CAPE ELIZABETH – He attacked the last hill with the confidence and elan you would expect from a man born with no legs. His muscled arms and shoulders flexed from the strain.
Craig Blanchette reached the crest and spun his wheelchair in a neat 360-degree turn. Was it a byproduct of his exertion or a premature victory roll? The TD Bank Beach to Beacon 10K finish line was about 600 yards away.
“I was showboating,” said Blanchette, 42 years old, from Battle Ground, Wash., and racing for the first time in Maine. “It was not time to celebrate. I said to myself, this is fun. It’s good.”
The crowd of race watchers, standing two or three deep, roared its appreciation.
If the finish is about resolution — who wins, who doesn’t — this hill just off Shore Road and inside the old entrance to Fort Williams is about struggle. You’ve already run the undulating hills to approach the park and here’s the entrance, with its odd, reverse angle. To make the turn you slow, scrubbing off momentum and speed. A comparatively steep hill of about 70 yards waits.
“You’re fried and you’re about to drain whatever energy you have left,” said Blake Davis, a former star runner at Falmouth High and the University of Maine. “You’ve got two more minutes of pain. That’s good, because the race is almost over.
“You look up, see that great crowd waiting for you, cheering, and it distracts you enough that you forget how much you’re hurting.”
Sheri Piers of Falmouth would rather run the longer marathon. That’s a slow roast over hot coals, she said. Beach to Beacon? A hot poker stabbing her side. That hill? Get it over with.
Race watchers can stand anywhere along the 10-kilometer route. Many choose that last hill for its images of small and large triumphs. The wheelchair racers and their intense battles to reach the top are mesmerizing, said Ann Johnston of Kennebunkport, standing at the top of the crest. Some don’t make it on their first try.
Suzanne Murphy of Cape Elizabeth stood about 15 yards below the crest. She brings sunglasses every year to hide her tears. Watching, she can’t hold back her emotions. Years ago, when her preteen daughter Mattie was a baby, a wheelchair racer lost his battle momentarily and came down the hill backward and at the spot where she stood. Then, there was no fence separating spectators from competitors.
“I scooped up my daughter with one arm and with the other I wanted to help him,” said Murphy. The racer wouldn’t allow it. He would get over the top on his own, thank you.
Patrick Doak of Carlisle, Mass., followed Blanchette in the wheelchair race, about a minute behind. After a strong start on the hill, Doak fought the incline in a grindingly slow ascent. Shouts, applause, cheering, accompanied progress that was measured in inches. He made it.
Gebre Gebremariam, the race winner, was one of four elite East African runners coming off Shore Road while two wheelchair competitors were stalled in the middle of the road. Quick-thinking medical personnel stationed with an ambulance near the hilltop ran down to push them out of the way, clearing a path.
The elite runners sprinted up the hill. “They float,” said Ruth Gorton of South Portland, seated alongside a flatter stretch of road beyond the hill. “You don’t hear a sound when they pass. You can hear the panting and the footsteps of the runners who follow.”
Most runners stick to the inside. A few drift outside. “It’s the place (on the course) when you can cut inside other runners and make up ground,” said Davis. “I wouldn’t do that in church, but I’d do it on the hill.”
The elite runners pushed through, followed by the competitive runners and then the recreational runners. Meagan Soule of Whitefield, a former basketball player and javelin thrower at Lincoln Academy, ran in her first Beach to Beacon, finishing 30 minutes behind the leaders. “I sprinted up the hill.”
Someone looked questioningly at her. “I’ve run the Grand Army 5K in Whitefield. Ever see the hills there?”
The applause, whistles, and yells of encouragement rose and fell throughout the morning but never stopped. “I was in the race once,” said Murphy. “My brother-in-law is a bagpiper and played (the theme from “Rocky”)” when she tackled the last hill. “That’s hard to do on bagpipes.”
On that day it was music to her ears.
Afterward, Blanchette was summoned to the victory stand to receive his prize for winning. He did another 360-degree spin after he went up the ramp. The crowd responded again. This time it was to join in his celebration.
Of the spirit.
Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: