The Cape’s Run
Some of the world’s fastest runners hit the road in Cape Elizabeth every August. To lace up and join them is to be part of one of the top 10K road races in the country and it starts on a summer morning just a few miles south of Portland.
Casco Bay and the wider ocean is near, but right now, it’s a sea of faces that I’m seeing. On a two-lane road in Cape Elizabeth that’s closed to auto traffic for the morning, the trim-and-fit types are gathered; the older, younger, and in-between; the beefy but healthy; and all of the rest, wearing shorts and race numbers affixed with safety pins. As a mass, the group is talking and walking and gradually moving into a tighter lineup toward a distant starting line that’s freshly painted onto the pavement of Route 77 near Crescent Beach State Park. Music pours from speakers, and as drizzling rain stops and starts, everyone has their rituals— jumping, stretching, running short laps on the grass shoulder, or maybe taking a few iPhone shots to share online. (Elite runner Ben True of Maine reports eating bagels to fuel his race.) Whatever the prep, this group is ready to run.
Many in the early-day throng of 6,000 to 7,000 runners arrive at the start of one of Maine’s most celebrated road races via the school bus shuttles from the local high school. Homegrown but world class, the TD Beach to Beacon 10K Road Race is an annual rite of summer on the coast a few miles south of Portland. Following a point-to-point route along the bay-facing headland of Cape Elizabeth, this is the training ground of one of Cape Elizabeth’s most famous residents, Olympian Joan Benoit Samuelson.
The town’s entire population of 9,068 is just a few thousand more than the number of runners who annually take part in the race. Founded in 1998 by Samuelson, this small-town race draws athletes from around the world. The rolling coastal course, the influence of Samuelson to bring Olympic-level competitors, and the great timing for a Maine weekend (early August) all play into the run’s amazing success. I feel lucky to be here. Once you’re in, it doesn’t take long to realize that having an official race bib in the B2B is akin to holding a coveted concert ticket to a show that’s been sold out for months. These days, the online registration that opens in March fills in about the time that it takes a very fast runner to complete one mile (the B2B race typically sells out in less than five minutes).
Our goal—we runners and the wheelchair competitors who complete the course earlier on the same morning—is to make our way for 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from the southern start near the park beaches to Fort Williams Park and the iconic beacon, Portland Head Light. Even if you haven’t been here before, you’ve likely seen images of the famously well-photographed lighthouse. With a white-painted tower and red rooftop peaks on the adjoining house, the famous light is situated along a high ledge of rocks that appear to have been somehow halted from their tumble into Casco Bay.
This is foghorn territory, and when I visit earlier in the race week to check out the finish line setup, I hear horn sounds immediately. It’s one of those days that alternate between misty fog and spells of clear, bright sunshine. The August scenery is green and ripe and height-of-Maine- summer beautiful.
From the park’s hilltops, picnic tables, and trails along the rocky shore, people watch boats in the bay or search out another interesting view of the Head Light. Waves roll in with a white froth and a cool salt spray is everywhere. The 10K will end here at the oceanfront with the tower of the Head Light to inspire all of the participants, and the park is being made ready to welcome everyone. Work crews have set up an elaborate array of tents and tables, banners, chutes, and bleachers in wide fields. Whether or not it’s the 10K weekend, this is an enticing picnic ground.
They Call Her Joanie
The athlete who started all this is an inspiration to so many people. Everywhere I go around Cape Elizabeth during the week, I hear her name mentioned. “Joanie” is what they call her, typically speaking with warm familiarity. I feel like I’m one of the few who doesn’t know her personally, yet I can remember seeing parts of the 1984 Olympics on TV. Still on YouTube is the footage of this small-framed but powerful Maine woman waving to cheering crowds during her final lap in the Los Angeles Coliseum as she won the Olympics’s first-ever women’s marathon. (The bronze statue of her in front of a Cape Elizabeth library is inspired by that day’s victory.) She was simply Joan Benoit then, and had already won the women’s field in the Boston Marathon twice (once in world-record time). I’d seen her in person not too long before the B2B when I was at Wolfe’s Neck Farm in Freeport, near where Samuelson lives with her husband. A friend casually pointed out “Joanie,” who was running along the road in the June sun. I looked across a farm field to catch a glimpse of her going by in a fluorescent blur.
The gold medalist grew up in Cape Elizabeth and graduated from Cape Elizabeth High School, and when I go to the race expo at the high school gym to pick up my race packet the night before the run, I overhear someone else in line reminiscing about the race’s early years. “I remember when you used to just mail a check to Joanie,” the man says. “A few weeks later, you’d get your race registration letter.” The 10K has grown tremendously since then. I meet local resident David Weatherbie, who helped Samuelson prepare for a return to the Olympic trials in 1996, and has also been integral to the TD Beach to Beacon 10K. He has laced up to run the race himself all but a few years, and he was the president of B2B for the first 16 years. (Michael Stone of Portland is now president.) Weatherbie deems the race “a celebration of wellness and fitness that’s become part of the fabric of the community.”
Some 600 to 800 volunteers help with B2B registration and race events, and a large percentage of those people live right in Cape Elizabeth, according to volunteer coordinator and resident Maya Cohen, who says others come from nearby in the Portland area or are family members and friends of runners. Local residents host visiting international runners at their homes. There’s a feel-good energy and camaraderie among volunteers, Cohen says, and many return year after year in what “feels like an enormous family reunion.”
Days before the race at a media event, I meet with Samuelson. She talks of the world’s top runners, whom she’s excited to see participating (some of them are returning), and especially, “the people in the back of the pack who never thought they could cover the distance.” A tremendous source of pride for Samuelson is that the race sponsors are able to give substantial support to charities in Maine every year. Rippleffect was the 2014 recipient and the Good Shepherd Food Bank will receive a $30,000 contribution from the TD Charitable Foundation this year. After all of her success and accomplishment, I’m struck by this winning athlete’s low-key demeanor and humility. On race day, Samuelson speaks briefly to the crowd. “This is about the people of Maine. We all inspire each other,” she says. “I’m just one spark.”
Maine Feet (Feat)
Back to the start. The B2B is about to begin, and I have that familiar mix of excitement and nervous energy. I look down at the running shoes I bought in the spring, which are a kelly green like the lush summer grass at Fort Williams. (Maybe they’ll bring a little luck since they’re made by Maine’s own New Balance.) I’ve run other 10Ks and 5Ks and even a few half-marathons, but most of those have been in the Carolinas on largely flat terrain. The coast-hugging Cape Elizabeth course ranges from sea level to near 100 feet elevation, which doesn’t sound like much, but I always feel the difference. To get ready, I’ve been running on some hillier streets and trails in the midcoast.
The south-to-north route is along Route 77, scenic Old Ocean House Road, and Shore Road to the entrance of Fort Williams. All along the way people are standing at the roadside, clapping and calling out names of friends they see in the crowd. Some are playing music from their car stereos, and in one yard, a group is playing violins as we pass. I appreciate all of this encouragement and diversion, including the frequent water stations where volunteers hand out cups to thirsty runners who drink the water or splash it on their faces.
Kettle Cove Creamery isn’t open yet for the day, but when I run past I daydream a little about the French vanilla cone I had there one afternoon, and even the fried clams and french fries I shared earlier in the week while sitting at one of the red-painted picnic tables at the Lobster Shack at Two Lights. Not long before sunset that night, the fog was like a heavy curtain and you could barely see the ocean. We pass Norm Jordan’s two-acre, u-pick flower farm, where that week I’d wandered the field to make a bouquet and Jordan himself pulled up on his tractor. He explained that his grandfather had originally bought the farm in 1920. The flowers are a retirement hobby for him, and he says the honor system of payment “for a nice bouquet” works out well for everyone. It’s said that the growing season on Cape Elizabeth is the longest in Maine, and this time of year, the produce I see at farms and stands looks plentiful. We pass the barns and farmhouse at Alewive’s Brook Farm, where they sell everything from lobster to roses, and I recall seeing bins full of carrot bunches, beets with greens, cucumbers, onions, jars of homemade jam, green beans, and waxy yellow string beans. All of these food memories are making me hungry.
When we pass through central Cape Elizabeth and the high school, the crowds are even thicker, with people set up in folding chairs and firemen cheering from a truck. I notice Local Buzz, where I’d stopped in for a coffee, and then, later, a beer while in town. (When I met Samuelson, the last thing she said to me was, “Don’t forget to hydrate.”) When I catch a glimpse of the ocean, I know the end of this run isn’t too far ahead. I’m not anywhere near the front of the pack, but it doesn’t matter. The crowd sticks with you even at the famous incline that runners must navigate to finish the race on the tree-shaded route into Fort Williams and then, finally, into chutes that lead to the dramatic, big sky view on a shorefront field that’s lined with bleachers, more crowds, and the finish line arch with the Portland Head Light beyond. It’s a sweet finish.
The day’s elite athlete winners from Kenya, Ethiopia, the United Kingdom, Japan, and from across the United States finished in under 30 minutes (the men) and under 33 minutes (the women). Taking third place is North Yarmouth native Ben True, in what I understand is an exciting finish. He’s way ahead of me, of course. So is Michelle Lilienthal of Portland, who sets a course record for Maine women at 33:38. When I finish at just over an hour, it’s cool enough to simply be part of the sunshine and high spirits of the run’s after-party. The beacon and the ocean are sparkling, and I recall one more thing that Samuelson said at the cloudy morning start. “The sun will shine on each of you today,” she told the crowd. “One way or the other.”