MARBLEHEAD - Some of the biggest names in running descended on Marblehead Saturday morning to 'Back the Track', including of course the seaside town's favorite Olympian Shalane Flanagan.
As far as she was concerned, the 900-plus people that finished the 5K road race and 1-mile kid's run were the real rock stars of this wonderfully festive post-Thanksgiving Marblehead road race.
"I feel so humbled to see everyone here to support our track and our community," said Flanagan, who helped organize and promote this first annual 'Back the Track 5K' to support the Marblehead All Sports Foundation's efforts to raise money for a new track at the Village Middle School.
Flanagan and her father, Steve, spearheaded the effort which saw 868 runners finish the 5K course that stretched from the Marblehead post office and finished along Humphrey Street. Runners from almost every North Shore town, plus some from as far away as Illinois and Oregon, competed. Hundreds of other supporters registered or watched from home via a web feed hooked up to a camera Flanagan wore as she ran.
Joan Benoit Samuelson, who was the first-ever Olympic Women's Marathon champion by winning the 1984 games and lives in Maine, joined her friend Flanagan for the special day. New York Road Runners CEO Mary Wittenberg was also there along with Boston Athletic Association executive director Tom Grilk.
"This is what our sport is all about: These kinds of efforts at the grassroots level," said Benoit Samuelson, who won the Boston Marathon twice (in 1979 and 1983).
"It's great to see that Shalane can come home and do something so special and give back. She keeps me young and and in the game."
It was 36-degrees when the race began shortly after 10 a.m., and 15:57 later Caleb Evanter was the first runner to cross the finish line. A Marblehead track alum who graduated in 2005, Evanter now lives in Dorchester and ran for the Greater Boston Track Club. He was followed closely by his GBTC teammate Christian Blondin of Ipswich (16:14).
"It was pretty awesome," said Evanter, whose younger brother Jacob also ran. "He's the sprinter and I'm more of a distance runner."
Plenty of Marblehead track stars came out to support the cause. James Wigglesworth, Jared Kokinos and Adam Linsky all finished in the top 12. Recent MHS grad Lily Roberts was the top girl in her age group (27th overall) and Salem native Megan Nedlo was the first woman across the line in 18:04.
Marblehead's Kylynn McKinley was the second woman to finish in 18:30. She had won the Wild Turkey Run days earlier and coaches the MHS cross country squad.
"This is my track. I ran here ... I had to be here for this," said Evanter. "To see Shalane here, and everyone else in the town, this is a great experience."
Evanter and Nedlo received plaques for their top times and there were medals for runners that finished in the top three in age groups for men and women. There were also special North Shore Triad medals for runners that finished Thanksgiving's Turkey Trot in Salem, Gabe's Run in Hamilton on Friday and Saturday's Back the Track 5K in Marblehead. In all, those runners completed 11-and-a-quarter miles in three days.
This wasn't an event about running fast, however. It was about running as a community and coming together to help back a project expected to cost upwards of $500,000.
Flanagan ran back in the pack, stay with some younger runners and giving plenty of encouragement to everyone she saw along the way. After she crossed the line, she stayed at the finish to offer high-fives to runners that ranged in age from 9 to 73.
After the race, she took pictures with fans and kids. There was a post-race celebration at Palmer's restaurant in Marblehead, which also hosted a special race-bib signing with Flanagan the previous night.
The race introduced a special team portion that let runners sign up as groups to be scored in the fashion of a traditional cross country meet. 'Team PLH', composed of mostly MHS alums, took the bragging rights. The November Project, a group run by running pros that encourages grassroots efforts to stay fit in the cold winter months, was second.
Team Tarmey, a group running for Marblehead High athletic director Mark Tarmey, was also well represented. Tarmey is recovering from a health scare last summer, and was in great spirits. Plenty of Magician athletes he influenced as both assistant hockey coach and AD were running for him.
The Kids' 1-Miler was won by 13-year-old Brendan Locke of Marblehead in 5:43, while 10-year-old Christopher Locke also crossed in 5:43. Seventy youngsters ranging in age from 5-13 finished the mile, and there was also a 2-mile walk.
The Marblehead All Sports Foundation is a group that looks to benefit all Marblehead sport and athletic facilities. They were essential in helping fund the field turf installed at Piper Field at the high school in 2012, and turned their attention to the village track project soon after.
The hope is that the post-Thanksgiving road race will become an annual fixture on the North Shore, and with support like the area community showed Saturday that seems like a sure bet.
"It is such an honor to see everyone here to support the track," Flanagan said to the crowd. "I can't wait to come back and do a workout together on it."