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Across Lakes And Through The Woods: Racing To Boost North Country's Economy

Just before dawn at the First Connecticut Lake in Pittsburg there’s the sound of a loon and competitors are gathering for the North Country Endurance Challenge.

It’s an all-day race combining kayaking, running forested trails and mountain biking. And it is an effort to boost the economy of the North Country.

Racers have a choice of courses and how they wish to tackle them.

The longer “premier” course will cover about 63 miles.

A “sprint” course is about 30 miles.

Competitors can try it solo or in relay teams, says Grant Killian, the organizer.

The first leg involves paddling 3.9 miles followed by a trail run of 3.1 miles, a 4.7-mile mountain bike and on and on and on. In all there are nine legs with a finish in Colebrook.

Just after 6:30, a silver mist lingers over the lake. Kayaks are lined up on the shore. And the race starts with competitors running to their kayaks and paddling into the mist.

Watching it all is Wayne Frizzell a banker and member of the North Country Chamber of Commerce from Colebrook.

He was familiar with adventure racing and one day had an idea.

“My brother-in-law, Sandy Young and I, sitting around in my parent’s kitchen, said ‘We can do this. We can run one of those,’” he said.

There was a two-part strategy.

First the competitors and their support teams would spend money on food and lodging and fuel during the race.

But Stephen Ellis, a selectman from Pittsburg, says there was a longer-term goal.

“This race brings in people that maybe haven’t visited our area before and hope are that they will enjoy their stay and enjoy the race and hopefully come back and visit us to do other things that our beautiful community offers,” he said.

This was not an easy sell, says Frizzell.

“We had our skeptics. We really did. They said that is not going to bring anything to the area. That is not going to do anything for us.”

Indeed, last year’s race only drew about 30 competitors.

But this year’s race had than twice as many competitors and more people are seeing its potential.

Local towns provided volunteers, there were private donations and help from the Tillotson North Country Foundation.

Most competitors are from New England. But there are a few from Canada, Florida and California.

And some say the race will grow.

“From what I have seen of many races I as soon as people start realizing there is a race they keep coming and kind of grow exponentially,” said Brianna Trow is a racer from Sunapee.

In Pittsburg Carmela Kelsea is working at the Pittsburg Trading Post on Route 3 and she says the race has already been good for business.

“Made a lot of hot coffee and they come in and get stuff to eat. So, as far as we went we were really busy this morning. Very nice people,” she said.  “Far as I can tell, looks like it is a good thing.”

By early afternoon some of the runners still have the gumption to zoom down the paths, jumping over stones and roots.”Woohoo,” one woman yells as she passes a cluster of spectators deep in the woods.

Others are moving much more slowly. One man moans loudly with every step as he descends a mountain trail.

The winner in the solo men’s category for the long course is Alex Provost of Montreal who takes 12 hours and 34 minutes.

The winner for solo women is Meghan Smith of Fryeburg, Maine. She takes 13 hours and 26 minutes.

But for many in this race, the main thing isn’t winning, it’s participating.  And if along the way those racers also participate in the North Country economy, so much the better, say organizers.

Pittsburg Selectman Ellis says there’ll be an informal survey with local businesses to check the economic impact.

But organizers see this as a long-term project and there is another race planned for next year on September 6th.

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