Runners Gather for Fitness Extravaganza

Taking back epithet “Rock Eater,” Plattsburgh locals, as well as runners from surrounding counties and Canada, join together in costumes to participate in the Rockeater Adventure Race.

(DoNorth/ Tom Cohen)

Indiana Jones bounds through the gate as the gun sounds. Mario and Luigi hustle to leap concrete barriers, while the Flintstone and Rubble crew determinedly wade through rotten apples and smashed pumpkins.

This is not a video game or television show; this is the Rockeater Adventure Race, a wildly popular gathering of costumed runners braving muddy slopes, fiery pits and sandy sprints in their quest to complete 5 kilometers of obstacle-laden terrain on the scenic Plattsburgh City Beach.

The third annual rowdy fitness extravaganza takes place Sept. 21 and speaks to Clinton County’s serious, but not too serious, running community.

The Rockeater is just one of the North Country’s growing roster of races. Steven Peters, the City of Plattsburgh recreation superintendent, has nurtured the region’s recent running boom by establishing short-distance races, 13.1 miles or less, that welcome people of all abilities. Each is a high-quality, family-friendly experience that incorporates entertainment into the event.

“These are small town races with a very professional feel,” Peters says, comparing Plattsburgh’s offerings to those of large metropolitan areas such as Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia. “Runners get the same bang for their buck and are not going to get swallowed by thousands of runners like you do in big cities.”

NBC noticed.

The television network chose Plattsburgh as one of five US cities, and the only Northeast city, to host The Biggest Loser Half Marathon/5K as part of the hit show’s 2013 premier destination race series. The June 9 competition offers a run and a walk for both the half marathon and the 5K, welcoming people of all experience and ability levels. The day’s festivities include health and wellness seminars, live music, appearances by past show participants and additional surprises. The event, developed in conjunction with “The Biggest Loser” television show on NBC, promotes healthy living and physical activity.

“You really start a healthier lifestyle by taking those first few steps and making a commitment to yourself to finish the race,” Peters says.

The rec director watches these transformations first hand in his day job. So far, his department has shepherded 150 people through the city’s North Country Biggest Loser program. The local initiative’s success is one of the many reasons NBC chose Plattsburgh to stage the June event.

Plattsburgh’s experience hosting half marathons and its location also motivated NBC to pick the city. The city’s adjacency to I-87—which connects New York City to Montreal—and its air links to Boston put it within an easy day’s travel for 80 million people. Nestled on the edge of Lake Champlain, sandwiched between the Adirondack and Green Mountain ranges, the North Country’s natural beauty and rich cultural and military history create a unique running environment for visitors and residents alike.

In the last four years, the regional running community has flourished, says Jon Mulholland, a sports chiropractor and performance enhancement consultant to the U.S. bobsled and New Zealand cycling teams. An elite athlete himself, Mulholland recalls training for three Lake Placid Ironman triathlons between 2006 and 2009. Back then, no matter the time or season, he was mostly alone on the roads; runners and cyclists were few and far between.

By 2010, Mulholland noticed an increase in recreational athletes training. This was no coincidence. That was the first year of the Plattsburgh Half Marathon, a city-sponsored event that quickly became a tradition.

The race, which benefits Team Fox, the fundraising branch of The Michael J. Fox Foundation, is the city’s first outdoor event every spring. In three years, it has grown from 500 to 1,200 runners and raised more than $120,000 for the not-for-profit organization committed to curing neurological diseases. Runners representing 18 states and 2 Canadian provinces raised a record $50,000 in the 2012 race.

Runners weave through the city’s west end, double back on side streets and sweat through the downtown center. They zip around the State University of New York at Plattsburgh’s campus and finally whoosh back to Plattsburgh’s former military base, where thousands of people greet them, ready to enjoy the after party’s live music, free food and raffle prizes.

The Plattsburgh Half Marathon challenges experienced runners without intimidating beginners. For competitive runners, it is the ideal race to build into training programs. The KeyBank Vermont City Marathon, held Memorial Day weekend, is a month after. The Tupper Lake Tinman Triathlon follows at the end of June, and the Lake Placid Ironman falls a month later.

For leisure runners, “The Half,” as it’s become known, is a great induction into the competitive realm. Organizers welcome and encourage runners of all experience levels. Announcers even ask at the starting line how many people are novice racers. The majority of racers raise their hands.

As the running craze spreads, so does Plattsburgh’s racing reputation. The Plattsburgh Half Marathon draws runners from as far as California and Utah.

The trend shows no signs of slowing. For example, this year’s Rockeater incorporates a twist. Children will scramble across the city beach in goofy garb, competing in their own version of the Rockeater: The Pebble Eater kid’s race.

It lines up perfectly with the adult event: fit, fun and funny. The term “rock-eater” did not always have a positive connotation. A 2010 “Saturday Night Live” skit disparagingly identified Plattsburgh natives as “rock eaters,” a term synonymous for toothless rednecks—literally rock eaters. Plenty of locals took umbrage. Peters took action.

“We needed to own it,” he says. He had already been planning a beach obstacle race. Why not use the epithet for good? Thus, the Rockeater Adventure Race was born. “No one else in the world has it,” he says. “It is ours now. It is an identity.”

An identity anyone with a sense of adventure, and a sense of humor, can identify with. With 560 racers and an estimated 1,000 spectators in 2012, organizers predict the 2013 race will be even bigger. “We are going to keep growing,” Peters says. “Everyone wants to get dirty and jump in the mud.”

Issue 1: Summer/Fall 2013

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