Heeding The Need For Speed (From the Jan/Feb ’19 issue of NER)
by Bob Fitzgerald
Amazing how the combination of a few friends mixed with some adult beverages produces epic athletic events (think Hawaii Ironman). In a subtext of the Ironman ethos, good running friends George LeCours and Dave Camire meet at Club National in Nashua, NH, in 2005 to ponder a revamping of the Hollis Apple Country Challenge 5M.
The 5K is friendly to all but especially gratifying to kids successfully completing the event’s Couch to 5K program. Note: All photos by FitzFoto/NERunner (Michelle ran)
Originally a member of the Greater Lowell RR and then an active member of the Gate City Striders, Camire was also the proprietor of Yankee Timing. LeCours has now been a member of the Gate City Striders for 38 years. Until 2001 he headed up retail operations for Saucony, opening stores in New England and beyond.
With a competitive ski background, LeCours then went to work for Atomic Ski with its headquarters in Amherst, NH. LeCours loved the job, but plotting for the future he saw a switch to insurance sales looming. He’d join the local Rotary and sell insurance to all its members.
Early-on in 2005 he realized he’d probably be a “terrible” insurance salesman and that everyone in the Rotary was all set, but he didn’t leave. “Joining the Rotary opened up my eyes to all the positive outreach and charitable programs the group was involved with, so I ended up staying,” says LeCours, who was soon recruited by the Rotary to take a look at its five-mile event, a race currently in sharp decline.
“Not to blow smoke, but the first thing I did was take a look at the New England Runner calendar. What I discovered was that the Rotary’s June date was crowded with 12 other races on the same day with nothing to differentiate our race from the others,” said LeCours, who had a few ideas in mind. One was to shorten the race to a 5K to attract more entries. Looking at the success of Thursday night summer races like Saunders at Rye and the Yankee Homecoming races in Newburyport, a move to the second Thursday in June seemed attractive…
…which brings us back to Club National in Nashua. LeCours has mapped out a route that starts and finishes in Monument Square in downtown Hollis, a classically picturesque New England location. The course is shaped like a lollipop. Upon inspection, Camire asks why there’s a left hand turn from Depot Road (gradual downhill) onto Richardson Road (gradual uphill).
“I didn’t have a clue where the conversation was going,” recalls LeCours, “so I replied, ‘because that’s the course,’” to which Camire countered, “You don’t get it, Depot Road is downhill, stay on it.” Camire estimated that staying on Depot Road would produce a mostly downhill course.
LeCours was thunderstruck. Here’s what would set the race apart. The pair ran the idea by another longtime friend, Steve Moland, who had a software program that could map out a course with the elevation change from start to finish. Starting from the Hollis Brookline Middle School right up from Monument Square, they came within feet of a 5K course.
Photo: With cars secure in the expansive Alpine Grove parking area, runners will bus 3.5-miles to the race start.
“Oh my God, this is unbelievable,” thought LeCours, whose unbridled enthusiasm was nonetheless tempered by the realization he’d have to sell a downhill, point to point 5K course to the Rotary. “There was a fellow on the Rotary I was friends with who’d attended MIT, was pretty sharp, and urged me on, said it was a great idea, but I was the one who’d have to sell it.”
The course would end on the grounds of Morin’s Landscaping on Depot Road. The Alpine Grove Banquet Hall with plentiful parking was less than a quarter-mile away on South Depot Road. It all fell in place. This year, the event paid for 13 buses to transport runners at $295 a bus. The Banquet Hall rents for $3,000. The prices were much less in 2005 when LeCours notified the Rotary they’d still need 400 runners to break even.
The year before, the Apple Country Challenge 5M drew a paltry 121 runners, so this seemed pretty ambitious, but LeCours was nothing less than persuasive and so the race was on…and in its first year drew 405 runners. The next year it was 650 and soon would top 1,000. The event would hit a high of 1,900; now entering its 15th year, the race annually draws between 1500-1600 runners.
Photo: The race ends with a righthand dash into the grounds of Morin’s Landscaping.
This June entries were steady and there were 1,220 finishers, among them 42 local kids who were completing a Couch to 5K program. Awards run in two-year age categories from 9-under to 18-19 and then in 5-year age categories from 20-24 to 80+. Pretty much everyone is awarded a PR. The course drops gently, 224 in net elevation loss with a few small rises along the way. Because it exceeds the one meter per kilometer USATF rule it’s ineligible for record consideration. When a Rotarian originally brought this up to LeCours his reaction was, “so what?” The Boston Marathon is another event that falls afoul of this rule without losing popularity.
The course is certified, running past apple orchards and farmland. In the early days, LeCours was known to place a phone call or two to area speedsters. One such individual—Saucony runner (and now Central Mass Strider) Nate “The Great” Jenkins—would place 7th at the 2008 US Olympic Trials Marathon in 2:14:56. At the following Boston Marathon expo he’d sign autographs for fans at the Saucony booth. A notoriously good downhill runner, Jenkins would stamp his signature on the Hollis Fast 5K in 2007. (We’re using the event’s present name after it evolved from the Hollis Apple Country Challenge to the Hollis Apple Country Fast 5K to the Hollis Fast 5K.)
Jenkins blew away the field but near the end he sensed company. “I could hear clomping, looked back and there was a horse in a field running alongside the road getting closer to me.” So what happened? “I outkicked it.”
Jenkins course record of 13:46 is still extant. When the race hosted the USATF-NE GP Championship in 2013, sub-4:00 miler Tim Ritchie missed Jenkins mark by a tick. Maine standout Erica Jesseman of the Dirigo RC—the 2nd youngest female competitor at the previous year’s US Olympic Trials Marathon—would run 15:30 to set the women’s course record.
In a neat twist, anyone whose time betters the single-age state record for the 5K distance, runs for free the following year. About a dozen runners qualify every year thanks to Bill Spencer, the only state record keeper in New England. A fine runner, Spencer has taken advantage of the offer on several occasions. (Photo right: Long-time Hollis Fast 5K RD George LeCours.)
Post-race there are bananas, Stonyfield yogurt, apples (of course!) and dozens of different cookies. Awards are picked up, but in lieu of a formal ceremony, time is instead set aside for friends and competitors to catch up before the appointed time for dinner arrives.
Although the entire event is streamlined for ease of passage, it is also jampacked with a unique brand of fun on the fly, almost guaranteeing a PR on the fastest 5K course in New England…and beyond! – Hollis Fast 5K Website
Photo below: “Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup.” That’s course architect and current day videographer Dave Camire (in blue) recording defending champion Kendall Westhoff placing first this past June. A junior at UMass/Amherst, Westhoff lives less than 10 minutes away.