MANCHESTER -- Kathy Leech of Dorset never ran a half marathon or a full-blown, 26-mile-and-385-yard marathon until four years ago, but once she started, there was no turning back.
The 55-year-old mother of three ran track in high school, then ran recreationally for exercise over the years, but going long in road races, like a 13-mile-and-change half marathon, wasn't part of her program.
Now though, she and her 24 year-old daughter, Hannah, are deep into training for the Maple Leaf Half Marathon in Manchester scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 6. And even that once-formidable distance is no big deal -- in a way, it's part of their preparation for the Marine Corps Marathon they will run on Oct. 26 in Washington, D.C.
"I never thought I could run 13 miles, and then I just thought I'd give it a try, and then just did it," Kathy said in between training runs last week. "Once I got out of the gate, I couldn't shut it off."
She ran in the Maple Leaf for the first time in 2010 and she has run it twice since. This year's event will be her fourth. In between, she has run in five 26-mile marathons, beginning with the Shires Marathon in 2011, a challenging course between Bennington and Manchester. She credits her friend, Fern Wagner of Manchester, with getting her into a women's running group that trains over the winter to push her to handle the longer distance.
But the Maple Leaf is special, she said, in part because it's a local event, and because it was her first attempt at longer distances.
"I've run in a lot of races, and this is one of the best organized, best crowd support, and with the best water stations," she said. "You meet the most interesting people, and this race brings a great crowd to Manchester."
The race has some historical luster as well. When it launched in 1978 by local restaurateur Guy Thomas, many runners saw it as a useful tune up for the New York City Marathon, then in its infancy. Some big-name runners were drawn to compete in the early runnings of the Maple Leaf -- Patti Catalano, Jill St. Hilaire, Herb Lindsay and John Sinclair. In 1981, Lindsay set the world record for the half marathon at the Maple Leaf, when he tore through the course in the time of 1:01:47. Two years earlier, Catalano had set the world record for female runners at 1:14:04. Both marks were soon eclipsed, but they bestowed a certain mystique on the race.
A somewhat up-and-down history followed. The field grew to about 1,300 runners, but then Thomas stepped down from the grinding work of organizing the event, and it went on hold for a few years in the late 1980s. Revived in 1991, it ran until 2004 under different organizations. Another two-year hiatus followed before the current version took shape under the wing of the Manchester Lions Club and with the urging of Jay Hathaway, a community booster and former executive director of the local chamber of commerce.
With a new course, the Maple Leaf set off again in 2007 and has been growing every year since. This year, like last, about 1,000 runners are expected to take part, said race director Dave Pardo.
A lot of work goes into getting a sprawling event like a half marathon ready, he added.
"We get about a month off after the race, but then start planning for next year's race," he said.
The event benefits the Lions Club to assist its support of local charities. Volunteers who help with the race also get a chance to benefit favorite causes. The Lions Club makes donations to organizations the volunteers choose, to reward the volunteers for helping out with water stations (which also compete for recognition as most creatively themed), giving support at the starting and finishing lines, preparing the course and providing entertainment along the way.
Joe Charbonneau, another member of the Lions Club, coordinates the 130-odd volunteers who will help this year.
"Getting them in the right place on the course ... is a lot of work," he said. "But we have a lot of returning, experienced volunteers who know what to do."
About 300 runners took part in the 2007 race. This year, Pardo and his team have bolstered their social media outreach with an amped-up Facebook effort, which netted about 150 registrations during a two-week period this spring.
About two-thirds of the runners in the race have been women, which may reflect a growing interest in wellness and healthy living that women may be drawn to, said Berta Maginniss, chamber of commerce executive director.
All demographic groups get represented in the field, although most are probably younger than 40, Pardo said. But all age groups are part of the mix; one of the oldest runners to take part was a gentleman from Kansas City, Mo., who was in his 80s a few years ago and completing a cycle of running in half and full marathons in all 50 states, Pardo said.
About half the field comes from outside Vermont, he said, 75 percent or so from the Northeast, drawn to the scenic beauty of the area just as foliage season is about to arrive.
Each runner may bring a different set of goals and motivations to the event, but for many, it's a feel-good moment at the finish line, said Leech.
"It's the exhilaration of the whole experience -- being out in the crowd, being with other runners and people who want to live a healthy lifestyle," she said. "And it's the camaraderie."
If you go ...
What: The Maple Leaf Half Marathon and Kotler
When: 8 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 6
Where: Starts and ends at Dana Thompson Recreation Center, 340 Recreation Park Road, Manchester
Information: No registration the day of the race. (802) 362-6313