G.W. Martin times a racer at the runner sled time trials. - Photos by Andy O’Brien
G.W. Martin times a racer at the runner sled time trials. - Photos by Andy O’Brien
"Get off the trail!" bellowed organizer G.W. Martin at the New England Runner Sled time trials in Montville last Saturday. "Here come the big guy doin' 'bout a hundred!"

As the group of mostly men sipping beers at the bottom of the road hoot and holler, David Ramee of Troy sails down the steep, snow-packed chute across the finish line.

"36:66! You're running the same speed! That's hot!" Martin shouts as the sledder slows to a halt.

For the past six years, runner sledders of all ages have descended on Hogback Mountain to vie for the title of "Fastest Runner Sledder in All the Land." According to Kerry Merrifield of Knox, it's sometimes a hard race to explain to those unfamiliar with the sport.

"I say, We're racing runner sleds, and people say, Oh you got a snowmobile? What size is it? I say it's a 65. And they go, What?!' says Merrifield.

The sleds these men are racing are the old-fashioned kind with steel runners. Preferably pre-World War II steel because it's the fastest, according to runner-sled veterans.

Martin, 34, says he founded the New England Runner Sled Association after a lifelong fondness for the sport. When he was a boy, Edgar Fuller, an elderly neighbor, would take Martin out at night sledding down the road with flashlights. And runner sledding has been a popular activity among the Martin clan for generations.

"My grandmother, when she was going into labor with my father on the way to the hospital, rode a runner sled down over Hogback Mountain to get to the tar road," Martin added. "So we've been sliding for a while."

Martin says he particularly loves the sport because it's inexpensive and it's good for sledders of all ages.

"It's a great way to get some of the folks who are more than middle aged to come out and get some exercise and do something that they're good at," says Martin. "Some of these older folks can be real competitors to these younger people. You don't usually have that in the other winter sports right now."

The racers range in age from their 20s to well into their 60s and having a little more weight can give a sledder that extra edge. Of last Saturday's 33 participants, 16 racers made the cut at the time trials. Ramee, one of the older racers, came in first, with a time of 36:27 on a sled he constructed and welded together himself.

"There are no grown men here," he says chuckling. "How can you be manly when you're holding a runner sled?"

Ramee came in second two years ago behind Scott Kady of Montville. However, the reigning champion, Brian Trahan, says he's geared up to bring back the title to his hometown of Clinton. So far, all six of the champions have hailed from Maine, but that hasn't stopped racers from away from trying.
George Schnarr, an automotive development market manager from Illinois, drove 20 hours with his wife to compete. Schnarr, 60, said he's had a love of runner sledding since he was a boy in Missouri, but unfortunately the activity is illegal in his part of Illinois. To train for the event, he's had to secretly practice in a soccer field when no one was around. Having looked everywhere for racing opportunities, Schnarr discovered videos of previous New England Runner Sled Championships on the Internet and convinced his wife to come for a little winter vacation. A collector of runner sleds, Schnarr has 37, ranging in vintage from the 1880s to the late 1950s. He shows off his late model 1958 Flexible Flyer, but he says he could have gotten a much better time if he had run on his 1928 gooseneck Flexible Flyer Airline Cruiser. He paces and discusses sledding technique with the others as Martin clocks in the last of the contenders. If he doesn't make the final cut, it's back to Illinois.

"I hope I qualify," he says nervously.

Finally, Martin assures Schnarr he's in, right behind Ramee, Trahan and Bubba Lawrence, the 2010 champion from Belfast.

This coming Saturday, February 23, at 8:30 a.m. all 16 finalists will compete for the gold. If there's enough snow on Saturday the race will be on, but Martin is hoping for a few more inches, so he can bring out his horse-drawn snow roller and get the chute nice and packed. Martin says he expects to have a couple hundred spectators who will come out for the race, which is held at the top of Bragdon Road off Route 220 in Montville. A big party, with the award ceremony, a bonfire, food and live music, will follow the race at about noon on Hogback Mountain Road. Martin says there will be sleigh rides, places to get warm and kids are encouraged to bring their sleds.