Standing at the base of Horn Pond Mountain, Samantha LeBlanc caught her breath, gathered herself, and stared up the trail toward the summit.
Towanda, she thought as she steeled herself for what she was about to do. She took a deep breath, gritted her teeth and charged forward.
No, it wasn’t exactly the life-changing Towanda moment depicted by Kathy Bates in the classic scene from “Fried Green Tomatoes,” but it was empowering and revelatory nonetheless. LeBlanc’s Towanda was Mt. Towanda, the nickname Woburn locals gave Horn Pond Mountain decades ago. For her, this was one of her ultrarunning training grounds, a mile from her house and her typical Thursday spot for uphill repeats.
“I’ve been running up and down that 200-foot mountain so many times since we’ve moved here that my husband actually made me a shirt that says ‘Towanda Mountain Runners,’” she said. “At the beginning of the year I made it my goal to ‘summit’ Towanda 365 times this year, and every Thursday before sunrise I run it seven times but will also run it during other runs throughout the week.”
What made this day significant was that it wasn’t a typical Towanda Thursday. It was a Saturday; March 21. LeBlanc’s weekends typically involve her husband, Jeff, their dog, Lili, and a trip to the White Mountains of New Hampshire for big miles and big vert. With the COVID-19 global pandemic sparking calls for people to stay close to home and away from groups, LeBlanc heeded the warning and headed down the street to Towanda.
“I ran to Horn Pond and then ran my favorite one-mile loop up and down Towanda that consists of a pretty technical and steep rocky side up, flat dirt section, then paved side down,” she said.
Up and down; up and down. After seven trips to the top and seven back to the base—equalling her typical Thursday output—she decided to keep going for an eighth repeat, then another, and another, and another.
“I did this for hours,” she recalled. “People started catching on and eventually random strangers were actually clapping for me. It just made me realize how much I love my community and am so lucky to have these places to run right by my house.”
After 14 trips to the top and back, she headed home to finish up what was an 18-mile run with more than 3,300 feet of vertical gain. Her legs were tired, but her heart was full. Sure, her first race of the season—the Runamuck 50K in Vermont—had been canceled a few days earlier due to COVID-19 and her second race of the season (TARC Wapack and Back 43-miler) would soon follow, but LeBlanc decided that the time she spent training and the fitness she gained wouldn’t go to waste.
“I went home and told my husband I wanted to do a 6-hour or 12-hour run there to raise some money,” she recalled. “And he said ‘How about 8 hours?’”
That settled it. She would run repeats on Towanda for eight hours as a fundraiser to benefit people in her Woburn community. She plans to run the 0.3-mile paved route to the top during her effort, which amounts to 170 feet of gain over a short distance.
Next, she reached out to the community to figure out where the funds she raised could make the most impact.
“Woburn locals started a separate page for the coronavirus efforts in the area,” she said. “I posted in the group about what I wanted to do and asked where would be the best place to donate money to. They directed me to SCI Woburn (Woburn Council of Social Concern, Inc.).”
She immediately knew it was the right cause.
“SCI Woburn is a collective of all local resources and events in the area,” LeBlanc said. “These resources include the local food banks, but they have also been helping to organize volunteers to deliver groceries to those who cannot leave their house, and sewing masks, and providing meals for children who would otherwise get them at school. It’s really amazing to see how the community has come together right now, and this is just the beginning of what’s to come.”
LeBlanc set up a GoFundMe page to raise the funds in advance of her run (8 hours at Towanda) with the goal of raising $1,000 for SCI Woburn. She said she has a date in mind for her run, but she is keeping it quiet to preserve social distancing and in case work or weather force it to change. In the meantime, she continues to prepare with pre-sunrise runs with Lili and Thursday repeats on Towanda.
She also continues to reflect on what running means to her during this time of societal disruption. Her first two races are canceled, and her biggest race of the year—the Superior 100 on Sept. 11-12 in Minnesota—might follow suit. If that happens, then so be it. She said she will roll with the changes and simply be grateful to run.
“I only began this fundraiser a week ago, but since the COVID-19 outbreak and before any of my races were even cancelled, my perspective on running has changed a lot,” she said. “Running is a privilege… a privilege that even before this outbreak a lot of people around the world are not able to have. Being able to train for races, travel for races, and race is a huge privilege. When I knew races were going to be cancelled, I had to remind myself of this.
“What is going on around the world and in the U.S. is so much more important than running. I very much miss being able to go to the mountains and run wherever I want to run, but at the same time, there are so many people that are sick or dying, can’t see their loved ones, have lost their business or job, or are working insanely long shifts putting their lives and families at risk, that my running seems so small. So right now I am just savoring every mile and if it comes down to the point where we are told not to leave our backyards, then I’ll be running loops inside our fenced-in backyard and still feeling really grateful.”
As of April 2, just 11 days into fundraising, LeBlanc has raised $900 toward her fundraising goal for SCI Woburn. To help her reach or surpass that mark, visit her GoFundMe page at this link.
UPDATE: At 4 a.m. Saturday, April 4, Samantha LeBlanc began her 8 Hours at Towanda. At noon, she finished with 71 repeats to the top for 41 miles and 13,000 feet of vertical gain. Her effort raised $1,655 for SCI Woburn.