Find your inner wild Amherst backcountry race benefits land trust

AMHERST – Backcountry racing has become popular out West where runners and hikers challenge themselves on 15 miles of wild terrain, over hills, through streams and fields.

In May, this area will see its first backcountry event when around 300 people come to Freestyle Farm on Mack Hill Road to begin a 25-kilometer run through Joe English, a 560-acre conservation area in the northeast section of Amherst.

The Amherst Land Trust is hosting the May 3 Joe English Challenge, and it’s fitting that an organization devoted to land preservation should sponsor what is possibly the first major backcountry race in the state.

The event is the brainchild of George Bower, former track coach at Souhegan High School who now coaches track with the Amherst Recreation Department, and who is also on the Amherst Land Trust’s board of directors.

The private nonprofit organization needs money so it can react if an important piece of land becomes available, says Jim Hendrix, also a member of the trust’s board.

Most recently, the trust helped the town Conservation Commission acquire Grater Woods, which forms a link in the greenway chain from Merrimack to Bedford through Amherst, tying together 100 acres in Amherst with already protected 500 acres in Merrimack.

The important acquisition cost the trust a lot of money.

“Grater Woods drained our coffers,” Hendrix said in a recent phone interview.

Proceeds from the race go entirely to the trust, which started in 1975 with a mission to help preserve land in Amherst and surrounding communities. In 2007, it helped the Mont Vernon Conservation Commission with legal and financial assistance that made possible the permanent protection of a 500-acre tract abutting Purgatory Brook.

Individual challenges

Bower, who is the race director, says the May 3 event is not really a race, in that there are no winners.

“This is structured as a individual challenge,” he said, and the terrain makes it very demanding, and it’s designed so that no one will be able to run the entire course and “the first place and last get exactly the same awards.”

Designed and directed by a team of marathon, road-race and cross-country organizers, the event is expected to attract backcountry trail-running and speed-hiking enthusiasts from throughout New England and the Northeast. There are no houses, vehicles or paved surfaces along the course. What will be there are ledges, stream crossings, rocky slopes that ascend nearly 3,000 vertical feet.

The event is expected to attract competitive runners, as well as outdoor and fitness enthusiasts.

Sign ups began about a month ago and there is a 500-person limit, and Bower is expecting between 250-300 people to register.

For trail event information or to register go to www.joe-english.org/trailchallenge.php.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at kcleveland@cabinet.com or 673-3100, ext. 304.