FRANCONIA NOTCH, N.H. – It’s an American stronghold of skiing: For over eight decades Cannon Mountain has been home to some of the most accomplished skiers and boarders in our country’s winter sports history, including Bode Miller, arguably the best Olympic skier ever. But now there’s another reason to make the pilgrimage to mighty Cannon – a new destination half marathon that should command the attention of every skier as well as every runner. Starting at the base of the Cannon ski lodge, the mountain’s twisted Gordian Knot of trails looming menacingly above you, the Franconia Notch Half Marathon may be in only its second year of existence, but it’s already developed a national reputation as a run as beautiful and demanding as the mountain whose shadow it runs beneath.
Until you’ve been to Cannon to experience it yourself, you’ll still not be fully prepared for the ferocity of the mountain. Double fall lines, reverse camber, and steep drop-offs wherever you look, nowhere – not Whiteface, not Smugglers, not Killington, not Mount Snow – nowhere on the east coast can you find such an electrifying synergy of beauty and terror; it strikes sparks in every direction. Well the Franconia Notch Half Marathon is just as exhilarating. The race course traverses every nearby iconic White Mountain landmark: idyllic Echo Lake, frowning “Old Man” rock formation, scenic Profile Lake, Boise Rock, the Basin, and the Flume while also winding along the edge of the Pemigewasset River, before returning you to the Cannon base lodge with hundreds of well-wishers cheering you on gleefully.
The course follows the state park system’s paved bike and walking paths through the forest – safely secluded from any cars and traffic – and then emerges from the woods at strategic times to take in the broad, majestic vistas. The forest canopy also offers protection to runners should the weather turn, and believe me, the White Mountains can generate storms with frightening speed, especially as autumn dies and winter looms ominously.
“My favorite part of the course was the Â½-mile or so stretch along the [Echo] lake; it was just beautiful,” explained race winner Sean McNeill from Boston, who finished the hurly-burly course is a blistering 77:57. “It’s also the most difficult half marathon I have run. My Garmin had over 1,000 feet of elevation gain which is considerably more than any other half I’ve raced!” he concluded.
True, the race course never stops bucking like a bronco, incessantly tumbling up, over, and around the knobs, hills, and valleys of the Whites, but it’s not just “hard for hard’s sake.” The trail the runners traverse is smoothly paved – there are no sections of uneven or broken ground like in many typical trail runs. Moreover, in order for the race course to include such indelible geological marvel as it does, you have to climb some hills. Besides, we all love the achy burn after a successful half marathon. It makes that medal gleam just a little brighter. What’s the old expression? “The nicer the nice, the higher the price!”
“I heard about the race last year just through being at the lake over the summer and participating in the White Mountains Triathlon as well,” continued McNeill. “Unfortunately I couldn’t run it last year as I was away on vacationâ€¦.but I’m going to see everyone there again next year, and at the Boston Half as well!”
Perhaps nothing else speaks to how meteorically fast the race’s profile has risen than its ability to draw a national field in only its second year of existence.
“We came all the way up from Decatur, Georgia!” gushed one of a pair of women both wearing matching purple outfits. “We were looking for a half marathon on this particular weekend – the last Sunday in October. We found this one, saw how gorgeous the race course looked, and booked our plane tickets.”
Much of the race’s success is due to the tireless energy of a young rising star of an event director named Grace Cisler, (pronounced “Sizzler,” like the restaurantâ€¦). Though just 18 years of age, she already operates her own race event company, Get Racing Now, while also nordic skiing competitively for California’s Sugar Bowl Ski Team.
Grace alpined for Cannon for years before “switching to the dark side” as her friends put it. She’s currently in training camp in Cranmore, Canada and contemplating adding a second event to Get Racing Now’s calendar, a run around the Mount Washington hotel, but that’s far in the future.
Still, it’s a remarkable start. The race course is certified by U.S. Track and Field, and runners from not just New England are adding it to the yearly calendar. It’s only a matter of time before Runner’s World gets wind of it, and we’ll start seeing the Franconia Notch Half Marathon added to countless “Top Half Marathons in America” lists.
VITAL STATS (all ratings out of seven)
Length: Half Marathon (13.1 miles)
Size: This year just over 300 participated, 100 more than last year.
Difficulty for its length: Â¬Â¬Â¬Â¬6-1/4 out of 7 – This would make a great Boston qualifier. If an Egyptian python and a Six Flags roller coaster had a love child, it would be this race course. There’s exactly zero flat miles, and Strava calculates the total elevation change at a stern 1,165 feet. It’s as tough as both Pittsburgh and San Francisco.
Natural Setting: 6-1/4 out of 7 – There are compensations for the tough route. Verdant, forest-fragrant, tree-cloaked hills, the mountains frowning down on you, and the crystalline waters of Echo Lake: only Big Sur’s run along the Pacific Coast has surpassed it for sheer beauty in this author’s experience. Yes, you run in the woods for the lion’s share of the course, but the picture window views you get when you emerge from the woods are postcard perfect.
Weather: 4.5 out of 7 – There’s no predicting for certain as the White Mountains generate their own weather systems – often cold and blustery. You might get rain or even snow late in October in the northernmost reaches of the White Mountains, or you could get as crisp and colorful a fall day as you could ask for. We got lucky this year: 38 and rain was the forecast all week. But when the sun rose on Saturday, it was 50 and sunny. A cold daybreak blossomed into a sunny morning, and by the time the lion’s share of half marathoners were finishing, we were all in shirtsleeves and sunglasses. But hey, for a race this good, as one of my poet colleagues says, “We’ll weather the weather, whatever the weather, whether we like it or not.”
Value: 7 out of 7 – You get great bang for your buck in New Hampshire. Just ask the Vermonters and Mass folks who swarm over the border.
After Party: 6 out of 7 – Small enough so that you get to socialize with lots of folks, large enough to have a palpable buzz, the race is only going to grow by leaps and bounds. This year featured almost triple the entrants as the year before, and with Cisler’s star rising as both an athlete and a race director, the sky’s the limit.
Fun: 7 out of 7 – Cannon Mountain captures the heart of every skier and boarder, so any time you get to return, it’s a reunion and a celebration. That’s exactly the zeitgeist Grace has not only tapped into, but expanded. If you’re a local, you’re here hosting the visitors. If you’re from out of state, then you’re going back home with a dozen new friends. Either way, it’s a permanent pin to your racing map.