By Dan Guttenplan
---- — Newburyport High cross-country coach Don Hennigar wants his athletes to train vigorously over the summer, but even he has to draw the line at the Yankee Homecoming 10-Mile Road Race.
“I encourage them not to run the 10-miler,” Hennigar said. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense. I like them to race a couple of times in the summer to break up the training situation, but I did this race for years, and I finally stopped over the last couple of years. If you’re trying to get ready for something in the fall, this race can trash you for weeks.”
Hennigar’s findings may best explain why the annual Yankee Homecoming Road Race, sponsored by Provident Bank, has evolved from strictly a 10-mile race 54 years ago to a competitive 10-mile race with a 5K option for less fit runners 15 years ago, to what it is now — a more heavily attended 5K with an option for a 10-mile race for distance runners. Participation numbers in the 5K hit an all-time high last year when 1,872 runners crossed the line, compared to 1,397 in the 10-mile race. Race director Jon Pearson believes this year’s 5K could draw as many as 2,000 runners.
“I’m expecting close to what we had last year,” Pearson said. “Certainly, this could be the best year to date.”
When the race started in 1960, there was no 5K option, so 30 local runners competed in the 10-mile race, kicking off the longstanding Yankee Homecoming tradition. Some time in the late 1980s or early 1990s, the 5K option was added, but that didn’t take away from the popularity of the 10-mile race. In the mid-1990s, the 10-mile race drew as many as 2,200 runners, while 5K numbers came in around 1,000.
By 2002, the 5K participation numbers started approaching those of the 10-mile race, as 1,535 finished the longer race compared to 1,236 for the 3.1-mile run. In 2007, the 5K became the more popular race with 1,420 finishers compared to 1,279 for the 10-mile.
“In the past five or 10 years, the complexion of the race has changed,” said Pearson of the Lions Club. “The race used to attract so many fast Kenyans and Ethiopians living in the United States. Now, it’s families. That’s the growth area we’ve seen in recent years. It’s parents running with children, and groups of kids that run together.”
Although the 5K has overtaken the 10-mile race in terms of popularity, it’s not as if the 10-mile race is on the verge of extinction. Last year’s race actually drew 118 more runners than the previous year, which could be partially attributed to the more favorable running conditions.
The heat is historically a major factor in the 10-mile race, which is part of the reason Hennigar has decided to pass on the race in recent years.
“It’s the time of year in August or late July,” Hennigar said. “Running 10 miles is not easy, and the heat is a huge factor. There have been plenty of 90-degree nights throughout the years. There’s a big difference between a 10-mile training run and a race. I train in the morning before the heat of the day. You can’t change the time of day a race is scheduled.”
Off the top of his head, Hennigar could not think of a single Newburyport alumnus over the years who made the 10-mile race a high priority in his or her training and competition schedule. Competitive high school and college runners begin racing as early as late August, so it is not sufficient recovery time if the 10-mile race takes place on a particularly hot night. Even competitive runners who have graduated from college often target a fall cross-country or road race and have little interest in running an all-out 10-mile race in such close proximity to their peak performance.
In similar fashion to the Boston Marathon, the most competitive runners who compete for prize money sometimes withdraw a few miles into the 10-mile race once they’ve determined that they are not in position to win in order to save their bodies for other events. Last year, 42 runners completed the 10-mile course in less than an hour. On the other hand, 126 runners posted times slower than one hour and 45 minutes.
“It begins to feel like you’re out there for a while if you’re having a difficult night,” Hennigar said. “I don’t do it any more for that reason. It can be a horror.”