Photo Gallery: Photos of Steel Rail Half Marathon
ADAMS -- Running 13.1 miles is by no means a walk in the park. Eric Ashe only made it seem that way.
The Boston runner, who finished 36th in the Boston Marathon, pulled away from the competition after crossing Route 8 on the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail, and came home running easily to win the second Steel Rail Half Marathon Sunday morning.
"The course was great. It was nice and flat," said Ashe. "There was a little bit of a gradual downhill to the end, so it was easy to stay smooth.
"There was a little bit of a headwind out there, so it kept us kind of cool, so actually it was better for us than a tailwind."
A tailwind might not have pushed either the second or third-place finisher to pass Ashe, who crossed the finish line by the Visitors Center in a record 1 hour, 11 minutes, 48 seconds. Chris Plankey of Keene, N.H., was second, more than a minute and a half behind Ashe. Finishing third was defending champion Mark Rabasco of Pittsfield. The Keene State College runner clocked in some 19 seconds behind his race-winning time of a year ago (1:14:21). Rabasco said he was happy with how his run turned out.
"I felt really good," he said. "My calves started cramping up, but no excuses, it was a perfect day. They were just the better runners."
There were 716 runners registered, but 606 finished the event.
A record was set in the women's division as Meaghan Mathews-Hegarty of Springfield was the first woman to cross the line. She finished 21st overall in 1:28:13, two minutes ahead of runner-up Kim Gero, who was 32nd overall. Defending champion Megan Anello was the No. 5 woman to finish and was 51st overall in 1:33:28.
The 606 started from the back of the Berkshire Mall and ran 1 3/4s around the mall's perimeter. When the runners made the turn downhill for the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail, Ashe was in a small pack that included Rabasco and Plankey.
By the time the leaders hit the 7 1/2-mile mark as the trail crossed Route 8 in Cheshire, about two yards separated Ashe from Rabasco and another two yards separated Rabasco and Plankey. That was where Ashe pulled away from the others.
"I felt really comfortable for the first seven miles," Ashe said. "I wanted to be conservative because I haven't really done any hard runs since Boston, so I didn't know how my legs would feel.
"I hit seven miles feeling pretty good. Then [Rabasco] started falling back and I just maintained the pace. I didn't really pick it up too much."
Ashe was running at a 5:29 per mile clip, a time seven seconds faster than Plankey and 13 seconds faster than Rabasco.
For his part, Rabasco said he had gone out a little harder than he had liked, and that hurt him. His effort to repeat as champion ended midway through the 13.1-mile race.
"Right after we passed Route 8, so it was sevenish or eightish miles," said Rabasco. "That's when they started pulling away from me."
Plankey is a friend of Rabasco's, and that's how he got to this race. It was a good day for Rabasco's Keene State cross country teammate.
"I knew we went pretty quickly through three miles, so I eased up a little bit and let Eric and Mark kind of lead us through," said Plankey. "Eric kind of took off and I caught up with Mark and from there, it was just trying to find that rhythm and finish up strong."
Like Ashe, Mathews-Hegarty is a first-time competitor in the Steel Rail race, who was enticed to run by her friend, race co-organizer Kent Lemme. Also, like Ashe, she is also a marathoner by trade.
"It was hard for me. I was struggling from mile one and I never felt really good," she said. "I was proud of myself because I just kept chugging along. I hadn't been feeling good the last couple of weeks, and I was just praying that I'd make to the finish line, so I was happy."
Mathews-Hegarty ran the race at a 6:44 per-mile rate, and she crossed the finish line exactly 2:02 ahead of Gero. Jaclyn Orlando was the third woman to finish, and was 40th overall in 1:31:37.
Proceeds from the race benefit the repair and maintenance of the Rail Trail. Last year's race contributed $8,000, while the total for this year's race was still being determined.
To reach Howard Herman:
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On Twitter: @howardherman.