The Northfield Mount Hermon School is situated on the banks of the Connecticut River in western Massachusetts, deep in the heart of New England prep country. Its athletic rivalry with Deerfield Academy, a few miles to the south, is well known, at least in preppie circles, and Deerfield Weekend is the high, or low, point of Mount Hermon's football season, depending on its outcome.
For the last 88 years Mount Hermon has also been running, but its premier event, the annual Bemis-Forslund Pie Race, has been a rather well-kept secret. That's a shame, because there is nothing quite like it. For one thing, it is the oldest footrace in the U.S., six years older than the Boston Marathon and, by those who know it, more highly regarded. Students, faculty, staff, alumni and occasionally a guest or two are invited each year to the rural Mount Hermon campus to run a 4.5-mile cross-country course on the Monday of Thanksgiving week. The first three boy students, the first three girl students and the first alumnus and alumna to finish receive medals. Everyone else who beats a specified time—33 minutes for males, 40 minutes for females—gets a pie, a 10-inch, two-crust, all-American apple pie made that morning in the school bakery.
Successful middle-aged men have returned to Mount Hermon year after year in pursuit of that prize. When gasping runners cross the finish line, the urgent question on their lips is not "Who won?" or "What was my time?" but rather, "Did I win a pie?"
In the beginning, 1891, the race was not for pies and was distasteful to many because it was compulsory. Every student at the Mount Hermon School for Boys, "an earnestly Christian" institution founded by Dwight Lyman Moody, a celebrated evangelist of the day, was required to run a six-mile cross-country race once a year, regardless of his age or physical condition. The winner was given a medal, but everyone else ran for the greater glory of his dormitory team. Fifty-six years later, the Rev. Orvil (Pappy) Mirtz, Class of '25 and a retired faculty member, still remembers the experience as one of the worst of his life.
"Oh, it was just awful," says Axel B. Forslund, the man who changed all that. Forslund is a towering, genial Swede from Brooklyn who retired in 1970, after 41 years as Mount Hermon's athletic director, with his Flatbush accent intact. He had arrived at the school in 1929 at the age of 25, fresh out of Springfield College and with progressive ideas about physical education. By 1932 he had shortened the course to its present 4.5 miles, made participation voluntary, located an alumnus named Henry Bemis willing to endow a fund to pay for the medals and the pies and set the qualifying time for a pie at 33 minutes.
"Why pies?" said Forslund last week, back on campus to fire the starting gun, as he does each year. "Oh, it was something different, something to eat and something to share with roommates. Boys were always hungry."
At the beginning only 10 or 12% of the boys who ran won pies, but over the years the number has gradually risen until today, with 33 minutes still the criterion, about 80% of the field carries home a pie. This year, of the estimated 509 who finished, 420 won pies.
In 1972, when the student bodies of Mount Hermon and its sister school across the river, Northfield, were merged, girls began to compete, and what had been the Bemis Pie Race since 1931 became the Bemis-Forslund Pie Race to honor Gladys Forslund, Axel's wife, a loyal spectator at all Mount Hermon sporting events for four decades.
In a normal year the Pie Race is pretty much a family affair. This year, however, Mount Hermon is celebrating its centennial, and for the occasion, Frank Shorter, Class of '65, the school's most celebrated sporting alumnus, agreed to return for a try at regaining the race record he had held from 1965 to 1975. With Shorter in the field, a simple, down-home pie race became a media event and potentially a step on the road to Moscow, where Shorter is said to be aiming for the 10,000 in the Olympics.
The progress of Shorter's recovery from the foot surgery he underwent in April 1978 has been the subject of much speculation. He was disappointed with his seventh-place finish in the New York Marathon in October but was cheered the next day when an examination revealed a lower back condition and resultant nerve damage in his left leg that may have been the source of his leg and foot ailments all along. Most people would not breathe easier upon discovering they had back trouble, but Shorter's experiences over the past three years have been so puzzling and frustrating that he seemed delighted at last to have something tangible to come to grips with.