Thursday, December 6, 2012

The 2012 Mill Cities Relay

The Mill Cities Relay is a 5-leg, 27.1 mile race from Nashua, NH to Lawrence, MA. It began in 1984 as a way of celebrating the end of the local road racing season and determines bragging rights among the 21 participating Merrimack Valley Area running clubs. The race starts not with a starting gun, but with the drop of a ceremonial brick. The five leg distances are 5.6, 4.9, 2.5, 9.4 & 4.7 miles and points are awarded to teams in each of the 15 age/gender categories. Teams finishing in the top 3 get a trophy brick with a small plaque on it. After 29 years of competing, my running club The Gate City Striders has received enough brick trophies to build a small house!

However the trophy that all the teams covet is the one they give out to the running club that scores the most overall points in the race. This amazing trophy (that I have since dubbed “Millie”) was painstakingly assembled with a working gear from an old mill building, set upon a finely crafted four-sided wooden base and crowned with a “winged-victory” trophy top. It’s a sight to behold and hold – as it weighs in at more than 40 pounds! The base of the trophy has engraved upon it the very history of the race. With the third, second and first place clubs listed (and the total points scored by each) since the inception of the relay 29 years ago.

My history with the Mill Cities Relay began in 2000 when I ran it for the first time. Back in those days I was a member of the North Shore Striders . I was fairly new to running and to the members of the club. As a result, I ended up getting stuck on the short leg of the Men’s Open “B” team jogging beside another NSS teammate - since we had too many people and not enough spots. So, I was basically his “guide” for the 2.5 mile leg from the Tech School to the Boathouse. The following year, after our clubs organizers realized I could run longer (and faster) I was placed on the long leg (9.4 miles) for the same Men’s Open “B” team. And, that’s where I stayed for the next couple years – running my heart out (every time) for a slow, non-scoring team.

My last year running for NSS was in 2003 and due to the race being postponed until February (after a freak snowstorm the previous December) our club's organizers had to scramble to re-stock the team's legs with any available runner. As a result, I got called up to the first leg of the Men’s Open “A” team, a team that ended up placing first overall – despite my inclusion. The following year I ran MCR for my new home club, The Gate City Striders. And, as a team captain, I helped organize all the Open Teams for our club. From that moment on, I became obsessed with this race and with trying to figure out how I could help our club bring home “Millie” and the Overall Mill Cities Team Title.

I meticulously set up a MCR spreadsheet with all the paces,  leg distances and available points in each division. And then proceeded to tinker with it - slotting (and re-slotting) participants to maximize our chances of winning. But early on, it was like pulling teeth to get our runners to "buy in" to this race. And, I could see their point. It happens very late in the season, when most are enjoying some much needed time off and don't want to be bothered with getting up for a cold, windy (and early) run on the river. Eventually, people started seeing how much fun it could be and began making MCR a permanent fixture on their racing schedule. Word spread throughout the club and soon everyone wanted to be a part of finally breaking through and getting that elusive Mill Cities victory for GCS.

As a result, Gate City climbed steadily up the point standings for the next 3 years, but somehow managed to stay firmly fixed in third place behind perennial Mill Cities powerhouses – Winners Circle & Merrimack Valley. Finally, in 2008, something clicked and we broke through for our first victory in eight years of trying. Actually, what clicked was that GCS club members were (likely) tired of me calling (and begging) them to run this foolish relay and decided to come out to shut me up once and for all – probably. But, the joke was on them because once we got to the top everyone worked doubly hard to help keep us there!

Organizing Gate City teams for Mill Cities has been something I look forward to doing each and every year. And every year, more and more club members find out how much fun it is and make a point of putting it on their racing calendars at the beginning of the season. As a result, our clubs participation has grown steadily from 18 teams in 2004 to a whopping 30 teams (and 140 runners) in 2012! These days, after a long morning of managing the teams, I usually settle into the last leg of the day on the GCS Men’s Masters "B” team and cruise into the Claddagh looking forward to the great post-race party with all my friends and hoisting “Millie” once again!

It’s been 5 years since that first GCS Mill Cities win and we’ve yet to be beaten. We’ve increased our point totals from 100 that year to 106 in 2009, to 117 in 2010 and  2011. And extended our margins of victory from 4, to 7, to 14, to 17. This Year our runners stepped it up once again and scored a record 126 points in the face of mounting pressure from a couple of very inspired clubs - Somerville & Greater Lowell. Hopefully, if club interest continues at its current level, we’ll be able to hold on a bit longer and beat the record of seven straight MCR titles. If not, we’ll start over and try to make it 1 in a row! Because, once the Mill Cities Relay is in your blood, it’s hard to find anything else more fun to do on the first Sunday in December!

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