Montville race honors old-school sledding

Posted Feb. 28, 2010, at 8:43 p.m.

MONTVILLE, Maine — If runner sledding were an Olympic competition, there are some folks from Maine who could be contenders.

On the face of Hogback Mountain in Montville on Saturday, grown men on old-style runner sleds hurtled down a groomed trail toward the glory of winning the 2010 New England Runner Sledding Championships. Pools of slush and washed-out trail boundaries slowed the sleds some, but didn’t dampen the enthusiasm.

“The trail’s a little rough, but it doesn’t matter,” said one observer. “Everyone’s racing on the same snow.”

That there was snow at all was quite an accomplishment. Organizers have done a lot of shoveling and in the past few days even covered the more than 1,000-foot trail in plastic.

“Even after the hurricane we had this week, we still have a trail,” said G.W. Martin of Montville, organizer of the fourth annual event.

More than 40 people ranging in age from their 20s to well into their 60s gathered a week ago for time trials. The top 16 finishers returned Saturday for the championship runs, each hoping for a cash prize and embroidered winner’s coat — and, of course, bragging rights.

As in any sport, there’s a lot of technique involved. Theories bounced around Saturday about the best line to take down the hill or whether short sleds are better than long ones. Some competitors gripped their steering bar with both hands. Others employed a sort of “Superman” pose, with one hand back and gripping sleds called Flexible Flyers or Paris Speedsters, the latter of which were built decades ago in Oxford County.

Runner sledding is in some ways a sport of paradoxes. Heavier competitors are often faster than slim ones, and old sleds are much preferred over new equipment.

“Pre-World War II steel runners are the best,” said Martin. “The great thing about it is that everyone has one of these old sleds kicking around in their barn.”

Owen Murphy, who said he grew up with a big hill out his back door, bought a runner sled last fall in a thrift shop. Even though he missed last week’s time trials and couldn’t race, he packed up his sled and left his home in Salem, Mass., at 5 a.m. Saturday.

“This is a good way to spend a Saturday in the winter,” he said. “Next year I won’t miss the time trials.”

Tim Giroux of Montville said the secret to speed is keeping your head down and not dragging your feet.

“And your runners should be bare, shiny metal,” he said.

Taking first place and the title of Fastest Runner Sledder in All the Land was Wayne “Bubba” Lawrence. Giroux came in second, and third place was a tie between Derek McKinney and Joel Littlefield.

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