Athletics Magazine

The 3rd New England Green River Marathon (VT)

By Sohaskey

Running is a way of standing up to all the stupid shit in your life and saying: I don’t know how to fix you, so I’ll just bend you into workable shapes.
– Matthew Inman, aka The Oatmeal

The 3rd New England Green River Marathon (VT)

(This report is for the Aug 2021 edition of the New England Green River Marathon, but better late than never. Enjoy!)

As hobbies go, the quest to run a marathon in all 50 states is more demanding than most. Running one marathon in your hometown? That’s tough enough. But to turn around and do that another 49 times in unfamiliar locales while eating unfamiliar food and sleeping in unfamiliar beds? I’d be the first to insist there’s no better way to see the country, and I’m beyond fortunate to be in a position to tackle this challenge. But sometimes running those 26.2 miles is the easy part.

Most marathons are annual events that require a significant upfront investment of both time & money. At the same time, life has a way of derailing the best-laid plans, and race day doesn’t always sync up with our motivation & preparation. Meaning that if you toe enough start lines you’re bound to have a few off days, mentally and physically. That’s par for the course; when 50 states is your goal, you simply can’t run every marathon like it’s Patriots’ Day in Boston.

(On the other hand, if you find yourself dreading every start line, it may be time to reassess your goals—case in point the listless lady we met in Jackson Hole, WY who sounded like she was facing a root canal rather than her chance to run in one of the most beautiful places on Earth.)

I’ve run a marathon in Alabama with a bout of food poisoning. I ran the last nine miles of my nighttime Nevada marathon on a painfully sprained ankle. And my first Comrades Marathon in South Africa left me feeling like a punctured balloon. But last summer’s New England Green River Marathon in Vermont (state 34) may well have been my toughest race yet. Despite a triumphant run at the inaugural Denali 100K in June, the spring and summer months had largely been overshadowed by my mom’s failing health. After a series of health challenges over several months, in July she’d passed away at the age of 86.

Understandably, during this time I’d lacked my usual enthusiasm and focus. I’d logged miles for the purpose of stress relief as much as training, while otherwise doing the bare minimum to stay marathon ready. I’d neglected all speed work since the Windermere Marathon in May, and in all other facets of my training I’d felt as though I were simply going through the motions. So by the time the New England Green River Marathon rolled around in August (after I’d registered in February to avoid an early sellout), you can bet I was marathon ready—as in, ready to take my lumps.

And yet, by the time we rolled into tiny Wilmington, Vermont (population 2,255), I was very much ready for race day. Ready to hit the road again. Ready for some sense of normalcy. And ready to get back to doing what I loved, 26.2 miles at a time, no matter my finish time.

The 3rd New England Green River Marathon (VT)
View along Main Street at the busiest intersection in Wilmington

Green Mountain State of Mind
The word “quaint” was created to describe places like Wilmington. Located in the southeast corner of the state near the Massachusetts and New Hampshire borders, Wilmington is a rural town with a central historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places. All notable activity seemed to take place in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it stretch of Main Street roughly the length of two football fields. I’d estimate we covered uptown, midtown, and downtown Wilmington in the space of about ten minutes on foot. Our efforts focused primarily on the Vermont House, a rustic 1850s colonial inn where we’d be staying, and the Maple Leaf Tavern, a surprisingly satisfying dining experience belied by its sleepy surroundings. It all felt so charmingly… Vermontian.

Sunday dawned as a quiet, cloudy entry in summer’s journal. Relative to Wilmington, the finish line at Greenfield College was twice the distance from the start line at Marlboro College; however, as the loading location for the race-provided buses, Greenfield was more convenient for the runners who would be riding those same buses to the start line the next morning. So most runners had understandably chosen to stay in Greenfield. With Katie playing the role of my personal start-line shuttle, though, we’d elected to stay closer to the start line in Vermont.

The start and finish line locations represent one unusual aspect of the New England Green River Marathon (NEGRM). The race starts in one state (Vermont) and finishes in another (Massachusetts), meaning 50 States runners like myself can count it for either state. For me this wouldn’t matter—with Boston under my belt, I was focused solely on adding Vermont to my 50 States ledger. But for folks like fellow runner John Points—whom we’d previously joined forces with in North Dakota and New Hampshire, as well as in his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma—this ability to hedge his bets was a key reason for choosing this race.

John arrived in Vermont with 46 states completed, the four holdouts being Alaska, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Vermont. With Alaska as his planned finale, that meant two of his next three marathons had to happen in Massachusetts and Vermont. So NEGRM would allow him the freedom to finish now and choose later, an opportunity which—in a pursuit where scheduling often feels like a game of 4D Tetris—would allow our friend more options and enable him to finish his three remaining East Coast states in time for Alaska in summer 2022. Otherwise he’d have to wait another year, a decidedly suboptimal situation given his 65 years and how unforgiving/unpredictable life—global pandemics and all—can be.

The 3rd New England Green River Marathon (VT)
With the end of his quest in sight, John prepares to tackle state 47

On the quiet 20-minute drive to Marlboro College we passed a cemetery, the sight of which filled me with a momentary melancholy that scattered my thoughts like the milkweed floating on the early-morning breeze. I tried to shake off the mental cobwebs and focus on the miles ahead; clearly, though, try as I might this wouldn’t be my typical carefree race morning.

We arrived at the campus previously known as Marlboro College—the school had closed its doors a year earlier—in time for me to wait out the short porta-potty line, chat with John briefly, and hear none of the pre-race announcements since the microphone seemed not to be working. The cool, cloudy weather seemed ideal for a summer marathon, a first impression I’d rethink as the sun rose on a decidedly humid August day.

Keeping to my start-line tradition, I sipped half of my 5-hr Energy (others have coffee…) and started with John near the back of the small field to avoid flying out of the chute. Turns out this was a good call because the first two miles were a (too) fast descent à la Boston but on a wide, tree-lined gravel road. Much (most?) of my effort focused diligently on applying the brakes to save my legs, which in and of itself was laborious. Folks flew by on the downhill, others chatting comfortably around me. All the while, the voice of experience whispered knowingly in my ear, Ah yes, the early ‘fun’ miles of the marathon—enjoy ‘em while they last!

Hearing my Garmin chime to signal the end of mile 1, I glanced down to see a mile time of 9:01. Not a bad start on a day like this.

The 3rd New England Green River Marathon (VT)
Off to a fast downhill start, mile 1

The course transitioned to pavement for four miles along the Green River. I hoped for more pavement and less gravel over the next three hours, since I’d worn my bounciest pair of shoes—my carbon fiber-plated Nikes—in anticipation of the paved surfaces on which the shoes excel. Turns out I’d be sadly disappointed, as the only real sections of paved road would come in three discrete stretches: miles 3–6, the out and back in miles 7–8, and in the last five miles. At the same time, I’d underestimated the physical toll the steady downhill trajectory on gravel roads would exact on my legs and especially given my suboptimal training.

I love trail running, in large part because it’s such a different animal than road running. That said, every step on a gravel (non-paved) surface, no matter how well maintained, carries with it more of a consequence in terms of energy expended. This is particularly true on hills, where with every step the foot shifts forward or backward slightly on a thin layer of dust and rocks. NEGRM is billed as a net downhill Boston Qualifier, and it is; however, given the amount of hard-packed gravel and the humid summer weather, it wouldn’t be my first choice for my next BQ.

Passing a red barn, I noticed an appropriately small and solitary “TRUMP” sign posted on the wall and flanked by equally small American flags. Because nothing says “PATRIOT” quite like stoking a deadly insurrection to overthrow your nation’s newly (and fairly) elected government.

Just before mile 7 we began the only out-and-back section of the day with a gradual climb to the turnaround point at mile 7.5. (I have to assume this out-and-back was included to add the requisite mileage, since the scenery here was forgettable.) Heading back downhill the way we’d come, we passed fellow runners approaching in the opposite direction until a left turn led us back along the race’s namesake river for the next 11-ish miles.

Sporadic potholes kept us vigilant as we followed the unpaved road on its wooded journey, the river flowing peacefully alongside to our left with fleeting exceptions. Fortunately none of the potholes were problematical, and all were easily avoided. 

The 3rd New England Green River Marathon (VT)
The lone covered bridge on the course, mile 10

I saw only one spectator sign all morning, taped to a tree on two different occasions: “STRONGER & STRONGER with each passing mile.” Neither particularly inspirational nor particularly true, I thought. In fact, it’s been a few race days since I’ve seen a memorable new spectator sign. At the same time, aside from the aid stations there were only three spots on the course—at miles 10, 16.5 and 21— where spectators were even encouraged to gather. So if you need the raucous cheers & cowbells of exuberant crowds to propel you forward, NEGRM may not be your ideal race.

And speaking of spectators, NEGRM may have been the first “road” marathon where I didn’t hear any music along the course. Which was fine by me, since I’ve heard “Crazy Train” and “Eye of the Tiger” enough to last a lifetime.

Mile 10 featured a course highlight in the Green River Covered Bridge, which doubled as my first Katie sighting. This was a cool change of pace because really, what’s more Vermont than maple syrup, Ben & Jerry’s, and covered bridges? With that landmark in our rearview mirror, we soon bid farewell to the rest of the Green Mountain State as a “Welcome to Massachusetts” sign (set up by the race organizers) greeted us near the halfway mark.

Vermont down, Massachusetts to go.

The 3rd New England Green River Marathon (VT)

You’re Only Humid
Mile after mile of rolling gravel road ticked by beneath a soaring green canopy. I ran more or less by myself for much of the morning, the gentle susurration of the river a welcome companion. Small waterfalls followed gravity to their final destination, feeding the river and fulfilling their destiny. Despite its largely unchanging nature I never tired of the sylvan scenery, the tranquility of my surroundings helping to settle my mind and ease the stress that had dominated the summer. All in all it was, as John described it, a very Zen run.

And yet, as grateful as I was to be running in such a gorgeous setting, something just felt off. I was currently maintaining a sub-4 pace, which was really all I cared about today. But whether owing to my lackluster training or the New England humidity (or likely both), I felt the familiar full-body fatigue that I knew from experience meant I’d have to dig deep to close this one out. Because the marathon don’t care—fail to bring your “A” game to the start line, and you can be sure that over the course of 26.2 miles any chink in your armor, be it mental or physical, will be exploited and used against you. Without passion or prejudice.

That said, any concern for my finish time wasn’t enough to prevent me from taking plenty of pictures along the way. 📸

None of the lightly traveled roads were closed to vehicular traffic during the race, a fact that was never an issue since, well, there was no traffic. Vehicle sightings were few and far between and particularly in the first 21 miles before we reached Greenfield.

Shortly after my second Katie sighting at mile 16.5, and with my pace already slowing, we reached the first of two short-but-brutish climbs that would further test both my legs and my resolve. The NEGRM course may boast a net elevation loss of 1,400 feet, but don’t be fooled—sprinkled within all that downhill is 800 feet of deceptive uphill, much of it in the last ten miles when I’d rather have been soaking my tired legs in the river.

The 3rd New England Green River Marathon (VT)
Much of the course ran alongside the Green River

Pausing to take a photo, I first had to defog my lens courtesy of the humidity, a ritual I’d follow several times in the later miles. Zipping my iPhone back into my Spibelt, I realized my clothes were soaked through with sweat. Not good, I thought astutely. I don’t tend to perspire much, and while I battle humidity with some frequency on training runs in Los Angeles, it had been at least five years—at the 2016 Hatfield McCoy Marathon, to be precise— since I’d run in humidity like this. I wondered how long until its impact would really start to be felt.

I’d get my answer soon enough, and I wouldn’t like it when I did.

High humidity prevents your body’s natural cooling system—the evaporation of sweat from the skin’s surface—from doing its job effectively, which in turn causes the heart to pump more blood toward the skin and away from the muscles in a secondary attempt to cool the body. Staying hydrated helps to combat the effects of high humidity, and here my sparse use of aid stations did me no favors. I paused for only a single cup of water at mile 18, which I quickly discarded after three warm, unappealing sips. More than anything this was a trial run to gauge my hydration level, one that returned a verdict of “not thirsty.”

At the same time, I did carry two bottles of Maurten provided by Katie (one at mile 16.5, the other at mile 21), though admittedly I did more carrying than sipping and failed to finish either bottle. For whatever reason I just wasn’t thirsty, and I didn’t care to force the issue.

Despite my mounting fatigue, as we reached mile 21 I quietly psyched myself up for the last and worst climb of the day. Much like its iconic namesake which awaits fading runners at mile 21 of the Boston Marathon course, the New England Green River Marathon’s version of “Heartbreak Hill” was notable more for its placement on the course than for the severity of its grade. The race website here warns of “dangerous drop-offs on the left side of the road”; honestly, though, I didn’t even notice, and it’s tough to understand why anyone would run so far to the left on such a wide, scarcely trafficked road.

By the time I crested Heartbreak Hill and accepted my second bottle of Maurten from Katie, I was running on fumes and ready to call it a day. And I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes, this one from two-time Olympic marathon medalist Frank Shorter: “Why couldn’t Pheidippides have died at 20 miles?” Warning Katie that the last five miles would be slow(er) going, I took a deep breath and shuffled forward, transitioning from gravel to pavement and leaving behind the meandering river for the beckoning suburb of Greenfield.

The 3rd New England Green River Marathon (VT)
That sweat-drenched shirt says it all at mile 21

Relentless Forward Motion
We emerged from the wooded canopy onto a two-lane road beneath cloudy skies, New England countryside stretching as far as the eye could see. On any other day, I would have happily basked in nature’s beauty; right now, though, I knew these last five miles would be about as miserable as any in recent memory—a truly ironic moment, in the Alanis Morrissette sense of the word.

Talk about an exercise in futility, I thought as I shuffled along the nicely surfaced road. Though my energy reserves weren’t quite depleted, my legs were pretty much shot—I couldn’t lift either leg more than a couple of inches, and by the time I reached mile 23 I had no choice but to pause and do a few knee lifts to try to regain some flexibility. Were these last five miles really the same distance as the first five? This had to be the marathoning equivalent of relativity.

Weathered homes and barns—some better maintained than others—dotted the landscape. Their numbers increased in frequency until mile 24, when we turned into a residential neighborhood where cute, modest homes with fastidiously manicured lawns lined the street. Under more favorable circumstances, I would have enjoyed this section of the course.

Recalling the spectator sign I’d seen twice earlier, I now amended it in my head for accuracy: “HEAVIER & HEAVIER with each passing mile.” Two more sips of Maurten did nothing for me, and that was the end of my nutrition. By this time I cared nothing about my pace, only that I continued to have one. My sole focus was on each and every step, and I distracted myself by envisioning what the long-awaited finish line would eventually look like. 

The 3rd New England Green River Marathon (VT)
No end in sight, mile 25

You’re in Vermont, I told myself, So feel the Bern! Never mind that by this time we were well into Massachusetts; details mattered not to my addled brain. All that mattered was the next step.

The final 2+ miles would lead us along the right shoulder of a paved two-lane road lined with cornstalks looking robust and ready to harvest. Had I blacked out and done a reverse Dorothy, ending up in Kansas? Sluggishly I pressed onward, willing as much as propelling myself forward, barely able to lift my legs. Amazingly, I even passed a few zombified individuals along this stretch, which was made even less comfortable by the slow-moving surge of vehicular traffic crawling alongside us in the direction of Greenfield Community College.

On the bright side (there’s always a bright side!), we’d been warned that the August sun nearing its zenith could make this exposed stretch the toughest of the day. So I was grateful that despite the humidity and rising temperatures, persistent clouds continued to provide us cover from the sun’s rays.

Race Director Tom Raffensperger would later tell us at the post-race party that, given the combination of high heat & humidity (i.e. the wet-bulb temperature), if the race had been scheduled for three days earlier he would have been forced to cancel. Luckily that didn’t happen, but whereas the heat may have diminished in the intervening three days, the humidity apparently had not… and in the end it played a key role in my unraveling like a cheap sweater.

The 3rd New England Green River Marathon (VT)
There’s nothing quite like that mile 26.19 feeling

I did notice that all but a few of the runners who passed me in the second half were women, an observation consistent with a recent finding from RunRepeat that women are 18.61% better than men at pacing themselves during a marathon.

“Welcome.” Entering the Greenfield Community College campus at last, I spied the one-word, billboard-sized sign that signaled my impending freedom from this humid hamster wheel. Following the curve of the orange pylons and the directions of the helpful volunteer, I reached the grassy field where the finish line beckoned 50 yards ahead.

Glancing up quickly to give Katie a thumbs-up, I was careful not to step in a hole and twist my ankle—after all I’d endured, the last thing I wanted was to hop across the finish line with that familiar pained look on my face. Then I crossed under the swaying banner in an official time of 4:02:55, feeling unsteady on my feet as I came to a stop once and for all. Gratefully I accepted my wooden finisher’s medallion (so very Vermont!) under the watchful eye of the medical team, who carefully observed each and every finisher for signs of an impending face plant.

Grabbing a cup of water and looking like I’d just crawled out of the swimming pool, I reunited with Katie, sparing her a soaking wet congratulatory hug. Then I set about regaining my wits with the aid of my Tailwind Rebuild recovery drink and a welcoming spot on the soft green grass. There I lay, sprawled out and unmoving long enough that I half-expected one of the medical staff to draw a chalk outline around me. This is the benefit of a late-summer race, I thought as I gradually regained my sense and sensibility.

The 3rd New England Green River Marathon (VT)
The Greenfield CC campus provided plenty of space to relax & recover

The post-race gathering area consisted of three food trucks and a live band performing one catchy song in particular that I could relate to, with its chorus of 🎵”I don’t know anything…”🎶

As I lay gathering my wits, it struck me again as it does at every finish line—what a stupid hobby. Running 26.2 miles is a traumatic experience. Each and every marathon is a physiologically jarring and exhausting effort that requires days or even weeks to recover. And no matter how painstaking your preparation, no matter how careful you are to minimize surprises on race day care, the one detail you can never control is the weather.

In the days following the race, as the soreness in my legs lingered longer than usual, I realized the largely downhill course had also contributed to my undoing, since extended downhill running was something I’d not trained for in many moons, since my successful Comrades Marathon down run in 2018.

As the 6-hour mark neared, I rose and positioned myself at the edge of the grass to watch for John. Soon he appeared, still flashing his familiar smile and cracking dad jokes. “Anyone ahead of me?” he quipped as he strode past, notching state 47 as the day’s penultimate finisher. 👏

The 3rd New England Green River Marathon (VT)
Vermont ✅

That evening the three of us dined at Whetstone Station in Brattleboro, VT, a cool taproom and restaurant with an outdoor patio that offers sweeping views of the Connecticut River. Ironically, the border between Vermont and New Hampshire runs quite literally through Whetstone Station, meaning the Vermont/New Hampshire border overlooks the {checks notes} Connecticut River. So we were able to toast our accomplishment in two states and under one roof; never mind the fact we’d already raised a pint with John in New Hampshire at the excellent Clarence DeMar Marathon two years earlier.

And though he wasn’t onsite during our visit, the restaurant’s co-founder David Hiler is a fellow runner who lost his leg to cancer and was fortunate to receive a running blade from the Born 2 Run Foundation. Much respect to David, and if you decide to run the New England Green River Marathon, definitely do yourself a favor and check out Whetstone.

Gazing down on the river below, its placid surface mirroring my own inner calm, I reflected on the ebb and flow of life. It went without saying I owed an incalculable debt—this moment and so many other memorable moments like it included—to my parents. Vermont would be the first race in which I’d not report back or share a finish-line photo with either of them. And yet I’ll always carry Mom and Dad in my heart across every start line and every finish.

Reflexively I smiled, hearing my mom’s bemused response to the day’s debilitating run, just as clearly as though she were sitting beside me and just as I’d heard (and indulged) it for so many years: “That can’t be good for you.” This time though, with daylight fading around us and the river slipping into shadows, I had no snappy comeback, no witty retort. Because at that moment, there was nothing left to say.

34 states down, 16 to go.

The 3rd New England Green River Marathon (VT)

BOTTOM LINE: The New England Green River Marathon is clearly a marathon created for runners and by runners, with no other distance offered and with the stunning beauty of the New England countryside in the starring role. The course runs point to point from Marlboro, VT to Greenfield, MA on ~40% paved roads and ~60% unpaved gravel roads, traveling alongside its namesake river for much of the race. Registration opens early in the year (Jan/Feb) and sells out its ~550 slots quickly with no waitlist. So this is very much a “you snooze, you lose” affair.

As road races go, NEGRM is a decidedly low-frills affair with no pre-race expo (bib numbers were mailed several weeks before race day), no pre-race pasta dinner, and a small but sufficient post-race party that included three food trucks plus a beer station, none of which I sampled because my stomach is a post-race buzzkill. If you thrive on spectator support and on-course entertainment, this may not be your ideal marathon. But if you favor low-key, picturesque gems that play to their strengths and let Nature do the talking, then do yourself a favor and check out NEGRM. In comparison to a very similar marathon, the Clarence DeMar Marathon in nearby New Hampshire, I liked Clarence DeMar a bit more for its diverse scenery and compelling pre-race speaker (Dick Beardsley in 2019). That said, either race comes highly recommended, and do keep in mind that 50 Staters can count NEGRM for either Vermont (where it starts) or Massachusetts (where it finishes). Double your pleasure!

Two key factors combine to make NEGRM a deceptively challenging course. The first is its steady downhill trajectory (net elevation loss of ~1,400 ft), which you really don’t appreciate until your overworked quads cry “uncle” late in the race. And the second is the insidious humidity, which wreaks havoc on your body’s ability to cool itself efficiently. In fact, Race Director Tom Raffensperger reported that if the race had been scheduled for three days earlier, given the combination of high heat & humidity he would have been forced to cancel.

So a word of warning to prospective runners: while the New England Green River Marathon is a beautifully memorable run in the woods, it’s definitely not a walk in the park.

The 3rd New England Green River Marathon (VT)
Scenes from a post-race visit to nearby Shelburne Falls, MA

PRODUCTION: Race production was streamlined in scope—as noted above there was no pre-race expo or pasta dinner and no on-course entertainment, while the modest post-race festival consisted of three food trucks and a live local band. When it came to the details that mattered most, however, the New England Green River Marathon team did a spot-on job of setting expectations and delivering a seamless experience as far as timing, aid station support, course markings, mile markers, volunteers in all the right places, etc. And I know that fellow 50 Stater John was surprised and delighted to discover UnTapped energy gel for the first time, which apparently infuses pure Vermont maple syrup with real coffee for a sweet surge of energy.

The 3rd New England Green River Marathon (VT)

SWAG: Not surprisingly, race swag comprised the basics: bib number, shirt and medal. Given that only the latter of the three matters to me, I appreciate the wooden medallion that’s tastefully rendered and smartly designed to convey a classic Vermont vibe, even if the green ribbon feels like an afterthought. The short-sleeve cotton shirt, on the other hand, fits nicely enough but features dark green & red lettering on a royal blue background for a visually cacophonous ensemble that—unfortunately for the sponsors—renders all but the largest lettering unreadable.

Updated 50 States Map:

The 3rd New England Green River Marathon (VT)

RaceRaves rating:

The 3rd New England Green River Marathon (VT)

Aug 29, 2021 (start time 7:00 am, sunrise 6:12 am)
26.26 miles from Marlboro, VT to Greenfield, MA (state 34 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 4:02:55 (first time running the New England Green River Marathon), 9:16/mile
Finish place: 135 overall, 15/37 in M(50-59) age group
Number of finishers: 278 (156 men, 122 women)
Race weather: Cool & cloudy (57°F) at the start, warmer & humid (64°F) at the finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 790 ft gain, 2,263 ft loss
Elevation min, max: 177 ft, 1,654 ft

The 3rd New England Green River Marathon (VT)

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog