Mill City Madness

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by Michael Wade

The Mill Cities Relay is a 5-leg, 27.1 mile foot race from Nashua, New Hampshire to Lawrence, Massachusetts. But, that information alone doesn’t even begin to convey what MCR really is. The Mill Cities Relay is quite possibly the biggest, single-day team event in the country!

Michael Wade (L) and GCS president Tom Cassetty (R) hold the spoils of victory.

MCR began in 1984 as a way of celebrating the end of the local road racing season and determines bragging rights among 21 participating Merrimack Valley area running clubs. The race kicks off not with a starting gun, but with the drop of a ceremonial mill city brick. The mileage for the five leg distances are 5.6, 4.8, 2.5, 9.4 & 4.8. And, points are awarded to teams in each of 18 different divisions – male and female aged 18 to 80. Teams finishing in the top 3 in their respective division get a trophy brick with a small plaque on it.

However, the trophy that everyone covets is the one they bestow upon the running club that scores the most overall points in the race. This amazing trophy was painstakingly assembled with a working gear from an old mill building, set upon a finely crafted four-sided wooden base and crowned with a “winged-victory” trophy top. The base of the trophy has engraved upon it the very history of the race! It includes a continuously updated list of the first, second, and third place clubs for each of the 31 years it’s been run. It’s a sight to behold and hold. And, it’s quite possibly the heaviest trophy in all of sports, weighing in at just over 40 pounds! Yes, more than 6 pounds heavier than the Stanley Cup!

Speaking of which, in order to compete at the highest level, professional hockey teams must have a roster filled with 23 men. The NBA needs just 15. Major League Baseball has 25 players per side. And NFL teams are made up of 53-men squads. But, if an MCR club hopes to take home the title (and the trophy) they must field 18 full teams – for a whopping total of 78 runners! Add to that the number of alternates necessary for a team of that size and you’re talking about a minimum of nearly 90 men AND women required to fill a competitive Mill Cities Relay roster!

Now, there are certainly other quality relay races out there. The late, great Winnipesaukee Relay looped for 65 miles around New Hampshire’s biggest lake. The Hood to Coast Relay travels 195 miles from Mount Hood to Seaside, Oregon. And, the Reach the Beach Relay takes a 200 mile journey from Cannon Mountain to Hampton, New Hampshire. All of which are pretty substantial distances to cover in just one day. However, for an 18-team MCR club to finish this race, their runners must travel an incredible 425.4 total miles on the day! That’s more than 16 marathons!

So, just what does it take for a running club to hoist the immensely heavy (but oh-so-satisfying) Mill Cities trophy? Well, it takes speed for sure. But, that alone won’t get it done. It takes size. But, MCR history shows us that the club with the most members rarely takes home the top prize. So what is the difference maker? Quite simply, in order for a club to have any chance at all at winning this event, it must be the one that has the best T-E-A-M.

I began coordinating MCR teams for the Gate City Striders in 2004 and, in the beginning, it was like pulling teeth to get runners to “buy in” to this race. It occurs very late in the season, when most are enjoying some much needed time off and don’t want to be bothered with getting up for a cold, windy, and early run on the river. But eventually, after enough annoying phone calls and e-mails, people started showing up and began seeing how much fun it could be. Word spread throughout the club and soon everyone wanted to be a part of finally breaking through and getting that elusive Mill Cities victory for GCS.

Gate City steadily climbed the MCR standings over the next 3 years, but managed only to get as high as third behind perennial Mill Cities powerhouses – Winners Circle & Merrimack Valley. Finally, in 2008, something clicked and the club broke through for their first victory in eight years. Actually, the “something” that clicked was that instead of people putting together their own teams (with runners and legs of their choosing), they allowed the club to assemble the MCR teams for them. That selflessness, on the part of our runners, enabled us to build the team rosters in such a way as to maximize potential points.

Last year, the Gate City Striders had just one division winning team - the Men’s 40+ squad. But GCS still won the Mill Cities Relay by a record 17 points! How was that possible? Because the club wealth was spread around to ALL the GCS teams so that every one of them finished in the top 5 - and most landed in the top 3. This year, with the same team-building guidelines in place, Gate City won its 7th consecutive Mill Cities Relay title – tying the historic record set by Greater Lowell. And, setting new MCR records for total points (145), and margin of victory (19) in the process!

So, if you want to win the country’s biggest (and perhaps best) single-day team event, you better bring your speed, you better bring your size, and you better bring your TEAM.

…Anything less, and you’re just spitting bricks!

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