The Eastern States 20 Mile: How it all Got Started
Races get started in many ways. Here is Don Allison's account about how the Eastern States 20-Miler got started and some of the history through the years.
Posted Sunday, 13 March, 2005
In the summer of 1993 I traveled to Vermont as a “faculty” member for the New England Runner race director’s conference. (I was working at NER at the time.) During the lunch break I struck up a conversation with a gal who seemed excited about the prospects of directing a race, something she had never done. After asking me several questions about directing races (I had directed many by that time, including the original incarnation of the Baystate Marathon), she told me of her idea: to stage a “border to border” run from Kittery, Maine to Salisbury, Massachusetts, along the New Hampshire seacoast. This was a run her brother did regularly in training for the Boston Marathon each year, and she wanted to turn it into a bonafide race. Her name was Kate Christiansen; she lived in Ipswich. Her brother is Ray Dechenses, formerly from Ipswich, then residing in Los Angeles.
Kate possessed the drive, vision, and just enough moxie to pull it off, but she lacked many of the “how to” particulars of staging a road race. That’s where I came in. She persuasively recruited me to assist and advise her through the planning stages for the event, which would take place on President’s Day weekend in February of 1994, the traditional date of Ray’s border to border run.
The first thing I suggested was that mid-February was a poor choice for a race date. It could be a raging snowstorm at that time of year, for God’s sake. Then what? Better to be safe and run in March. But Kate was not to be denied; it was going to be mid-February and that was that. Oh boy.
I know how hard it can be to get runners interested in a new event, so was truly shocked to see how much interest this prospective event was drawing from the running community, far and wide. I could see Kate had a winner of an idea; now the only trick was turning into a race, easier said than done, traveling through seven different towns and three states. But she worked hard to convince the powers that be to sign off on her brainchild.
In October of 1993 I decided to run the course, in order to familiarize myself with the route. On a Wednesday afternoon, Kate dropped me off on the far side of the Memorial Bridge with a map, while she left to go shopping at the Kittery Outlet stores. (Kate was not a runner, believe it or not.) I carried no water with me, figuring I would easily find some en route along the seacoast. Hah!
I took off at a good clip on an overcast day and made good progress along the course, but just could not find water anywhere. Nothing was open and all of the beaches were closed for the season. Things got a little desperate on the final stretch in Seabrook (like a lot of runners have experienced through the years!) but I hung on and finished the run in 2 hours and 20 minutes, just about seven-minute pace. To say I was a little dehydrated is an understatement! Kate was waiting in the car at the corner of route 286 and 1A. “How it go?” she causally inquired.
Another epic adventure ensued when Gary Passler (from the Winner’s Circle Club) and I set out to measure the course on our bikes, he with a certified wheel measuring device. We did this in late December, and of course about halfway through the snow began. By the time we got to Hampton it was several inches deep , so we had to abandon the job. We went back a few weeks later to complete it. Nothing was coming easily, aside from the sign-ups. People were registering every day. Kate’s hoped for goal of 100 to 200 runners was surpassed several weeks before the race.
As race day approached we had the pieces pretty much in place, but who was to know how it would unfold on race day? Fears of bad winter weather were allayed as forecasters called for a nice weekend. In fact, it was going to be one of the warmest February weekends on record. Temperatures in the high 60s were predicted for race day. That brought even more runners on race day, despite the fact that a “no post-entry” policy had been stated on the entry blank. It didn’t matter; people wanted to be a part of this new race, no matter what. I worked at a hastily assembled post-entry table and can remember runners literally throwing 20-dollar bills at me to get their numbers.
One of the tough logistical hurdles was transporting runners from Hampton to the start (as we still do today), and that process seemed to going smoothly until the very last bus was stopped on the near side by the raising of the Memorial Bridge in Portsmouth. That occurred at about 10:45, with an 11:00 planned start time. We had all gathered at the small Warren’s Lobster Pound, more than 600 runners milling about in the restaurant and the parking lot, itching to get started. But we still had a busload of runners on the other side of the bridge. We needed to wait for the bridge to go back down anyway, and then give those runners a few minutes to get ready for the race. As it turned out, we waited more then an hour for that bridge to go down, one of the longest hours of my life! Kate had designated me as the one to let the runners know we would be starting late. (Gee, thanks.) I made few friends during that hour. For the record, the race got underway at 12:06 p.m.
Once the gun finally went off however, everything worked like a charm. All of the towns were cooperative and the runners poured down route 1A like the parting of the Red Sea. We had some very fast times: Ed Sheehan, a 2:13 marathoner from Boston, flew down the course in 1:46, close to 5:15 per mile. I can still see him running in shorts and a thin singlet in the warm sunshine, with snow piled high on the side of the road. Barbara Remmers from New York ran a fast 2:03 to win the women’s race, a time not equaled to this day. It must be mentioned though, that the course was two tenths of mile short of 20 miles that year (and the next), so these times are not true course records in the strictest sense. For the next few hours the runners filed in. I scored the race myself using handwritten times and labels to post to boards. It was a laborious way to time the race, one we never did again, thankfully.
So that’s how it all got started, way back when. I am sure a few of you reading this ran that year, and can recall what an unusual day it was in many respects. We held the race again in 1995 (again on a nice February day!), but Kate became tired of all of the runner’s complaints, so decided not to hold it in 1996. I was not really in a position to take it over myself at that point in time. But by 1997, with many runners asking why it was not being held any longer, I decided to bring it back for 1998. I changed the name to the Eastern States, in order to make it a whole new event. The name was a bit of a parody on the Western States 100 Mile in California. I figured there should be an Eastern States too, and the name fit the course. I know of a handful of runners that have run both the Western and Eastern States races. (Me for one, if you count that “trial” run in 1993.) In 2000 we added a shorter 10-mile event, to allow runners not up to the full 20 mile to be a part of the event.
It has not been an easy race to stage; each year afterwards I vow “never again,” especially when the weather is bad, such as the soaking rain we experienced in 1999 and 2003, or the cold, biting, 25-mile per hour headwind in 2002. But I can’t seem to let it go. I know a lot of runners love the course and it is fun to see them all come down that last stretch on 1A, after crossing up and over the Seabrook bridge. Those last two miles can be mighty tough; anyone who has run the race knows that. Thanks to partnering with the Rochester Runners, the workload has eased a little bit, but still on race night I feel as if I have done the full 20 miles myself, and then some. Certainly 2005 will add another story to the tale, and now, as Paul Harvey would say, you know the “rest of the story.”