September 22, 2006

Fall in Keene, NH: Clarence DeMar and lots of pumpkins

Keene, New Hampshire is a great little city. It’s got college kids and all the fun and funk they bring to a place; the pristine clapboard crispness of elegant, old Victorians; wooded parks and rippling rivers; a double-wide Main Street with a mall down its middle and a gazebo at its end; just the right mix of eclectic, priced-right shops and box stores where you can get stuff like mops and toilet paper. A pretty, peaceful place sprinkled under stone-tipped Mt. Monadnock, reputedly the world’s most-climbed mountain after Japan’s Fuji.

We head into Keene whenever the quiet of the woods surrounding our nearby cottage starts crushing in on us. "To Keene for chicken tacos!"

Fall in Keene brings a few traditions, like the return of
Keene State College students, the Clarence DeMar Marathon, and the Keene Pumpkin Festival.

This Sunday, God and hamstring willing, I'm running the DeMar. It’s a tiny marathon – only about 250 runners – and the route is open to traffic, which should be interesting. When my brain is fried at mile 21, I hope divine intervention will pluck me from the path of the oncoming car I’m about to run into. I guess nobody’s been seriously hurt yet, because this race, named for seven-time Boston Marathon winner and sometime Keene resident and teacher
Clarence DeMar, has been run since 1978. (For a fun read, try to find a copy of DeMar’s autobiography, Marathon. The dude could run, and his pavement-pounding exploits are fascinating, but his personality quirks are a story unto themselves. The book, out of print, is hard to find, even on Amazon, and what I saw there recently makes me think my two copies are worth much more than the $7.50 each I paid for them at my favorite used bookstore outside Keene: somebody was selling a copy on Amazon for $49.95. )

I drove the DeMar course a few weeks ago and videotaped it so I can practice running it in my head before the real deal. It’s a gorgeous course, which should help ease my suffering.

The race starts in
Gilsum, where gems like quartz and tourmaline pepper the ground, and mineral and crystal seekers gather every June for the annual Rock Swap. We take off in front of the General Store, near Mine Street. The course winds through Surry, following the curves of the swift-moving Ashuelot River, and then spends miles wending through parts of Keene I never knew existed. (And up hills I never knew existed.)

After the race I'll repair to Margarita's for red wine and fake Mexican food. Margarita's sits on Main Street and looks onto the site of another Keene fall tradition, the
Pumpkin Festival.

It's something to see: over 20,000 jack-o-lanterns lighting the city center in a festival that holds the record for most jack-o-lanterns assembled in one place (over 28,000). The carved pumpkins, lit at night in a spectacular display, sit in tiers on scaffolds, piled in pyramids, and lined up and down every inch of curbing in downtown Keene.

Keene's well worth a trip any time of year, but fall brings its own brand of fun.