Applefest Half Marathon and Relay—Small Town Atmosphere, Big Time Race
The 26th Annual Applefest Half Marathon and two-person Half Marathon Relay is a running celebration in Hollis, New Hampshire. Beautiful rural course, fruit basket and pie prizes, beautiful medals, scrumptious post race food—yes, that famous apple crisp.
Posted Monday, 24 March, 2008
What would a runner want from a New England race, held in the fall, especially if that runner wanted a longer distance, say a half marathon? How about a beautiful, small town setting, a large and knowledgeable organization to put on the event, unique long sleeve tech shirts, great food, a large field, and of course, trivia and Name that Tune contests.
Excuse me, trivia and Name that Tune contests?
Well, that is what you get with the Applefest Half Marathon, right down to the Name that Tune and trivia contests (more on that later).
On October 4, 2008 hundreds of runners will descend on the town of Hollis, New Hampshire, just west of Nashua, N.H. for the 26th running of the Applefest Half Marathon. With the fall foliage at or near peak, the runners will be treated to an event that has become a very important race on the fall New England calendar.
Twenty-six years. That’s an eternity in the world of road racing. Like Red Sox fans, generations of runners have come and gone, as have road races, but the Applefest Half still stands, as tall as ever. While the Granite State has seen a growth of half marathons over the past few years, Applefest has taken a back seat to no one. Between the runners who will go the whole 13.1 miles and the two-person relay teams, Applefest remains one of only a handful of New Hampshire races to draw over 1,000 finishers. (Applefest is limited to 1,200 runners for the half marathon, and it will sell out, and limited to 150 two-person teams.)
Twenty-six years also indicates that the Applefest Half Marathon has created a remarkable history. A quick glance at some of the winners, course records, and age records reveals some of the biggest names in New England running history. Dave Dunham, Bruce Butterworth, Eric Beauschene, and Fernando Braz are on the list, along with Peg Donovan and Sue LaChance. Actually, you could say that LaChance owns the list. All LaChance has done is win the women’s competition six of eight years, between 1995 and 2002, with five straight titles between 1998 and 2002. Oh yeah, the venerable Carlton Mendell owns 12 of the 15 single age group records from when he was 69 (1991) until he turned 83 in 2005.
Patti Laliberte holds the race record from that very first run in 1983 (1:18:22); and Dave Dunham has held the men’s mark (1:06:07) since 1992. The single age records were initiated the very first race, and remain a unique feature of Applefest. Check them on the Race Website.
But the story of the Applefest Half Marathon is not about the front of the pack. It is about organizing a first class event that keeps ‘em coming back year after year. That task falls upon the shoulders of the Gate City Striders, one of New England’s largest running clubs. Applefest is, from start to finish, a Gate City Striders event. The race directors are GCS members and the many staff volunteers also belong to the club. In other words, runners with a lot of experience put that experience to work making sure the race goes off without a hitch—runners serving their own.
What does that mean for the runners who descend on Hollis, N.H. for the race? Simply put, it means a well-organized event. It starts the night before the race when runners can pick up their race packets, thus saving time on race day (pre registration only, and only on-line). On race day every detail, from the start line to the finish, to the post-race atmosphere, is covered. What else would you expect from one of New England’s largest and best running clubs?
Applefest is most famous for four components: A wonderfully scenic and challenging course, the tremendous number and quality of awards (including commemorative awards for all finishers and five-year awards), unique single age records, and simply wonderful, unbelievably tasty and plentiful post race food. You could call it Applefeast. Additionally there are outstanding facilities, cash awards for individuals (top three women and men) unique long sleeve T-shirts, chip timing and rapid results, helpful and enthusiastic volunteers, theme water stops every two miles (manned by energetic and inspiring students competing for your vote), shuttle buses to-from the relay handoff, and shuttles from-to parking, outstanding and supportive sponsorship, and much, much more.
It is a scenic, moderately challenging course. The course provides a tour of the historic village center, scattered residences, Silver Lake State Park, historic barns, fields, orchards, farm stands, and rural vistas. Although hilly in places, the views make the moderate hills seem mild. The course is USATF-certified, and slightly net downhill.
No one associated with Applefest will tell you it is an easy one, but it is a fair, changing, rolling, interesting, and very inspiring course. There have been outstanding times there. It is the same for all runners. It is very spectator-friendly (views at start, finish, 2 miles, and 11.3 within easy reach for walkers). And it is beautiful.
It starts at the Hollis Brookline High School, a state-of-the-art facility that includes showers and changing facilities for all runners. The course exits the high school grounds with a left turn (north) on Pepperell Road, Route 122, and Main Street for a quick right turn through Monument Square. This portion goes past historic homes, the meeting house (historic site), and the Hollis Town Hall. The designated Historic District includes over 100 homes and buildings. The course turns south on Depot Road—once the direct route from the village center to the railroad depot in the southeast corner of town. (Note there is an outstanding rail trail there now which runs 17.4 miles through neighboring Dunstable, Pepperell, and Groton to Ayer, Massachusetts, an outstanding location for traffic free running.)
Applefest begins with a two-mile loop that includes Depot Road and a ¼ mile incline on Merrill Lane back past the high school. Then it continues north on Main Street and Silver Lake Road (Route 122), with a nice downhill section at 3 miles, approaching the 80-acre Silver Lake State Park. The park is on both sides of the road, with the 34-acre Silver Lake on the left.
The first upper loop is broad and wide open for the crowded early miles, while the lower loop is mostly shaded country roads surrounded by forests tinged with the bright colors of autumn.
Just beyond four miles, the course turns right on South Merrimack Road. The intersection of these two roads is historic. There stood a general store, shoemaker and cooper shops, and a blacksmith. And in more recent times, it was the original home of 26-year sponsor New England Country Pies (Mile High Apple Pies), now located on Amherst Street, Route 101A. They bake that wonderful apple crisp that is so popular at the post-race celebration.
Miles four through five are very scenic, with wooded hills and farms; at 5.7 the course turns right again on Nevins Road.
Just beyond the 10K mark, at the intersection of Nevins and Farley, the relay handoff point will be a beehive of activity. Runners go straight ahead on Farley Road. From six to 7.5, the course is very flat and straight, with mixed pine and hardwood forest. At 7.7 the course turns right on Wheeler Road for a mild 2/10 incline, with the 8-mile mark just beyond the crest. From mile 8 to nine, it is again mostly flat.
Just beyond nine miles, as Wheeler makes a pronounced right at the fork, there is a steep 100-meter hill, the first of the three “Wheeler Hills”. From 9 to 10.4 there is a series of hills and rolls, gradually climbing back to higher ground toward the village center. At 10.7 Wheeler ends on Broad Street (Route 130) with a right turn to the 11-mile mark located directly in front of 26-year sponsor Brookdale Farms. (Brookdale Farms is an institution in Hollis, and has been for generations. They provide the wonderful fruit baskets for the age group winners, and the array of fruit for the post race food fest.)
Broad Street takes runners back through the village center, retracing some of the earlier course through Monument Square and Depot Road. The 12 mile mark is just before that Merrill Lane incline, and mid way up Merrill marks 20K, with only a kilometer left to return to the high school and the finish mat. Rewards and that post-race atmosphere await.
Speaking of the post-race atmosphere, it is one of the best in region. Upon finishing everyone receives a commemorative medal. Then it is time to eat. Remember, this is the Applefest Half Marathon, so runners are treated to some of the best apple crisp around from New England Country Pies, as well as some homemade goodies that would win a blue ribbon at the state fair. As for the lucky award winners, the overall top three receive prize money (and there is an $800 bonus available for any woman or man setting a new course record).
The top three in five-year age groups win unique prizes, with the top finisher getting a fruit basket (with plenty of apples), and the second and third place runners in each age group taking home an apple pie (with even more apples). The top three finishers in each category will mount a victory stand that resembles the three-tier award set of the Olympics. All three also earn beautiful medals. A professional photographer from Brightroom.com will snap a photo and the trio goes off to enjoy their spoils. Meanwhile the rest of the crowd has been enjoying some post-race music from a live band.
Now is the time to speak up and state what is on the minds of many: sounds great, but 13.1 miles? That’s too long.
Never fear, the relay is here. A half marathon is too long for many runners who want to be a part of this great event. That is why Applefest offers a two-person team relay, cutting the distance to six and half miles per runner. Sounds better, doesn’t it? That is what a lot of people think. It is also why there will be 150 relay teams that sign up for this race. It is worth mentioning again the strength of the Gate City Striders. Organizing a half marathon relay is not easy. Precise plans have to be made to get relay runners from the start to the mid-way point without a lot of fuss and muss. In order for the relay to go smoothly second leg runners are bussed to the relay handoff point, and first leg runners are bussed back to the finish. Country roads do not allow runners to drive to the handoff, and woods prevent the possibility of parking anyway.
Speaking of the finish, what was that thing about trivia and Name That Tune contests?
In 2007 the Applefest Half Marathon celebrated 25 years. To commemorate the occasion, race organizers held a trivia contest at the finish line for spectators with most of the questions having to do with Applefest’s first year, 1983. Gift certificates to a local restaurant served as the prizes and, as the saying goes, a good time was had by all. Not to mention, it helped entertain the spectators while waiting for the runners to arrive. So, in 2008 the finish line announcer promises more fun for spectators in the form of Name That Tune. Do you know the lyrics to Jackson Five, Bruce Springsteen, or Beyonce tunes? Sorry runners, you can’t play. You’ve got your 13.1 miles to go; but not to worry, your friends and family will have a good time waiting for you.
Any discussion of the Applefest Marathon should also include the host town, Hollis, New Hampshire.
Hollis is a small New England town that is post-card perfect anytime of the year. Throw in the fall foliage season, and, you get the picture—quintessential New England, with farms, orchards, and village Monument Square. That is why many Applefest participants will make it a weekend-long event and why the race’s website has a link to nearby hotels. Hollis is a rural New Hampshire town on the Massachusetts border, just west of Nashua. It is a rural village where apples, strawberries, and vegetables--and the farms that produce them--are still a large part of the town’s culture, landscape, and economy. The Applefest course runs through it all on rolling, wooded country roads, alongside orchards and farms on a two loop course.
What else is there to say? Maybe a word about the race selling out year after year (in other words, don’t hesitate to sign up). Perhaps a quick mention is needed that new volunteers are always welcome, that there is post-race massage, and Granite State Race Services does the timing, assuring quick and accurate results.
Has anything been left out? No, other than we must give a very big tip of the hat to the sponsors, Brookdale Fruit Farm, New England Country Pies, and Kerk Motion Products, that’s about it.
It is a race with just about everything runners want. (For more information go to http://www.gatecity.org/AF/index.shtml).