THE MAKING OF BMA: THE GREEN MOUNTAIN RUN (GMR) – First Strides

BMA is celebrating  50 years since its inception. As we prepare for this exciting milestone, we present to you a monthly series dedicated to exploring the academy’s rich history. Tune in to learn more about “The Making of BMA” and discover the people, places, and moments that have defined North America’s first sports and ski racing academy.

Since its beginning in 1970, the academy has been home to 1,178 students including 36 who have gone on to compete in the Olympics and 145 who have been members of national teams representing the USA, Australia, Canada, Chile, Estonia, Great Britain, Japan, South Korea, and Spain. Above and beyond the athletic success of its alumni, BMA prides itself on having seen the majority of its graduates enroll in university or college programs. 

This month, we explore the early history of the infamous Green Mountain Run (GMR). For the past 45 years, the academy has held this unique tradition at the end of May, challenging students through a relay run covering the entire state of Vermont from Massachusetts to the Canadian border. Beyond the grueling pain experienced by the hundreds who attempted to break records running through Vermont’s scenic rolling hills, this highly anticipated annual community bonding event remains one of the academy’s end of the school-year rite of passage for students and staff alike. We caught up with former BMA head of school, Finn Gundersen (1984-1999) to learn more about how the tradition came to be.

“The memories and the emotions of the GMR were generated by every mile and every stride taken. All together with those extra support miles run, multiplied by every hour and minute of striving and cheering, equaled a lifetime of remembrances. The runner’s high was exceeded only by a deep feeling of accomplishment, of sharing and conquering a challenge together, no matter the weather, the darkness, nor the pain. Every Burkie can vividly recall the anticipation – “My leg is coming – I remember that initial sprint fueled by a rush of adrenalin – at last it’s my run. Damn, I began too fast, I’m going to suffer big time for my remaining miles.” That feeling of I did it, faster than I ever expected, was overwhelming. And wow, I ran an extra 10 to 20 miles supporting my roommate, my friends, and everyone else, as we crossed, all together, over the border cheering. I still dream of those runs that were too hot, or those nights too black and long, or of hills too steep, and the pain I had never experienced before. But, I’m ahead of myself, how did it all start?” 

– Finn Gundersen 

When and how did the idea for the GMR come about?

Sometime during the late winter of 1975, myself and Mike (Monk) Schoenfeld (soon to retire, in 2020, as Senior Vice President and Chief Philanthropic Advisor for Middlebury College) were having dinner at The Old Cutter Inn with Terry Scoville ’77 and her parents visiting from Oregon. Both Finn and Mike had been thinking of ways to keep the BMA athletes motivated to train in the coming Kingdom spring, after a long, long winter of cold racing.

The ‘70s (and ‘60s) were an era of trying wild ideas and extreme risk-taking. So, why not attempt something crazy like running the length of Vermont, from north to south, starting at the Canadian border and finishing at, we had no idea of how many hours later, the Mass border? Sitting there we had a rough sense of how many miles it would be, but only a vague idea of what challenges we would encounter.

Quickly, a question was asked, “what highway?” There was no choice but the most obvious and appropriate one – VT Rt 100 – running past all the Vermont ski areas that we had been competing at all winter. There was one slight problem, Rt 100 did not actually cross either border, adjustments were literally made on the fly, or I should I say, on the run. With the idea bouncing around the dinner table, generating high energy and bolstered by that ever-present naive BMA enthusiasm – anything can be done – Terry’s mother reached into her purse and said: “I’ll pay you to run it, here is twenty dollars.” 

Oooooh, we could run and raise money, which our five-year-old school desperately needed. At first, Warren Witherell was a little skeptical: “An organizational and logistics nightmare and what about safety?” “No problem” we said, “we will do it all. And, did we say we could have each kid raise money for the miles they run?” “You mean all the extra miles they run? Done, let’s do it.” (Note: the first year we raised $40,000, $180,000 in today’s dollars, an incredible amount back then)

The dream was born. Preparation for the run meant we needed to run before breakfast every morning, we were already doing that. We needed to bring the community back together after a winter of highly individualized and ranked competition, it would do that for sure. And ultimately, we could celebrate the rebirth, spring in the Green Mountains of Vermont, a beautiful time! How about calling it THE GREEN MOUNTAIN RUN?

Oh yah, we did call the Vermont state police, not for permission, but to tell them “Any problem with Burke Mountain Academy running Rt. 100 twenty-four hours straight through, even at night?” “You are what?” “Running Rt. 100, in a relay, plenty of flashing lights, lots of adult supervision, and safety is our number one priority.” “OK, go ahead.” 

You have got to love Vermont in the ‘70s.

How was the first run?

We did look at a map, added up the miles – 200 – (actually 197.75), depending more or less on where we crossed the Massachusetts border. To add to the challenge, we didn’t drive the route ahead of time! We were too busy training and it would take some of the fun out of it and maybe a little reality might have set in – what were we thinking? We set off with the student body we had, roughly 43 non-injured ones, which would translate into running legs of 3.5 to 4.5 miles, even a 4.7 if we needed it, which we did. Each length depending on the difficulty and how much progress we were making. 

Now came the on-the-run challenge of where to end and start each leg? We couldn’t just handoff next to a field with no notable marker. We needed a mailbox, or driveway, or village, or store, or graveyard, or…one year we even tried to spray paint an exact handoff point for future runs, a harsh winter of salt spoiled that idea. Also remember, no cell phones or GPS.

The key BMA vehicle, beyond our fleet of vans, was the school suburban, in fact, a donated one. It would host the official mileage and timekeepers, equipped with clipboards and stopwatches and food and drinks. It would measure every tenth, every mile, while the vans would come and go with fresh or expired runners. Half the school traveled to the Canada border that first day, with a number of staff (myself and Mike, plus others) going the full length. The suburban staff would determine the start and handoff points, and whether or not we could even accomplish it. 

Imagine yourself in that suburban, racing ahead after starting the first runner, keeping track of the mileage and time, scribbling notes for future runs (if there was going to be another GMR – seriously in doubt that first year – I wish we had kept the notes). “How long Monk?” “4.5.” “Looks like a good spot, red barn, cows in the field.” Ok, leave the next runner to warmup, race back to see if runner number one (or twenty-one), was still running, yell encouragement, honk horns, watch for traffic, watch for overly excited support runners and friend vehicles all over the road, and try not to be scared to death that something was going to happen. And finally, “what was that distance and time? – wow, well-done number one.”  

We ended up eventually with 47 legs. Adjustments were made when a number of runs were over six miles long, remember, we had not mapped it out ahead of time and felt as if we probably should stretch it a bit. Why 47 in the end? No real reason beyond the fact that as we approached the Mass border, the legs were averaging between 3.8 and 4.5 miles (with two extra-long ones), and after the original 43 had all run, we still had about fourteen miles left, so, who wants to run again?

How did the segment names emerge?

There were no names that first run, but obvious ones appeared: Lake Eden Run, Stowe Shuffle, Waitsfield Run, Okemo Flats, Mt Snow, Ludlow Downhill, and three runs named after the town of Jamaica (all near Stratton): Jamaica River Run (#8), Flats (#9), and Dipsey Doodle (#10). We wanted to honor the ski areas we passed, including their small towns. Often the run themselves, their level of torture, speed, uphill and even downhill, resulted in some perfect names: Summit Run, Terrible Mountain, Hazen’s Notch, Harwood Hill, followed immediately by the Duxbury Downhill. Within two or three years the names organically evolved or were spontaneously generated, after a particularly long dark run at 4 am – the Waterfall Run (#28), only the sound, too dark to see anything.

Now, 45 years later, the names recall strong memories and many Burkie’s can state with pride their time, the record holder’s time, their gender, and how, just how, without that cramp, or too much Gatorade, or a better warmup and pacing, I could have broken that record, or at least been faster. I think I’ll go back and try it again.

The run now heads north from the Massachusetts to the Canadian border. What prompted that change?

In the early 80’s, we made the decision to change the direction of the run and to finish at the Canadian border. It was easier and safer and cheaper to have only a few vans go all the way to the Massachusetts border to start. When we all finished at the Massachusetts border, the long drive home was an issue with staff exhausted, trouble staying awake and the kids, of course, were asleep. When we finished at the Massachussetts border, by the time we returned to campus, no one wanted a barbeque, instead, they wanted to go right to bed. From Canada, we were home quickly and could have a good celebration barbecue before going to sleep for 24 hours. 

How and when was the van painting activity for GMR born?

While it’s hard to recall who thought of telling the world who we were passing by, and what we were attempting to do, but van painting began on the first run. Maybe it was for pride and spirit. Maybe it was to get people to stop and watch as that lone runner, and screaming support pack, slowly made its way through their village or past their farm. 

As the years passed and the GMR became such a BMA cultural phenonium, a right of passage for everyone, van painting became a contest. Once everyone had signed up and van teams were assigned, out went the benches, the interiors would become nests, traveling homes for the next 24hrs, and the exteriors would tell the story and hopes, limited only by the group’s imagination. The ground of the BMA parking lots would become awash in colors. Discarded objects littered the ground as well, byproducts of attempts to attach said item to the van racks or sides, but in the end, they would not survive highway speeds under closer scrutiny. BMA yearbooks contain the best history of the van paint wars, truly inspirational, they tell the story of the BMA community spirit.

What’s the story behind the annual GMR t-shirts?

Who didn’t have a tie-dye t-shirt from the ‘60s or from a community fundraising event back home? We had to memorialize this incredible event and so it became another critical component of the GMR – the contest to design this year’s GMR t-shirt. In the early years, it was a project for the art class, even printing the shirts ourselves. As the school grew and the shirts became a prized possession, more friends and parents wanted their own, the printing was left to the professionals. But, the actual design was kept a secret until the big unveiling at a special lunch ceremony.

Imagine the scene, year twenty-five of the GMR, a student runs into the dining hall wearing the 1975 shirt, then ’76, then ’77, and on and on, with loud cheering and music and shouting as each year was announced. Then finally, with multiple students wearing the highly anticipated winning design, the new shirt would be paraded around and around the hall. I believe, to this day, every Burkie has kept their GMR tees – a cherished memory.

How did the GMR mural in the dining hall come to be?

One of the special GMR landmarks is on the south wall of the dining hall, a cross-section of the entire 200 miles, beautifully student-painted with each leg labeled. A visual record of every up and down, of every flat and rolling terrain of the state of Vermont – how did this happen? 

Another GMR story: 

In the early ‘80s, I went to Warren (he was still Headmaster at the time) with the idea that it was time to document, in greater detail, this incredible, one of a kind, Burke Mountain Academy Green Mountain Run. I wanted to do a cross-section of the entire Route 100 run. And, I wanted to rank the difficulty – the uphill, downhill and flat of each leg. I wanted each runner, when they signed up, to know what challenges they would face, and what the goal would be.

Warren, still flying his lake amphibian plane, offered the plane’s altimeter, which he promptly removed from it. Early one morning, in W2’s Saab, we raced to the bottom of Vermont with 47 sheets of paper – one for each leg. Every two tenth of a mile, Warren would say mark, and I would record the elevation, and any other distinguishing features – how steep, rolling, and exactly where we were. That was 1,977.5 elevation marks – the actual GMR distance!

With all that information carefully noted, it was just a matter of graphing it, two legs to a sheet, taping them all together, and there it was – a vertical cross-section of the famed Route 100 of Vermont. Now each run could be ranked as to difficulty; the amount of uphill. But, as any Burkie will tell you, your pace determines the difficulty, go out too fast and you will pay a price. 

A few highlights:

–        The Mass/Vt. border is higher than the Vt/Canadian border. If one remembers the Lake Willoughby notch, our beloved view to Canada, the waters flow north from there. There is a watershed divide in northern Vermont where the waters empty in the St. Lawrence River. To the south, it’s the Connecticut River on Vermont’s east side, and Lake Champlain and other rivers on the west side.

–        Terrible Mountain (run #14) is the hardest – 4.0 miles, 640 vertical feet uphill (some very steep), and only 10 down! The record is held by Rob Pedersen, ’87, 23:52, a 5:58 mile pace, he went on to run in college. And for the women, Liz Stephen ’05, 28:46, a 7:12 mile pace, she went on to have an incredible career on the U.S. Ski Team, as a X-Country World Cup and Olympic skier (today, she could probably destroy her old time).

–        Wardsboro Run (#7) is, maybe, the easiest, 4.4 miles, 0 ft. uphill, 460 ft. downhill. Record for men: Nolan Kasper ’07, 26:32, a 6:02 pace, former U.S. Ski Team, World Cup and Olympic Alpine racer. Women’s record: Robyn Bailey Jacob ’84, 30:21, a 6:54 mile pace, a longtime Kingdom resident.

–        Overall Records: Men: 19 hours, 34 minutes, 53 seconds, a 5:53 mile pace. Women: 22 hours, 48 minutes, 10 seconds, a 6:52 mile pace. For each gender, these are the fastest 47 legs and are the current record holders. 

–        Elevation highlights: 10, 147 feet uphill, 11, 141 feet downhill.

Do you have a memorable GMR memory?

I was asked to pick a memory, one that captures the spirit, the commitment, the community, a representation of the ability to push one’s limits. For me, having participated directly in 25 GMRs, and a few more as a staff alum, I could go on and on. Perhaps an opportunity for more future online GMR News and Views history, where everyone could send in their favorite GMR story. 

For now, here is one: Ric Prescott, a beloved BMA science teacher, our fall X-C coach when we competed in the Vermont high school competitions, and all-around lover of BMA, here is one poignant moment from his first GMR. I joined the run that year in Ludlow during a particularly fast GMR, when we were still trying to break the overall record for combined genders. 

When we met, Ric approached me with this very strange, even ecstatic look on his face, he was almost speechless. He said: “Now I understand what this GMR is all about and what Burke is all about. This is way beyond the beauty of Vermont, the tough hills, and the unbelievable spirit and energy of everyone. You will not believe what happened [I will not use names here], but one particularly fast male runner had diarrhea while running. Instead of stopping, he kept going. But that is not the crazy part, here is his roommate running alongside him, trying to clean his legs. I said ‘just stop for a moment. They said: “No, we can’t, he will be alright, we need to keep going, we can do this.”

Ric kept saying: “I can’t believe the attitude of these kids, they are dying out there, they are setting personal bests all over the place. I mean, kids who could barely meet the 1.75 [mile] standard, were killing it, they are all running extra legs to support the bib, I can’t believe what is going on. We need to harness this spirit, this energy.”

In those 24 hours, the GMR has captured the essence of the Burke community, of how together we will explore our limits, we will break through, while learning more about ourselves than we ever imagined. We will learn together the unbelievable power of individuals working towards a shared goal of personal and community growth – we can run the length of Vermont as fast as we can!