Inaugural Amherst Half Marathon a success for community, runners

  • Beth Shluger, left, founder of the Hartford Marathon Foundation, presents Mindy Domb, executive director of the Amherst Survival Center, with a check for $3,310. The HMF held the inaugural Amherst Half Marathon and 5K over the weekend. In addition to the check, the HMF donated nonperishable items donated by runners to the Survival Center. COURTESY HARTFORD MARATHON FOUNDATION

For the Gazette
Thursday, November 16, 2017

AMHERST — The Dixie Six set up their instruments on top a layer of frost along South East Street Sunday morning. The Six and over 800 runners braved the wintry weather for the first Amherst Half Marathon.

“We’re playing from the first runner to the last runner,” said Austin D’Agostino, a UMass music major and member of the band.

The 13.1-mile road race, organized by the Hartford Marathon Foundation, went off without a hitch. The runners took to the streets of Amherst in 25 degree temperatures, but the sun was shining by the time they made the final turn on the Haigis Mall at UMass.

The first female runner across the line underneath the giant inflatable “FINISH” arch was Jennifer Pajer. The 21-year-old senior accounting major at UMass broke the tape in 1 hour, 25 minutes, 43 seconds to set the inaugural course record as the top female finisher.

Pajer, a member of the running club at UMass, said that when she heard about the road race she thought, “A half marathon in Amherst? Not gonna miss that.”

The course started in front of the Haigis horseshoe, turned north onto North Pleasant Street and continued onto East Pleasant Street. Then it turned right on Pine Street and followed North East Street all the way to the Norwottuck Rail Trail. It exited the Trail onto Station Street, headed north on South Pleasant Street, and finished back on the Haigis Mall.

“It was pretty hilly but the middle was on the Rail Trail which is the best part,” Pajer said. “There were some fast miles in the middle but a big hill near the end. Then we got a big downhill so it all evens out.”

Across from the Dixie Six on North East Street, Suzanne Schilling and her family were manning a water station. There were over 200 volunteers staffing the finish line and the eight water stations along the course.

“This is new,” said Schilling, an Amherst resident volunteering along with her daughter’s cross country team. “I’ve never participated in anything like this, but it will be fun.”

Organizers had buckets of sand at the ready next to each water station in case black ice formed on the road, one of the precautions the Hartford Marathon Foundation made for the conditions. Josh Miller, technical director at the HMF, said everything went perfectly.

“It was chilly this morning but it warmed up just enough for a good half marathon,” Miller said. “We work so closely with all the community members to make sure it’s the best possible experience for not only the runners but the community itself.”

The weekend began Saturday with an expo for runners at the Amherst College Alumni House, followed by a 5-kilometer road race through the college grounds. On Sunday, about three hundred runners participated in the half-marathon relay in addition to the 566 competing in the half marathon.

Ethan Nedeau, 44, was the top male finisher. The Leverett resident broke the tape in 1:16:38 after averaging 5:51 minutes per mile.

“It was great,” Nedeau said. “It’s close by and my kids were working the water stop at Cushman Cafe so it’s nice to have that.”

Beth Shluger, founder of the Hartford Marathon Foundation, said that over a year of planning went into the race preparation. A portion of the course was closed to traffic at the beginning, but traffic flowed the rest of the race.

“The community was so welcoming and great to work with,” Shluger said. “The police department, the fire department, they really supported the race. The runners said it was a beautiful course and they really liked it, so all good.”

After the half marathon, the HMF presented the Amherst Survival Center with a $3,130 check. The group also delivered nonperishable items donated by runners to the Survival Center.

“We’ve been thinking about doing a race in this community for several years just because it’s such a beautiful area with a really strong knit community,” Miller said. “After a couple of years putting ideas together, we reached out to some local community members as well as some local runners that we know to start putting it to paper and seeing if we could make it happen.”

They made it happen. And they plan on making it happen again next year. Both organizers said they hope to see more area college students involved as runners, spectators and volunteers in the future.

Pajer and Nedeau said they’ll be back in 2018 to defend their titles and course records.