Well-Regarded Endurance Athlete Chad Denning Dies While Running Appalachian Trail Well-Regarded Endurance Athlete Chad Denning Dies While Running Appalachian Trail

Tuesday, September 09, 2014
New London — It shouldn’t happen to Superman.

That was one somber-faced reaction to the news that spread throughout the area’s running and recreational communities on Monday: Chad Denning, a beloved and seemingly invulnerable endurance athlete from New London, collapsed and died while hiking on the Appalachian Trail on Mt. Moosilauke in Benton, N.H., on Sunday afternoon.

P.J. Lovely, the director of the Newport Recreation Department, said that when he heard the Superman reference from an area race director, it seemed apt because, to many local athletes, the 39-year-old Denning seemed like a bona fide superhero.

“He was way out of our league,” Lovely said. “He was always at the top of the pack. Just a phenomenal athlete.”

Denning’s death, and the manner in which it happened, sent waves of shock and disbelief throughout his circle of friends and coworkers.

Denning and two friends set off on Beaver Brook Trail, one of the most difficult in the state, at about 8:30 a.m. Sunday, according to a news release from the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. Shortly after noon, the group took a break from hiking and running along the trail to admire a particularly nice view on the mountain.

That’s when Denning collapsed; his friends began to administer CPR in an attempt to revive him. Denning was pronounced dead shortly after the first members of a rescue team arrived on the scene at about 3:30 p.m., according to the department.

Because of the remote location and the rough terrain, it took the rescue team more than four hours to get Denning down the mountain, sometimes by using ropes to lower him from one section to another.

It wasn’t until nearly an hour past sunset, at 8 p.m., that the party reached the trail head in Woodstock, N.H., on Route 112.

The state Medical Examiner has scheduled an autopsy for today.

Lovely said he last saw Denning on Friday, when Lovely was toiling by himself to work on the new track at the Newport Middle and High School.

“He saw I was lugging some heavy material and came right over and gave me a hand,” he said. “It’s just the type of guy he is.”

Denning’s close friend, Lebanon Recreation Director Paul Coats, said that, while Denning was known throughout the region as a health advocate, that term missed the point.

“It wasn’t so much that he was promoting health,” he said. “He was promoting life. He made doing the healthy thing the fun thing, and we all just rallied behind that.”

Coats said Denning was always looking for a way to ramp up the excitement of his day. Before a fireworks display at an annual recreation conference a couple of years ago at Attitash Mountain Resort, Coats and Denning left the festivities to sneak up the mountain.

“We just sat there in complete darkness on the side of the hill, watching the fireworks down below,” he said.

Adventure and Achievement

Since moving to the Upper Valley from the American Southwest 10 years ago, everything Denning did smacked of adventure — he ran, biked and swam his way through unimaginably tough courses, often in ultra-marathon competitions known for their ability to test the upper levels of human endurance.

For Denning, a marathon was just never long enough.

In 2005, he took first place at the Stone Cat Trail Races in Massachusetts by covering a 50-mile course in seven hours and 24 minutes. Six years later, in 2011, he returned to compete again, knocking nearly 30 minutes off his time to finish in six hours, 56 minutes.

Also in 2011, he took first place at the Damn Wakely Dam Ultra, a 32.6-mile course in New York.

In 2012, he took first place in the Vermont 100, second place in the Hampshire 100 and first place in the Stone Cat Trail Race’s 37-mile event.

In May, Denning undertook his last major competition, the Joe English Trail Challenge, to help raise money for the Amherst Land Trust. The racers competed to cross 15 miles of grueling terrain including 3,000 feet of ascents, unbridged stream crossings, boulder fields and mud holes.

Denning finished first in his age division, and one second behind event winner Brandon Baker, Denning’s friend, also from New London.

Ten Years of Triumph

A Texas transplant, Denning in 2004 beat out 60 other applicants for the position of assistant director at the Hanover Recreation Department, according to Department Director Hank Tenney,

Tenney said he was struck by Denning’s friendliness, his love for the outdoors and his ability to spark that same love in others.

“He brought a lot of life to the area,” Tenney said.

Denning liked to create and promote extreme outdoor events such as the Winter Wild Uphill Running Series and the Xterra Stoaked off-road triathlon at Hanover’s Storr Pond recreation area.

In 2006, Denning began a six-year stint as recreation director in New London. There, he incorporated a wilderness survivalist element into the department’s programs by teaching people how to navigate, build shelters, cook or build a fire. He also introduced individual competitive events such as sailing, archery and cross-country skiing.

In February 2013, Denning became the director of high school crews at the Student Conservation Association, a national nonprofit headquartered in Charlestown that carries out restoration projects in national parks.

When the news of Denning’s death hit the SCA, some coworkers went back home to grieve after learning that he had died.

Leslie Rimmer worked with Denning at SCA.

“It sounds kind of corny, but he just had kind of a zest for life,” she said. “He was a super-optimistic, upbeat person.”

As director of SCA’s youth programs, Denning was able to apply his energy to creating change on a national level.

She said that he developed an innovative program that used young people to rebuild trails after big competitive events, which would otherwise harm the local environment.

“He was one of the key players to help move SCA forward,” she said. “It’s a huge loss for our organization.”

Trail Legacy

Denning often advocated for individual outdoor activities because, he said, they were more accessible to those who couldn’t get a team together to play a sport like basketball or football.

But Denning’s advocacy for an active lifestyle won’t be his most lasting legacy, Lovely said.

Lovely credited Denning with creating the Western New Hampshire Trail Running Series, which drew 130 athletes from throughout New England to its most recent event, the Farnum Five.5 in Lebanon, on Saturday.

The series is unique because it is a collaboration among recreation departments from several towns, which never worked together in the past.

“He helped remove some of the town line borders in the recreation departments,” Lovely said.

Lovely said Denning’s openness and spirit of cooperation and friendship will last far into the future.

“The best part about him, he brought a lot of us recreational departments together,” he said. “We’ve all become much closer as a result.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.

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