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Running for pride - and pie

A large pack took off through the campus in quest of glory and apple pie when the annual event was relatively new in 1913.
A large pack took off through the campus in quest of glory and apple pie when the annual event was relatively new in 1913.Northfield Mount Hermon Archives

GILL - Fitness and confectionery indulgence may live at opposite ends of the health-and-wellness scale, but tomorrow they come together here, at the annual running of what is billed as the nation’s oldest surviving road race.

Some 600 Northfield Mount Hermon students, faculty, alums, and guests will run for both pride and pie in the school’s cherished Bemis-Forslund Pie Race, the roots of which trace to before the first Boston Marathon in 1896.

Every runner who finishes the 4.3-mile race in “pie time’’ - ranging from 33-45 minutes depending on age and gender - is awarded one of the prized apple pies.

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Why pie?

Bob Dixon collecting his pie in 1952.
Bob Dixon collecting his pie in 1952.Northfield Mount Hermon Archives

“Well, it’s because here, especially in the late 1800s and early 20th century, pie was always regarded as this wonderful, sort of extravagant treat,’’ said Peter Weis, the school’s archivist, a 1978 grad who twice succeeded in making “pie time’’ in his student days. “For decades, the headmaster insisted Mount Hermon boys eat a diet heavy in prunes and beans. . . . So you can just imagine how great it was to have a piece of pie, never mind a whole pie.’’

The 10-inch double-crusted trophies are still produced from scratch in the school bakery, where many students are assigned to aid in the annual project. The treats are handed out within yards of the finish line, close to the majestic oak tree that stands in the center of the 215-acre main campus.

“It’s a big deal, so you’ve got to make sure the winners get their pie right away,’’ said Rich Messer, the school’s director of dining. “It’s not like you can say, ‘Hey, great, you won . . . and, oh, I’ll see you tomorrow with your pie.’ ’’

Athletic director Tom Pratt noted there is a decided nuance in carrying a victory pie. The winners, expected to number 200 or more this year, typically cradle the baked beauties with one palm up, and walk around campus with their pie de resistance perched slightly above the shoulder.

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“One year, my whole family ran,’’ said Pratt, noting how he came up short of pie time that November while his wife and two sons both took home the baked goods. “We’ve still got the picture of us standing together. They’ve all got their hands up, holding their pies, and I’ve got mine in the same position, just empty.’’

Olympic marathon gold medalist Frank Shorter, a 1965 graduate of the school, posted the course record in 1979, returning to run years after he established himself as one of the world’s elite long-distance runners.

When the starter’s gun fires shortly after 3 p.m., it will formally rekindle a tradition that began soon after the school was founded in 1881 by Dwight L. Moody, a legendary Christian evangelist born in nearby Shelburne Falls.

One historical account has Henry E. Bemis, the 386th student to be enrolled in the school, noting that he competed for a pie award in races he ran before departing the campus for good in Jan. 1891.

The school believed that some form of a pie race had been held on the grounds here every October or November since Bemis’s days, but recent research, said Weis, revealed that a scarlet fever outbreak forced the cancellation of the pie race in 1936. Despite all that, today is considered the race’s 121st anniversary. Give or take a slice.

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“Not everyone takes the race seriously,’’ noted Gary Partenheimer, a longtime teacher of religious studies at the school, recalling how one student some 20 years ago ran the race dressed as a clown while balancing an egg on a spoon. “The race is really about community-building. So you’ll have elite runners, members of our cross-country team, coaches, teachers, and maybe even a clown.’’

The school is not the only entity that sees the footrace as the nation’s oldest; Sports Illustrated reinforced the belief in a 1979 story, calling the pie race the oldest footrace in the United States, six years older than the Boston Marathon.

A 4.5-mile circuit for the race was created in 1932 by longtime school athletic director Axel Forslund. He also set pie qualifying time at 33 minutes for boys and 40 minutes for girls. Through the decades, qualifying pie times have remained the same, with anyone 25 years or more out of high school competing as masters and granted an extra five minutes to make the cut. In the early 1960s, the course was reduced to its present 4.3 miles, to steer runners clear of nearby Route 10.

Anna Reid, a from nearby Montague, arrived here as a sophomore, and today will be her third pie race. The cocaptain of the girls’ cross-country team, she has “made pie’’ twice and is confident she’ll breeze to a third.

“Some kids just dig their hands into it and start eating it right away with their fingers,’’ Reid said. ’’Or your friend will come over and try to eat yours, in which case I just run away.’’

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Juan Gallarda, also a senior, knew nothing of this whole dash-for-delicacies thing when he arrived on campus from Los Angeles as a freshman in September 2007. Never much of an athlete, he turned out to be fast afoot, and has taken a pie back to his dorm each of the last two years.

“It’s fun being out there with the entire community,’’ said Gallarda, noting how it was first a culture shock to arrive in New England and how awestruck he was by the craggy terrain and glorious colors. “I mean, just to be out there . . . the woods, the campus, the scenery. It’s an amazing day.’’

Back in Los Angeles next week, said Gallarda, he’ll undoubtedly have a few awkward moments, trying to explain to his friends 3,000 miles away what it’s like, what it means, to run through the woods, to vie for pie.

“They’ll say, ‘Juan, why on earth do you want to run 4.3 miles for that?’ ’’ he said. “And I’ll just say, ‘Why not?’ I think people anywhere would think this is cool.’’