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April 18. 2013 1:38AM

Mark Hayward's City Matters: Runners find strength in numbers, and within


 

Members of the Athletic Alliance Running Club line up early Wednesday morning at the Gatsas Athletic Complex track at Livingston Park. MARK HAYWARD/UNION LEADER 
If you have any doubt whether the sport of long-distance running will survive this week's terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon, all you had to do was show up at Livingston Park Wednesday at 5:30 a.m.
At that hour, most of us are tossing around in bed, our mind slowly rousing to notions of breakfast or another day with a grouchy boss.

Not so for a group of about 10 tight-knit people at the track at Livingston Park. Clad in gym shorts and loose-fitting T-shirts, they gather and line up in front of a digital clock as it counts up the seconds to a round minute.

At second 56, they stop pacing in circles. At 57, a last deep breath, a noisy exhalation. At 58, a loose formation; 59, eye on the clock. At 00, a forward burst. And on it goes, 12 times around in an hour, for three miles.

Normally, these are distance runners, people who think of their free time in terms of miles, not hours. But once a week, they gather for speed work, conditioning designed to increase the speed of their long-distance runs.

Running seems like a solitary sport. More often than not, runners trod the streets alone, lost in either exhaustion or the tune pulsing through their earbuds. And races, with the exception of relays, are designed around individual times and performances.

But for Manchester residents committed to running marathons - and the 50 to 70 miles of weekly training that requires - the sport is as much a team sport as soccer or softball.

"Running with people is motivating. You talk, forget about the miles you're doing," said Matt Laberge, a south Manchester resident who said it took him nine minutes to drive through Manchester Wednesday to make it to the conditioning workout.

"There's accountability when you run with a group," said Denise Houseman, who works in cardiac rehab at Catholic Medical Center.

The two are members of Athletic Alliance Running Club, which started in Manchester in the late 1970s and counts about 200 members, said Ed Mahoney, an IT worker at Public Service of New Hampshire.

Listen to club runners speak, and you get the idea they have the best of both worlds. They steal away time on weekday afternoons for a solitary run of seven or eight miles. Then on weekends or dark winter evenings, they gather with one another, decide on a route, a pace that works for the group, and off they go for a dozen miles or so.

West Side resident Ernesto Burden likens it to riding in a car; everyone's eyes are on the road and sharing the same trip. Work or family gets mentioned, but most of the time runners talk about running.

"One of the most easy-going, polite and accepting conversations you'll have is with people on a long run," Burden said. Political and religious differences are left at the starting line. "What people talk about is something more essential."

These committed runners have the city pretty much mapped out. They know the distance of most streets and quickly add them up.

They favor the route of the Manchester Marathon, which includes River Road and Union Street on the North End; Candia and Lake Shore roads in east Manchester; Hanover and Bridge streets downtown; Coolidge Avenue and the Piscataquog Trail on the West Side.

And on Monday in Boston, it was Waverly Street, Central Street, Washington Street and Commonwealth Avenue as they ran, at least somewhat together, through the early parts of the Boston Marathon.?While only about a dozen club members ran the marathon, other club members were on hand to drive the runners to Massachusetts and cheer them on. Mahoney, who lived in Boston for years, knew the streets and drove club members to different locations to cheer their fellow runners.

This is what distance running amounts to.

Dedication to a goal. Endurance nurtured by camaraderie. Enthusiasm at every sideline. Such is the running culture in Manchester, as well as New England. Such is the running culture that will trample any fears born from a terrorist's bomb.

Ask Burden, who had not planned to run Boston next year, but had reconsidered after Monday's events.

"It's worth it for everybody who loves that race to make that statement," he said, "to be uncowed by terror."

Mark Hayward's City Matters appears Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and on UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at mhayward@unionleader.com.

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