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Running Down A Dream

Mar 12, 2013 10:17PM ● By Anonymous

To say she has the sport down to a science would be an understatement. Wool has calculated how many steps she takes per half mile (140) so she never has to worry about her mileage in unfamiliar territory. Nor does she let weather conditions slow her down, as she takes her hobby off-road and into the cornfield behind her home during the winter months to avoid slick or unplowed streets.

“I want to die running,” says the passionate Wool while cooling off with a bottle of water after running a 5K in Snow Hill. She is an early adopter of a sport that dates to ancient times, but is now more popular than ever.

Scenes like the one in Snow Hill are becoming more common on the Eastern Shore; once the warmer weather rolls in, hardly a weekend goes by without a foot race or two.

“There’s a lot going on in the Eastern Shore now,” says Peter Paris, an avid runner who co-founded one of the most recent additions to the area’s racing calendar, the St. Michaels Running Festival. Despite a mere four months of active marketing, the inaugural St. Michaels Running Festival, held last May, drew 1,300 participants, a figure representing 109 percent of St. Michaels’ population. Paris’ calculations show the festival—which featured a 5K, 10K and half marathon—attracted one-third of its runners from out of state.

Already a magnet for travelers, the Eastern Shore is becoming a favorite for so-called destination running groups, Paris says. As their name implies, the groups train for and compete in races held in far-flung, usually picturesque locales.

From Chestertown to Pocomoke City, running enthusiasts can now find 31 separate events on the Eastern Shore throughout the year. The 80 or so participants in Snow Hill’s Run United 5K rank it among the smallest. Three of the finishers—two parents and their grown daughter visiting loved ones in nearby Pocomoke—hail from as far away as Redlands, Calif. But this is largely a local affair.

Take 64-year-old Salisbury resident Bill Ferguson, for example. He has both the looks and biography of a serious runner, with a lean yet sinewy frame and many miles behind him. Up and on the road three days a week by 6 a.m., Ferguson competed in 25 races last year, including Snow Hill’s Run United 5K.

“I do it for the exercise and to relieve stress,” says Ferguson, who spends his days working as controller at Choptank Electric Cooperative in Denton. “And competition isn’t a bad thing.”

Ferguson is no newcomer to the sport. He began a quarter century ago as a way to relieve boredom while staying at his weekend home on a secluded North Carolina island. These days, he’s good for 12 miles a week, saving the longest run—a five-miler—for Wednesdays.

Races offer him a chance to test himself. He runs just about all of the local ones, even competing in a pair of 5Ks—race talk for five kilometers, or 3.1 miles—in the same day. His pace in the second race was only about a minute slower, Ferguson says, with a trace of pride.

In Snow Hill, he conquers the course with relative ease, turning in a time of 26:54. The fastest time is set at 18:57 by a man less than half Ferguson’s age. If it weren’t for one of the Californians, Ferguson would have crossed the line first in his class of men ages 60 and older.

“Today’s a little warm,” Ferguson says modestly. His sport, meanwhile, is hot.

Since 1980, the number of marathon finishers has grown exponentially, jumping from 143,000 to 518,000 annually, according to the advocacy group Running USA. Half-marathons have proven even more popular, attracting a record 1.6 million finishers in 2011.

Running USA’s statistics also show that the sport’s participants are getting older. Marathon finishers tend to be about five years older than their 1980 counterparts. And the likelihood of those runners being female has swelled from 10 to 41 percent.

Although the vast majority of races are organized to support nonprofit causes, they compete fiercely for their share of runners, says Rick Ramsey, director of the Snow Hill race. Organizers like Ramsey not only have to lure runners, but also sponsors. The typical $20 race fee usually doesn’t cover expenses, so deep-pocketed businesses help fill the financial gap and provide a little extra for the charity in question.

In Snow Hill, the proceeds are for local girls’ soccer teams. A couple squads help round out the field of runners, skewing the average age to much younger than normal. The runners trickle across through the red, inflatable arc that serves as the finish line, “kicking” the last several hundred yards with one final, painful burst of speed. Tenth place ... eleventh ... twelfth ... thirteenth.

Wool, who strides into fourteenth place, will tell you that she runs to stay alive. Both her mother and father suffered from heart-related troubles, and as a young woman, Wool battled weight problems. So she ran. And ran. Like Ferguson, she finishes the race second in her age group—to a member of the California family. It’s a tough day for California-Maryland relations.

But for locals and out-of-towners alike, there is a common bond in the air. They’ve all triumphed over yet another challenge, and are free to move on to the next race. Some take time to swap trade secrets that come from years of laying down mileage on the Shore. Near the top of that list are favorite places to train, which include the recently completed Rails to Trails in St. Michaels and the City Park just east of downtown Salisbury. But the region’s rural character translates into plenty of safe running alternatives.

“There’s a lot of country roads you can run on,” Wool says. “There isn’t a lot of traffic. That’s what I like the best.”

Or just wait until race day. The road is guaranteed to be clear.