To maintain what organizers deem the Covered Bridges Half Marathon’s “small-town feel,” the race is capped modestly at 2,300 runners. Count four-time reigning race champion Rich Smith, of Enfield, among those who cherish its relative quaintness.
“It’s quite big for this area, but you still see a lot of people you know,” said Smith, who participates along with his wife, Alison Findon. “The after-party is great. You see a lot of local people and people you’ve come to know over the years. It never feels like it’s too big.”
That’s been a challenging goal over the years for an event celebrating its 25th running on June 5. Founded by former Woodstock resident David Chioffi in 1992, its popularity blossomed from 400 runners its first year to 1,200 in 1994 and more than 2,300 the following year. Demand has remained high, runner spots filling within minutes each year.
“It certainly became more successful than I would have ever imagined,” said Chioffi, who directed the race until 2002 and now resides in Weston, Vt. “I lived on High Pastures Road (in Woodstock). I always went out running in the area, and I would use covered bridges as reference points. I noticed that, from West Woodstock to Quechee, there were four covered bridges, and I thought it would be pretty neat to set up a road course that (involved them). It would it be gorgeous, and it also wouldn’t beat runners up too much because it isn’t too hilly.”
To promote the event, Chioffi contacted directors of mid-distance races throughout the region. Acquiring their distribution lists, he mailed registration letters to about 4,000 runners in 1991. About 400 showed up for the inaugural CBHM a year later.
“I must have called 15 or 16 race directors, specifically targeting runners who had done similar (distances) recently in New England,” Chioffi said. “If they’d done any of the 10-milers, half marathons or 15-milers in places like Nashua, Springfield, Mass., or Hartford, Conn., I knew there was at least a chance I could get them to come to Woodstock.”
Chioffi also produced radio spots and advertised in runners’ magazines. Yet it was the runners’ experience during the race and their word of mouth that organizers feel has been the event’s biggest selling point.
“We’ve always tried to keep the runner experience in mind, and those that come here love the sense of it being a smaller, community race,” said Bill Blaiklock, of Woodstock, a longtime event volunteer and current co-director. “They love seeing kids handing out water and all of the parents groups that come out to support them.”
It’s also hard to find a route that’s more aesthetically pleasing. Meandering on gentle terrain along the Ottauquechee River, the course travels over the Middle Village Covered Bridge in Woodstock and passes others in Pomfret, Taftsville and Quechee.
“It’s the flatest half marathon you’re going to find anywhere, and it’s picture-perfect,” said CBHM’s other co-director, Mike Silverman. “It almost looks fake, is what we hear from people.”
As the race grew in popularity, important logistical concerns arose. After-expenses cash began to be donated to municipal and youth sports organizations. Today, nearly 40 such groups pledge to volunteer during the event in exchange for donations that total between $65,000-$75,000 annually, according to Silverman. Additionally, about 250 runners’ spots are reserved each year for charitable groups that use the race to raise funds and awareness for various causes.
In the mid-1990s, the original route beginning at the Lincoln Covered Bridge in West Woodstock was deemed too narrow to accommodate the event’s burgeoning participation. The starting point was relocated to the Suicide Six Ski Area in Pomfret in 1997, and it now has less running along U.S. Route 4, traveling only about 50 yards on the busy route before re-entering back roads all the way to Quechee.
Other experiments have included holding the race on Mother’s Day — a decision that proved unpopular with merchants — and allowing as many as 2,900 runners in 2001, when parking and the after-party were at the Quechee polo field.
“It rained that year, and we really did a number on the field,” said Charlie Kimbell, a former race director who helped re-design the course to its current layout. “The Quechee Club said, ‘Never again,’ and we nearly cancelled the event. Hunter Rieseberg (then Hartford’s town manager) called us and said, ‘You can’t not have the event. It’s too important for the town.’ We moved the parking to a field behind Quechee Gorge village and cut the number back to a more manageable figure.”
While committed to keeping the race relatively small, Silverman and Blaiklock are always looking for ways to improve it. More than a dozen live bands now play — both along the route and at the after-party — and pace runners have been added.
Yet organizers are wary of making too many alterations to an event that melds together runners and volunteers so well.
“For those of us who have worked on the race for a long time … you get emotionally attached, and you don’t want to see it change too much,” Kimbell said. “There are some races where the runners in the back are watching bobbing heads in front of them for five minutes before they start to run, and at some point those races become less about the runner experience and more about the ego of the organizers. We’d like to keep it a community-type run, because the best part about the whole thing are the relationships you have from year to year. It’s something you really enjoy.”
Jared Pendak can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3225.
The Covered Bridges Half Marathon donates between $65,000 and $75,000 to municipal and youth sports organizations annually. The donation range was incorrectly reported in an earlier version of this story.