Kingfield, which is an attempt at a poetic way of saying that we thoroughly enjoyed each other’s mutual contributions to the feast, or more simply,
that we ate a lot.

Conservatism, not something I’d ever aspire to politically, was my obvious strategy. Don’t blow up. Get that qualifier. Get back to Boston next April. But that was my plan this past April too, and it didn’t work out so well that time. Still, given what I had to work with – a rather abused body, undertrained for the task, but coupled with a brain trained and willing to override synapses screaming ‘Stop!’ – I had little choice but to replicate my Boston plan. Go out at a comfortable pace and start banking time ahead of my Boston qualifier pace and hope to hell I held it together.

Unlike Boston, the weather cooperated, almost too much. Rather than warm and humid with expectations of warmer, this one dawned chilly and drizzle with expectations of chilly and rain, not much different from my last ramble down Maine Route Twenty-Seven. Indeed, it was chilly enough that after stripping down to my planned race duds, turning in my gear to the baggage bus, and jogging a quarter-mile warm-up, I went through a rather ludicrous panic phase, deciding it was too cold, deciding I needed my rain jacket, deciding I’d board the bus and rifle through a couple hundred bags to retrieve said cloak. You’d think I’d learn by now. Fortunately, I failed in finding that needle in the haystack and went off in my planned get-up, which was comfortable by a mile in, and which, even as the rains turned heavy late in the race, turned out perfectly. Indeed, while a bit squishy by the end with a few spates of annoying headwind, conditions really couldn’t have better.

The start of this race was almost a party. Dead flat, targeting a low-effort pace, chit-chatting while the drop-dead gorgeous scenery of Flagstaff Lake and the Bigelow Range distracted our attention (you must at some point in your life hike the Bigelows), then cruising into the town of Stratton to be surprised by a friend perched on a motel balcony (how on Earth he spotted me from above while I was wearing a hat is beyond me, but let’s face it, he’s talented in multiple ways), the first five slipped by while I banked well over two hundred seconds ahead of goal pace. Echoing Boston, I’d started my mantra of mental math early, but again knowing full well how an Epic Collapse could drain that account in a matter of a few miles. And knowing full well how mile nine, the biggest climb on the course, had just about killed me a few years back.

Nine hurt. I slipped over qualifier pace and spent a bit of my banked time assets. And ten and eleven, though downhill, didn’t pick up all that much. We’d joked ahead of the race that owing to the location of our rental house, if things didn’t look rosy we could simply take a right turn at mile eleven, bail out, and call it a day. Even though my bank account was now approaching four hundred by that point, I still had my doubts and gave the option half a brain cycle. I’d learn from my clubmates later that I wasn’t the only one who did so. But the marathon mentality kicked in. It’s not supposed to be easy. Carry on.

Sugarloaf’s Gravity Assist then worked its magic. I could question the accuracy of the mile marking placements, but what’s the point? Mile fourteen flew. Mile fifteen defied reason. My bank account exploded like the price of Nortel stock during the dot-com bubble. But that didn’t last. Could I?

Sugarloaf runs a fifteen-kilometer sister event. They line everyone up around mile seventeen and point them to the same finish line. Unfortunately for those racers, they miss all the fun, since the last nine miles, or at least eight of them till you pull into Kingfield, are the drudgery of the course. There are nice spots to be sure, places where the river continues to serenade with its gurgling goodness, but by and large this stretch is a slog, plain and simple.

Were I properly trained, I’d be leveraging the power conserved by the earlier joys of the course into an epic drive down that slog and all the way home. After all, save a few small insulting late mini-hills, most of this stretch, while dull, is still a mild descent. But as it was, there was no epic drive, just an epic grind. This was my thirtieth (official) marathon, yet I still can’t pinpoint how anyone, let alone me, can focus a brain to force a body that wants with every fiber to take a seat to instead plow on – for another solid hour. Eight miles… seven miles…six miles… pace rising, but slowly, under control… five miles… four miles… scanning ahead and being continually confused and disappointed by someone well ahead of me who’s white jersey looked distinctly like a mile marker… three miles… two miles… holding it together, bank account still growing, never willing to acknowledge I could crawl it in for the Boston qualifier, because, well, maybe I couldn’t.

Not until twenty-five did I slow enough to spend a few seconds from the bank rather than contribute, the first time since mile nine. Picking it up through the final push of twenty-six, the math hinted I might even break a ten-minute barrier, but the last point-two ran mysteriously long, quashing that idea. Back in my earlier chase-the-personal-best era I might have cared about this course anomaly. This day I knew I’d just wiped nearly twenty minutes off my Boston time and punched my ticket for next year, and it was pouring, and that ten-minute time barrier just didn’t matter.

Now, while I wasn’t in any way looking at this race competitively, there was a back-story with a heavy outcome. Three years ago, when I was still bordering on being relatively quick, I was passed in the first mile by a short (shall we say diminutive?) balding (shall we say hair-challenged?) gentleman who looked to be of my vintage and who flew by so quickly that I wrote off winning the division right there. Nearly three hours later, I made the one and only turn on the course – it’s twenty-six-point-one miles down one road, then take a right – and found him Death Shuffling slowly toward the line. I repaid the favor, blowing by him to win the age group, which, it turned out, he most certainly was in.

This time, I wasn’t thinking of winning anything, and then… I swear I saw him before the start of the race. Memories came back – a rematch? Only if he’d slowed down as much as I had in three years. But he never appeared again, and he’s not listed in the results. Instead, in an interesting repeat of events, I was overtaken by someone who again looked of my vintage; not short nor balding this time, nor can I really recall where he passed. Not expecting to be competitive in my current condition, I took note but paid little heed, and no, this time I didn’t catch him. But he landed only a minute ahead and he did take the division, leaving me with a surprising and unexpected second place, and an even more surprising chunk of cast-iron armor plating for an award. It’s cool, but I’m not at all certain what to do with what is clearly the heaviest thing I’ve ever won in a race.

Unlike last time where I licked my wounds, gathered up my one travelling companion, and high-tailed it home, this time being with the club meant that the fun wasn’t over. Once I’d regained my wits, stripped off the sogginess (harder than you’d think with malfunctioning parts), and swathed myself in enough dry clothing to return to normal body temperature, I found our gang, already re-coagulating, and we reeled in the rest of our clubmates as they made that one turn and lumbered down the chute When our last rolled in, we had everyone in earshot hooting for him. And then it was time to hobble on our busted blisters and wonky knees back to the shuttle, back to the house, up its mysteriously steep and narrow stairways (a fine practical joke for that post-marathon physique!), to celebrate a dozen plus victory stories and gather for a second immense dinner that once again Arlo Guthrie would have said, could not be beat. Admittedly, this time, with notably more beverages.

And though none of us could really recall who came up with the race excursion idea, I admit to having come up with the idea of taking a gentle group hike the next morning up one of the small summits of the Bigelows. I further also
admit I was a complete idiot for suggesting this; clearly a case of, “What was I thinking?” It was enough for all of us to coax our broken bodies on a gentle meander through the neighborhood, putting an exclamation point on the weekend of punishment and mirth. We couldn’t even get ourselves out of our cars that afternoon as we ate our way south through Portland again (Thirsty Pig!...what was I thinking ordering the Spicy McFirepants?). We’d considered climbing a mountain?

We called ourselves the Loafers, but crazy motivated people would have been more accurate. Crazy motivated people that I’m damn glad I know. Thanks, clubbies.