Short Strides & Odd Thoughts: The Dead Possum

This past weekend we ran our Dead Possum, the hilliest half marathon in New Ipswich.  To be honest, it’s also the flattest, the longest, the shortest, well, it’s the only half marathon in New Ipswich. And we like it that way.

But hills are certainly part of the course, with some lengthy climbs and some serious elevation gains within the body of a half marathon.  With very little flat training in town, there really isn’t any choice but to have the course include hills.  We did fit in our flattest segment of road, a mile and a half from the school where we will be doing our early season pace work in a couple weeks.  But it ain’t flat.

The Dead Possum is one of the many Valhalla Running Club functions we put on, Valhalla being our local club built around our Mascenic district running community.  We use the club to offer Junior Olympic Cross Country, and race loosely young and old alike under its banner.  And like most of the things I dream up, there is a real reason behind it, just it might not be obvious to the outside observer.  

The Dead Possum got its start about ten years ago when my wife and I decided to run a half marathon every weekend in October.  While that might sound bold, it’s really no different than someone in the middle of marathon training doing their long runs on the weekend.  We were able to find three half marathons local enough to travel to but there was one weekend there were no races within two hours of us.  So without a race to be run, we designed one ourselves.  Leaving from our house I plotted out a 13 mile loop that dropped us right back at home, 13.1 miles later.

I called it the Tri Town Half Marathon going into it, as it has sections which run through three different towns over the 13 mile loop.  There’s a 1000 feet of climbing over the course, the last 300 coming in the last mile with the infamous Mascenic hill.  Over the years I’ve endured some pretty nasty post race verbiage as newcomers to the race let me know what they think of my course layout.  A common remark is how they feel like a dead possum by the end.

But the course actually gets its name from an on course reality that first run, when our crew of four came across two dead possums on the side of the road just after the three mile mark, and a third one 200 meters up the road.  An obvious marsupial love triangle gone wrong.  Anyway, once we finished the course that first time, we all felt like dead possums so the name stuck.

Not long after that I recognized the six weeks between the end of indoor track and the start of outdoor, along with the weather during the month of February and the first two weeks of March were tough training times for most of my team.  In order to give them something to focus their training on, and perfect for building their aerobic base, we created the Dead Possum race and moved it to mid-March.  I proposed a training plan that had them work up to two hour runs to prepare and we went from there.  My sales pitch was once you run a half marathon in training, there’s nothing about spring track practice that will tire you out.

And we’ve been hosting the Dead Possum ever since.  The date traditionally has been on St. Patrick’s Day, right before we begin spring track.  While some might think this is bad timing, to have your athletes run a hilly half marathon less than 48 hours before your first practice.  But in reality, all the athletes that have completed it are going to be in fantastic shape going into the season, and if the first run of the year goes a little slow, and my top dogs are encouraged to take it easy while they recover. This allows my under trained athletes that haven’t aspired to big things to hang in there and not be discouraged by their lack of winter dedication.

Over time we’ve offered up more participation to outside groups.  While never exclusive, our non traditional style race got out via word of mouth over the years, and interest for the event has grown.  We don’t try to “sell it”, as there is no registration cost, no prizes, no course marshals, no finisher medals, no commemorative shirts.  But we do accept participation for people that are looking for just that, a late winter challenge to their running.

I’ve always offered up the opportunity to our other regional high school teams.  Sometimes we’ve seen the older distance kids that my older distance kids have bonded with over years of competition come out, but not a ton.  During the covid year, the Newfound crew was putting together their own winter series and asked if the Dead Possum could be their culmination race.  I agreed and laughed when asked to forward the registration link.  I said this is like all our Valhalla stuff, just show up and run.  We now have kids from Bristol running on our Valhalla cross country teams.

And this year we had some other additions as well.  Due to some romantic entanglements, Mascoma Valley’s Gunner Currier made the trip from the upper valley.  He lit off from the gun, clicking off right around six minute pace until the bottom of Mascenic hill.  Upon finishing he let me know I was a mean person.

All in all we had eight high schoolers finish, five of them on the Mascenic team.  Most of the rest of the participants were adults who have either been on one of my teams, or have had kids come through my program.  We have some of our adult crew, some fairly new to running, using the DP to cross a goal off their list, and some people using the run to train for an upcoming spring marathon.  We had three participants who I had never met before, who heard it through the grapevine, were looking for like minded people to run with on an overcast Saturday afternoon.  I had to chase them down upon their finish of the race just to get their names.

And that’s how it goes.  Show up and run.  The promise of sweet and tangy possum balls doesn’t hurt either.

Much like our Saturday after Thanksgiving “Friends of Mascenic Cross Country Alumni race” we host a Soupapalooza  get together after the race.  With an opportunity to kick back, relax, and recount the experience out on the course, we also have a smorgasbord of soups, breads, desserts and one of the favorites, possum balls.  Only seems right…

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