Small Race with Big Benefits-Stillwater Stampede
by Laurie Corbin
I'd been to some big races in the past few months, each including 3,000 to 7,000 runners. Today, I was going to a small race. I was tired - more mentally than physically - of racing and, as I drove West on Route 80, I wasn't sure I was going to step on the line. Maybe I'd just volunteer or watch.
Then, as I drove up Route 206 into the Jersey Skylands, AC/DC's "You Shook Me" came on the radio. I turned it up and, as the music filled my body and soul, I began thinking about the race I was driving to so unlike any other race, such a unique setting, such a great cause. Within two verses of the song, I couldn't wait to race in the Stillwater Stampede.
Rolling country roads are the stage, green mountains the backdrop and a lake front beach the finale. Held the first Saturday in June at Swartswood State Park in Sussex County, New Jersey, the annual 5-mile race is unlike any other.
As I drove down the hill into the park, I was greeted by a myriad of familiar faces there to run or volunteer. Music blared from beneath the brick trestle as runners bustled around completing their pre-race registration, preparation and socialization rituals.
As race time approached, the atmosphere was casual yet filled with excitement - a far cry from the chaos before a big race. With five minutes to the start, the Star Spangled Banner began to play. The crowd fell silent as we listened and watched the flag. I looked around and was overcome with a great sense of appreciation for running.
In the distance, the morning sunlight danced off of Swartswood Lake, perfectly framed by the Kittatinny Mountains.
We walked to the starting line in the parking lot as volunteers from the town put the finishing touches on the booths and attractions that would make up the Stillwater Day fair in a few hours. Above the lot to the left, campers were beginning to peek their heads out of trailers and tents to see what was going on.
At 9 a.m. on the button, the gun went off. Speedsters Chris Langhan and Todd Lippin were out like bullets, leading the field in a surge out of the park. We hung a right, then a quick left onto the paved trail that winds its way through the woods and out onto the country road on the other side. A slight rise to the right and I heard my mile split as I eagerly anticipated the sharp down hill that leads back to the main road.
The race benefits The Bears Youth Running Program, an innovative program that teaches elementary and middle school kids the many positive physical and mental benefits of running. No child is turned away. Kids practice twice a week and have the chance to race every weekend. The "Momma Bears," mothers of the kids in the running program, are key Stampede volunteers and are in charge of a the main water stop on Route 619.
One "Momma", Amanda Jones, handed me a much-needed cup of water my second time through the Momma Bear water stop, and I picked it up as I headed toward the finish.
The last piece of the course takes runners through the Swartswood campsite. The pungent odor of bacon wafts through the air as the campers, whose interest was piqued by the start, cook their breakfast as they watch the harriers loop by with wide-eyed amazement.
Exiting the campsite, it's time to kick. You fly down the hill back into the parking lot, dart under the brick trestle and then out onto the beach! Yup, the beach. The Stillwater Stampede has a surprise ending. Runners finish by running about 100 yards on the shore of Swartswood Lake, to the chute.
Cash awards await the top three male and female finishers along with special prizes for top masters finishers and top walkers. There are also age group awards and tons of raffle prizes. The park is open for free swimming and the small-town flavor of the Stillwater Day Parade and festivities is extraordinary.
One of my favorite parts is the one mile fun run that follows the 5 mile race. Kids of all ages - some accompanied by their parents, some going it solo - run a course that finishes on the beach. The determination of all the kids is something to behold, but the expressions on some of their as they did everything in their power to muster some sort of a kick when they hit the sand were absolutely priceless.
That night I was tired. I had been to some big races over the past few months. But as I fell asleep, I realized that if I had to pick a favorite, it would be running down the paved trail, through the Momma Bears water stop and along the shore of Swartswood Lake in God's Country, in the heart of Sussex County, at The Stillwater Stampede.
It doesn't get any better than that.
Laurie Corbin is a freelance writer and marathon runner from Northern New Jersey. She competed in the 2000 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.