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Local athletes set sights on annual Blackstone River Greenway Challenge

August 3, 2013

From left, Kathleen Sands of New England Distance, Lt. Brad Scully of the Woonsocket Police Department, and Barbara Dixon, event coordinator for the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor. All are involved in some capacity with the Greenway Challenge, the National Park Service’s premier event of the year to promote the heritage corridor. Scully will compete in the race, while Dixon, the chief organizer, is getting some help from Sands. PHOTO BY RUSS OLIVO.

WOONSOCKET – The die-hards are checking their maps and adjusting their GPS coordinates. They’re doing the math and inspecting the lay of the land.

These competitive athletes are quietly trying to figure out the secret of the biggest event of the year in outdoor cross-training races: the exact route of the Blackstone River Greenway Challenge.

They could wait for the details of the 57.2-mile race to be announced about two weeks before the event, to be held on Sept. 28. But the sooner the elites figure it out the sooner they can begin training for the unique demands of the course and begin shaving valuable seconds off their finish times.

“For two weeks we’ll see people out their constantly,” says Barbara Dixon, event coordinator for the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, headquartered at One Depot Square. “Within a very short time, we’ll know what the finish times are going to be on the day of the race, down to a few seconds.”

Founded in 2000, the Greenway Challenge has evolved into the corridor’s top promotional event of the year, designed to keep policymakers and public funders in two states focused on the recreational and economic potential of the Blackstone River.
Right now, one of the corridor’s leading assets is the Blackstone River Bikeway, which includes about 13 off-road miles for bicyclists, roller-bladers, walkers and runners from Woonsocket to Lincoln. Much of the envisioned 40-mile riverside route through Massachusetts remains unfinished, however.

“Let’s build it,” says Dixon.

Last year, nearly 500 racers participated in the Greenway Challenge, which has never been the same race twice since its inception 13 years ago. The length has ranged from 45 to 62 miles over different routes involving a combination of wooded trails, river, still water and paved streets.

This is what we know about this year’s event so far: It will begin at the EcoTarium in Worcester, Mass., and end at the Kelly House Museum on Lower River Road in Lincoln.

In between there will be a 4-mile, mixed segment of trail and street run; a 3-mile, lake-to-river boat paddle; a 17.5-mile street-bike segment; a 5.5-mile mountain-bike segment; a 2.1-mile flat-water paddle; another 19-mile street bike trek; and, finally, a 6.1-mile run.

Tired yet?

The Greenway Challenge is actually part of a new breed of competitive athletic events known as OXT, short for outdoor cross-training, that are growing in popularity, especially among serious fitness buffs concerned about the long-term sustainability of their regimens. It’s not a marathon, which is just straight running for 26-plus miles, or a triathlon, which is a usually combination of running, swimming and bicycling, but an even more challenging blend of activities that places more – and more varied – physical demands on the body.

The mix-it-up approach is part of what’s attracting Lt. Brad Scully of the Woonsocket Police Department to the competition for the first time this year.

A taut and brawny 41-year-old who takes fitness seriously, Scully has been a competitive biker in the past and he has little difficulty racking up 10 miles or more on foot.

But when it comes to physical fitness, says Scully, it doesn’t pay to be a one-trick pony. Repeating the same physical movements over and over again is too punishing on the body, and if the pain doesn’t slow you down, the boredom will.

“You can’t do just running all the time because it does too much damage to your knees and shins,” he says. “Never mind the injuries, it becomes mentally fatiguing as well.”

While most of the participants will enter the Greenway Challenge this fall as members of teams with up to nine people, Scully has decided to go solo, entering as an “Ironman.”

Police Chief Thomas Carey is talking up the police department’s participation in the Greenway Challenge, an event he thinks is good for the city’s image and vitality. He says Capt. Michael Lemoine is interested in putting together a mixed team of police and civilians, while Scully tests his limits as an individual.

“You can tell just by looking at him, he’s in great shape,” says Carey. “He’s run the Boston Marathon, he also plays some hockey.”
Scully accepts the compliment from his boss with a smile, but he’s not claiming bragging rights yet.

“Fifty seven miles?” he says. “I’m concerned.”

The hardest part may be kayaking, which is something he’s never done before. Most of his training to date consists of bicycle spin classes that Judy Sullivan runs at The Gym LLC. The level of physical endurance needed to keep up is somewhere between advanced and “crazy,” according to Scully.

The blended rigor of events like the Greenway Challenge is a compelling draw for top-level athletes not just locally, but from all over the world. Dixon says participants in last year’s Greenway Challenge hailed from six New England states, five continents and eight countries.

“People go crazy for this stuff,” says Kathleen Sands, an intern with New England Distance, an organization dedicated to nurturing the talents of budding track stars. “They’re always looking for the next new thing.”

Founded by Nich Haber, a businessman and hobby runner from Providence, New England Distance has partnered with NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley to provide free housing and community-service jobs for runners who aspire to Olympic-level performance.

Two of them, David Goodman and Meaghan Hobson, are living in Woonsocket now and four more are on their way. They’ll all become members of a New England Distance team that will participate in the Greenway Challenge, according to Sands.

Many other local teams will enter under familiar banners, including Unibank, the Woonsocket Teachers Guild and Mt. St. Charles Academy, according to Dixon.

Now is the time for teams to get their rosters together and reserve a spot in the race, which has gotten bigger every year since its inception. There’s a limit on 100 teams of two to nine members.

For information about how to enter, fees and other details, contact Dixon at 762-0250, ext. 5503, or by email at Capt. Lemoine at police headquarters is also interested in hearing from anyone who wants to join his team. He can be reached by email at

Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo

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