Washington Raced Here: the United Technologies Greater Hartford Marathon
Hartford's history and scenery combine with a flat, fast course for a sublime fall marathon and an ideal Boston qualifier.
Posted Wednesday, 26 June, 2002
Marathoners stream down historic Old Main Street in South Windsor, Connecticut, passing by colonial-era homes nestled among trees ablaze with autumn color. Midway through the Greater Hartford Marathon, these runners are cruising the flats, covering the same ground where local legend says that Washington and Lafayette had a friendly horse race more than two centuries ago.
Forget "Washington slept here" -- the United Technologies Greater Hartford Marathon can claim "Washington raced here," a part of a heritage that creates an undeniable allure for runners interested in combining a marathon with a nifty trifecta of rich history, gorgeous scenery and a flat, fast course ideal for a Boston qualifier.
"There's a lot of history here, and you're actually running this history," said race director Beth Shluger. "It's right under your feet."
Indeed, Hartford's history seems to saturate all of the marathon's events as well as its course. A Mark Twain impersonator (none other than Richard Benyo, editor of Marathon & Beyond) strolls the race expo in a signature white suit, holding forth with the wit of Hartford's famous humorist. And the course itself runs the streets once walked by JP Morgan, John Adams and Samuel Colt, finishing with a flourish under the five-story Civil War memorial in Hartford's Bushnell Park, the nation's first public park.
In its present incarnation, of course, Hartford is a modern city, one that has recently enjoyed an economic revival and a remarkable urban facelift, particularly along the Connecticut River where the marathon course takes in the city's new parks and promenades.
Fast Boston Qualifier
Whether it's Hartford's past or present that attract runners, many of them run this marathon for their own futures -- particularly if they have a Boston Marathon number in their sights.
"It's a good Boston qualifier," said Charlie Whynacht, a two-time veteran of the Greater Hartford Marathon who has also run the last 15 Boston Marathons. "It's a medium-challenging course, a good place for a fast time. There aren't a lot of hills to slow you down."
In fact, the first twenty miles of this double loop course are almost entirely flat, with a slight bump at mile twenty and some rolling hills for the back six miles. "The last 10k puts the extra challenge into completing the marathon distance," said Shluger. "Topographically, the first 20 miles are a piece of cake. If you look at the profile of the course, the highest part is 100 feet, right at mile 20."
The front-loaded flatness of the course suggests a strategy for reverse splits, Whynacht said. "Go out slightly slower than you anticipate," he advised. "You can easily make it up and you'll be fresher. I ran easy in the early eight or nine miles and was able to turn it up a notch in the second half."
A Vibrant New England Mix
The course starts and finishes in Bushnell Park in downtown Hartford, making an out-and-back loop to the northeast through East Hartford and South Windsor, then another out-and-back loop to the west through the stately neighborhoods of West Hartford. Along the way, the course offers a heady mix of New England scenery, featuring a range of urban, neighborhood and rural sections.
"Within a matter of minutes from the start, you're running from a very modern setting, over the Connecticut River, through East Hartford and into a very bucolic part of classic New England," said Bruce Alexander, marketing director for the marathon.
After crossing Founders Bridge into East Hartford, runners soon find themselves in South Windsor, leaving the urban environment behind for nine miles between 4 and 13. "Those are nice miles, beautiful miles," said Shluger. "The scenery is spectacular. It's peak foliage; the homes are 1700s; there are horses and barns and pumpkin farms -- gorgeous."
Returning to East Hartford at the halfway point, the course hugs the Connecticut River in one of the prettiest stretches of the run. Runners make their way through Great River Park with views of the Hartford skyline jutting up across the river just 500 yards away.
Runners cross back over Founders Bridge into Hartford and, at mile 20, can actually eyeball the finish line before heading into the second out-and-back loop into West Hartford. Here runners encounter the course's modest hills ("It's not bad, but at mile 23 you're feeling it," said Shluger), as well as the west end's elegant Victorian homes set beneath a leafy canopy of ancient elms and maples.
Then it's back to Bushnell Park and under the ornately carved memorial arch to the finish line. "I would have to say that our finish line is one of the most spectacular I've ever seen, and I'm not exaggerating," said Shluger. "You run right through the arch, and the finish line is 100 yards or 200 yards past it. The crowds are enormous, four or five deep on either side, and if you look up as you run through the arch, you just have these chills going down your spine. There's that euphoric feeling with every marathon finish, but this just triples it."
Strong crowd support
Big crowds show up elsewhere on the course, too -- enought to make enthusiastic spectator support a hallmark of the Greater Hartford Marathon. Runners are buoyed by local supporters all over the course.
"The neighborhoods really embrace this thing, and the whole community comes out," said East Hartford Mayor Tim Larson, a vet of both the marathon and the associated half marathon. "It's not quite like the Wellesley College stretch at the Boston Marathon yet, but it's getting there. You have 80 or 100 people out on the street having a street party at points throughout the whole race."
That's no accident. In fact, race organizers pay special attention to the street culture of the event. "We've created party locations for spectators where we have food and beverage and entertainment," said race director Shluger. "We have entertainment every mile, and we highlight the best locations to park and to access the course."
"If you've got family and supporters out there three or four hours," said Whynacht, "anything you can do to keep people happy and occupied is good, because it's so important to have your supporters out there."
The marathon gives to the community in other ways, too, generating over $200,000 for charity, including a novel new program that has over 300 schoolchildren running a portion of the race as a fundraiser (see related article).
The race's community involvement and crowd energy gives the event a big-city feel without the big-city field of runners, though the event is growing fast. In its ninth year, the Greater Hartford Marathon is still a young race, but it has already grown into a medium-size marathon hosting 3000 runners -- large enough to capture the excitement of an "event race" but small enough to avoid a crowded course.
"I like this size a lot," said Whynacht. "When I go to a big marathon like Boston, I don't ever expect to run a personal best because you have a lot of course congestion for the whole race. At Hartford, it spins out faster, starts quick, and within half a mile of the start you're going at your goal pace and you're in and out of water stops quickly.
"You go to New York and Chicago, and it's all about the event experience, and you do your best to try to run," Whynacht added. "But at Hartford you can run for time. This marathon is very well put together, the course is very attractive -- and I'm telling you, it's fast."