Forest of Needwood 2019

Spring Racing Season and the Forest of Needwood 5 Mile Memorial Run

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By Oksana Lightfield

Spring Racing Season

The spring racing season is just around the corner! Some of us might find ourselves looking at the calendar and thinking, what’s next? We have some great local races available in the spring, including one of the oldest in the Frederick County — Forest of Needwood 5 Mile Memorial Run.

The Steeps offer a great (and free to FSRC members) training option to help prepare for your spring racing season. This year is no exception, with the Half Marathon Training Program starting on February 8, 2021. 

We lined up excellent coaches for you. So please stay tuned and get pumped up for an awesome spring racing season!

The spring training program typically targets a race in late April-early May. With the program’s start in February, it may feel like a grind training through the coldest months of the year. What if you could break that training up and run a great local tune-up race for a worthy cause? 

What’s a Tune-up Race?

What’s a tune-up race, you might ask. Active.com offers a brief description of a tune-up race as a race that you run four to six weeks before a goal race. The author elaborates, “Depending on your fitness level and goals, the tune-up race can be run at an all-out effort or it could serve as a paced run.”

Pete Magill, a running coach, world-class runner, and author, gives us yet another insight on tune-up races, “No single workout better prepares us for a goal race than a tune-up race.”

Furthermore, racing a tune-up race is a way to gauge your fitness and also to practice the very important skill of racing. It is about practicing your confidence, self-control, and dealing with your nerves by simply immersing yourself in a race environment.

Forest of Needwood 5 Mile Run, which is also one of the races in the FSRC Grand Prix Series, serves as a great kick-off to the spring racing season for runners of all levels, from middle and high school students gearing up for their spring track season, to those in training for longer distances, and, finally, to those who run it just for fun, year after year, and some — for 38 years straight.

“1983 was a very cold and windy day and the distance was 10 miles at the time. I remember that race well because I was certain it would be my first DNF.

Recalls Tim O’Keefe who ran Forest of Needwood 25 times over the past years. Despite that first painful finish of the 1983 Forest of Needwood 10-miler, O’Keefe enjoys the race and keeps coming back to it because “it’s a good time and a year does an amazing job of dulling the grind up the hill at Mile 4.”

Tim O’Keefe, Forest of Needwood 2011

The Benefit of Running Hills

If you run in Frederick County, you know that it could be quite hilly. No matter how carefully you plan your running route, inevitably there will be some hills to contend with. Virtually every race in the county that is longer than a 5K will feature some sort of an incline. After all, even the Packers legend, Willie Davis, said, “The road to success runs uphill.” 

Recent research proves that hills are worth the burn. Running hill repeats has been a staple workout for the elites for decades. Regularly incorporating hill sessions in your training will improve your running form, produce more power, improve your VO2 Max, heart rate, and race performance. Running the Needwood race will definitely put you closer in accomplishing all of the above. 

The Hill on Brentland Road, Mile 4
The hill on Brentland Road, Forest of Needwood, Mile 4

The Forest of Needwood Race Inception

The history of the Forest of Needwood race dates back to a single training run on an average winter day in 1982. 

I was running on Burkitsville Road (Maryland Route 17) near Knoxville and noticed this big sign on the side of the road that read “Forest of Needwood”,

says Lee Zumbach, Brunswick High School track-and-field coach and a fellow Steeplechaser. The name “Forest of Needwood” (an estate dating back to the late 18th century) and the rich history behind it captured the coach’s imagination. The race of the Forest of Needwood was born in March of 1982.

In the 80s, Maryland and much less Frederick County had little to offer in terms of foot races. Zumbach, along with his friend and fellow high school coach, Walt Stull, decided to create one. Zumbach and Stull reached out to John Laughland, a member of the FSRC. They asked Laughland to help spread the word about the brand-new race to the local running community.

Subsequently, the Forest of Needwood race became one of the FSRC Grand Prix Races. It became the second oldest foot race in the history of Frederick County. The first official timed foot race is Goodloe Byron Memorial 10 Mile Run.

Initial 10-mile Course

Initially, the race was an out-and-back 10-miler, originating from the intersection of MD Rt. 180 and MD Rt. 17, where the Sheetz gas station resides. The inaugural Forest of Needwood crossed US-340 following Burkitsville Road northbound until the turnaround point at Mile 5. The race finished back at Sheetz and had a total of 21 finishers, according to Tim O’Keefe. O’Keefe finished 12th overall in 1:12.07. O’Keefe recalls that there were only two female finishers that first year and carries on,

“We were into the wind for most of the first miles and it was brutal. I was looking for the sag wagon but when we hit the turn around, it was like spring! My energy was back and I was sweating.”

O’Keefe also remembers that David Shafer won the race in 56:09. Dwayne Late came in 2nd place with a 59:34 finish time and Brent Ayer came in 3rd with a 1:05.25.

Course Shortens to 5 Miles

As the years went by and at the advice of Maryland police, who helped patrol the course, the organizers decided to shorten the distance of the race. It was an attempt to make the course safer by eliminating the dangerous intersection of US-340 and MD Rt. 17.

As a result and after some consideration, the race officials eventually settled on St. Mary Roman Catholic Church in Petersville as the start/finish point. They also changed the race course to a loop of 5 miles and 100 meters. Ever since 1986 the course remains the same distance.

It was definitely a good decision, as it turned out to be a beautiful and challenging course that followed the rolling hills of Knoxville. Besides that, the course of the race passes through farmland once owned by Maryland’s 2nd governor, Thomas Sim Lee and whose estate was called Forest of Needwood.

The Bucolic Views

The views of the Appalachian mountains from Lees Lane as you turn left at Mile 1.3 are worth the effort. It is the same view that appears on all of the Forest of Needwood tee shirts.

Susan Fauntleroy, a friend of Coach Zumbach’s and the first woman mayor of Brunswick, finely illustrated the majestic expanse of the Potomac Water Gap, framed by the South Mountain on the right and Loudoun Heights on the left. The design adorns the race tee shirts every year.

The view of the Potomac Water Gap from Lees Lane
The view of the Potomac Water Gap from Lees Lane

The Ides of March

The challenge of running the Forest of Needwood race doesn’t always come in the form of hills. One has to mention the Maryland weather in early to mid-March. 

[The race has] always been mid-March, which can be anything from a hot 70-degree day to a wicked winter blast. No matter what, there always seemed to be wind”,

as Tim O’Keefe informs. Summoning Shakespeare’s Caesar, alludes another Forest of Needwood veteran, Fred Schumacher, who ran the race for the past 20 years, “Beware the Ides of March!” Maryland weather in mid-March can be very unpredictable and a total gamble.

To illustrate, In 1992, the race officials had to postpone the race for a week because of snow accumulation on the roads. However, that year attracted the highest number of participants to date — 75. In the mid-90s the runners recall snowy conditions with winds so furious it knocked their feet about mid-stride. In 2010, the race officials suggested to shorten the race to a 5K because of snow drifts on Lees Lane. The uniform answer that followed was a firm, “Proceed with the 5 mile event!” And so they ran in knee-deep snow.

In the end, it was the dreaded coronavirus that effectively shut down the 38th Forest of Needwood a mere 24 hours before its 1 p.m. start on March 14, 2020. 

Jennifer Shafer Odom

At the turn of the 20th century, there was yet another change. In the summer of 1999 the Brunswick community found out the devastating news of the untimely death of Jennifer Shafer Odom. 

Captain Odom was a highly regarded West Point graduate and an experienced Army pilot, a Brunswick High School graduate of 1988, and, finally, one of the two valedictorians. Odom grew up on a former Needwood plantation property. She was the daughter of a dairy farmer and a math teacher, John and Janie Shafer. Jennifer was a quiet, reserved, and a very intellectual individual. She was involved in various high school sports, including indoor track, and participated in high school drama club. “She was a high achiever who really came out of her shell while performing on stage”, says Coach Zumbach. Zumbach taught Jennifer in High School Computer Science class and coached her in indoor track. 

Capt. Odom was on a secret reconnaissance flight in Colombia, one of thousands of American anti-drug missions flown in the region at the time, when her plane crashed into a jungle-covered, steep mountain. Unfortunately, no one survived.

The Race Gets a New Meaning

As the family and the local community at home mourned the death of Capt. Odom, the Forest of Needwood 5 Mile Race took a new meaning. The 5-mile run became a Memorial Race in Honor of Jennifer Shafer Odom. The race organizers established a college scholarship fund in the name of Jennifer Shafer Odom. Consequently, all the race proceeds go towards the fund and are later awarded to distinguished graduates of Brunswick High School.

Since its inception in 2000, Zumbach estimates, the fund raised and awarded close to $20,000 in scholarship money. To receive the award, a high school senior needs to have a high GPA, to be an active member of the community and a Brunswick High School track-and-field athlete. 

Volunteers and Community

The Shafer family is usually on hand at the start of the race and greet the finishers at St. Mary’s Catholic Church. So is Anne Zumbach, Coach Zumbach’s wife, the race’s co-director, coach of BHS girls cross country team, and a faithful volunteer of the race. Together with Walt Stull, another loyal Needwood volunteer, they used “what was called a ‘tick sheet’, this is before the use of printed times”, recalls Stull and further elaborates, “This was a sheet or sheets of paper with times printed on them. As runners crossed the finish line, I would call out a time and Anne would tick off the times on the sheet. Much, much easier now.”

Volunteers and community play a huge role in keeping the Needwood race alive. As Tim O’Keefe summarizes,

“The course volunteers are always happy and uplifting and encouraging. They always have a positive attitude and are cheering even when the weather is throwing its worst your way.”

The race has always had a strong contingent from the Brunswick High School and the Frederick Steeplechasers Running Club. This memorable event is well-supported by the local community of volunteers, ranging from friends and family to the President of Brunswick Area Recreational Council and the Mayor of Brunswick.

March 16, 1985, 3rd Annual Forest of Needwood Race. Top row, left-to-right: Bill Price, Robbie Stull, Heather Howard, Kristen Fauntleroy, Julie Howard, Lee Zumbach; bottom row: Anne Zumbach, Jackie Stull, Dawn Stull, the Mayor, Lora Price, Wally Stull, Walt Stull, and Shelly Howard.

A Fun Event

As challenging as the course can be, there is always some fun at the end. O’Keefe goes on to say that “Lee [Zumbach], Anne, and Walt Stull create a fun atmosphere fueled by the hilarious random prizes. You could win anything from running gear to bubbles, a badminton set, or a teddy bear.”

Without a doubt, the warm and family-like vibes of the event are usually most palpable during the consumption of the post-race spread of home-made goodies like brownies, rice crispy treats, cookies and “all stuff that tastes so good after a hard 5 mile run”, O’Keefe reminisces fondly.

Louis Schiavone, the winner of the 37th Needwood in 2019, adds, 

“It’s also an affordable, family-friendly event where spectators can easily watch from multiple points along the course. Overall, I really liked it and hope to do the race in person whenever it’s held again!”

We hope to see you in March 2021 for this great character-building race that honors a true American hero, Jennifer Shafer Odom, and supports local high school athletes!

If you wish to support the Forest of Needwood by volunteering and/or have any questions about the race, please contact Coach Lee Zumbach via e-mail, zumba682017@gmail.com.