New Hampshire: Bear Brook marathon (plus)

With 10 states and 12 marathons completed, I was starting to feel more confident about finishing races. I had a work trip to New Hampshire in July and had planned to go with a colleague who was willing to wait for me to run and then head to the conference on Sunday. I’d found the Mad Marathon in Vermont, but it sounded humid, hilly, and was on road. When my colleague cancelled, I went back to the internet in late June and found Bear Brook marathon. I may have found it first on Ultrasignup. The few reviews I found made it sound like I could make the 9 hour cutoff and the trails sounded not too technical. After only a day of obsessive searching, I went ahead and signed up. I mean, they couldn’t really be serious about that warning, “The marathon is always more than a marathon and exact mileage is never shared, it can be anywhere from 27 miles to 30 miles.” Right?


I flew into Boston, picked up my tiny car and drove to my hotel in Bow, NH, about half an hour from the race in Bear Brook State Park. As usual, I drove out to the park to try and get a sense of the trails and where I would be running. I’d done a lot of searching and couldn’t find a good map of the course but had been trying to match the state park map to the descriptions I’d found. When I got there Friday late afternoon, I could see where the start line would be set up and that the trails were a good mix of runnable, single track, sometimes rocky or rooty. I went back to the hotel along a different country road and enjoyed the scenery.

On race morning, I woke up in plenty of time to get to the start, get my bib, deer fly patch (?!), and shirt, and stay warm in the car. (No, I had still not learned to bring warm clothes for the waiting around part.) The day was supposed to start a little drizzly, then clear up to maybe mid-60s. There were just under 100 of us, and some Marathon Maniacs were there planning to double with the Mad Marathon that I had considered. I hoped this meant they would go slow and I would not be DFL. The race director, Kristina, briefed us about 10 minutes before the start. It would be her last year directing the race and she wanted to make it special before handing it over to another RD. She explained the route and I tried to mentally match the trails she listed with the ones that had been on my park map. She assured us it was well marked and “maybe 27ish miles, or probably more.”  Hmm.

Definitely more than 27 miles.

Race report: The first miles were along a wide, fairly smooth trail and I got to enjoy overhearing the maniacs and those hoping to qualify for maniacs talking about races. Then we headed up Catamount Hill and back down over the other side. I was enjoying the speed of the downhills and then passed someone saying to a friend that they’d better take the downs slow or their quads would not last the day. I took note.

2700 gain
GPS said 2700′ of gain.

The trails were beautiful and the temperature nice and cool. The aid stations were great! Tons of food and cheerful volunteers. We went through heavy forest, fern covered trails, past lakes, up granite rocks, down granite rocks, and through muddy sections because that drizzle had turned to more and more rain. I didn’t take many pictures, but there are some great ones and a good summary of that year’s race here.

Along the trail.

The distances between aid stations were a little longer than I expected in some places but after Gnaw Bone I had learned to carry food. We went through a campground around mile 20 and I took advantage of the flush toilets in the heated bathroom. Quite luxurious. The next section was through a sandy trail with few trees and blueberry bushes everywhere. It would have been a harder section if the sun was out, but the rain had stopped and the clouds stayed so it was nice. The family at the aid station asked if the section seemed longer than the advertised distance and it was to me, but the break at the campground had helped. As at every station, they told me the distance to the next aid. I knew that would be the last one before the finish and headed out with some sour patch kids – a first for me at a race.

At mile 25ish, I got to the next aid station where they had a band playing! With banjos! What friendly people! I gave my number, said thanks, and headed out with only a water refill because I had only a mile or two to go. The chief volunteer stopped me and said there’s about 4 miles to the finish, so take some food. What? 4? Huh. I filled up and headed out. I knew if I dwelled on the miles to go, they would not be fun. I had the same number of miles to go whether happy or grumpy, so I decided to enjoy it.  I had plenty of time to get to the finish and those wonderful aid stations had my favorite race drug – COKE.

By now, I was feeling the hills a little more and knew I had to go up and over Catamount Hill again. When I finally to the turn back on to one of the Bear Brook trails (Lower or just regular?), I knew it was back the way we came and the end was nearer. Almost at the top of the last hill, by now a miserably difficult climb, there was a sign to the side that said something about hip-hopping rabbits ahead. I reached the top and there one was:

A sign almost at the top of the last climb warned of rabbits hip hopping ahead. She was at the top of the hill. A welcome distraction.

She was fantastic! It was great to get to the top of the hill and see her dancing to a boombox playing hip hop. She also said we had about a mile left. I kept laughing to myself as I went across the top of the granite hill, and then busted my ass on the wet rock. I think this was my first fall ever on trail and it mostly just took my breath away. The few sore spots worked themselves out as I hit the downhill and passed another runner. I knew I didn’t have to hold back as much now that I was almost done. At the bottom of the hill, the trail was wide and very runnable. I was enjoying it until I could hear the runner that I had passed coming up on me. My competitive side kicked in and I ran, knowing the finish was just around the corner.

Maybe just around the next corner?

After half a mile of hard running I got passed by a guy, not the woman I’d passed. I said something rude to him about passing and he laughed and then around the next corner was the finish. Yay! I received my finisher’s award (coffee beans) and was invited to join the party in progress. They had plenty of food, kiddie pools full of ice and drinks, and best of all, people enthusiastically cheering for the finishers all the way to 10 hours! The guy who passed me apologized for passing. He introduced me to his friend who had finished after me and was also giving him a hard time for his race to the finish – at over 7 hours. It seems that most other runners got anywhere from 29 to 31 miles. My watch showed 29.5. I would still do it all over again – this is one of my top 5 races.

Here’s another excellent summary of the race:

Carolyn-Mankiewicz-Shreck bear brook
Credit to Carolyn Mankiewicz-Shreck who also ran the race in 2016. This sums it up well. I cannot look at this without laughing at the weather summary.

Off trail: If every description of the race including the race logo makes a joke about it being longer than a marathon, it probably is.

On the drive back to Bow, there is a well-placed ice cream stand that also sells fries. Excellent post-race combination.

I did some research and found a good place for breakfast Sunday morning. The power went out just after I ordered but they were able to keep all diners happy and cooked with a generator for about half an hour before closing early. I  enjoyed my breakfast and blithely headed back to my hotel – the plan was one last pit stop before heading north to check out the Flume Gorge. Sadly, the hotel had no power either. My room was on the 4th floor. I had a giant suitcase for a week-long running/work/hiking trip. I think it took me 15 minutes to get down those stairs.

When the power goes out in some hotels, the water no longer works either.

Flume Gorge is worth a side trip:

Sightseeing at the Flume Gorge the next day. Hard to walk downhill.

The Appalachian Trail is near the Gorge too and worth the short hike if you are one of those who had once upon a time planned a thru-hike.

The literal path not taken many years ago.

Finally, if you bomb the downhills in the first mile of your race, you may embarrass yourself by quietly grunting when you get up or sit down or go up or down hills or stairs for the next several days. Bad timing for a work conference. But I would still do it all over again.

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