Great Bear Run Attracts Competitive Edge

May 20, 2024
• Runners broke records and reveled in the rain in this year’s Great Bear Run.

At the sound of an airhorn, hundreds of runners took off down Harris Avenue in the 32nd iteration of the Great Bear Run. The Needham road race welcomed casual locals and seasoned competitors for its highest turnout on record, organizer John Hrones told 5K participants at the starting line.

Pollard Middle School flooded with families from across the region, who competed in the 5K, mile run, and various meter runs for children between 4 and 12 years old. The Tiny Tot Bearathon — a 26.2 meter race — was open to kids 3 and under. And while fast runners sought out records and titles, young runners were guaranteed something special: a teddy bear.

Jan Holmquist, 80, of Needham, broke an unofficial world 5K record at Needham’s Great Bear Run Sunday. (Cameron Morsberger)

Prior to the race, Hrones estimated they’d hand out at least 725 teddy bears but they had about 150 back-ups. Hrones is the director of the Needham Youth Track Club, which puts on the race.

Bib number 80 was reserved for Boston Marathoner and Needhamite Jan Holmquist, who celebrated her 80th birthday on Saturday. An experienced distance runner, Holmquist ran alongside her granddaughter, Needham High School sophomore Story Bracker, for the entire 5K.

As part of the birthday festivities, Holmquist received another present: her own record. She unofficially set a world record 5K time for 80 to 84-year-olds by 58 seconds, completing the race in 24 minutes and 16 seconds. Her chip time — the actual time from the starting line to the finish line — was even faster at 24:08, according to the race results.

But what made the race extra special was her loved one and pacesetter beside her with every stride.

“The Great Bear Run has always been such a family event. I think that makes it even more special to run with family,” Holmquist said. “And, of course, building up to try to set a record, it’s always fun when you do.”

Bracker, a member of the Needham Youth Track Club, remembers when Holmquist ran much faster than her, but she’s since caught up. Bracker runs the 5K in cross country and the mile run in track.

Erik Linden crosses the finish line at the Great Bear Run on Sunday. He placed first and set a new course record. (Cameron Morsberger)

“It was really fun. It was really memorable,” Bracker said. “I paced her the whole time, just to make sure she got the record.”

This year, the run received USATF certification, meaning participants can use their times in the race for national rankings or records. That distinction brought out experienced distance runners, who took home trophies for first, second and third place finishes.

In his first Great Bear Run, first-place men’s finisher Erik Linden said he set out to win. The Dover native said he enjoys completing the USA Track & Field’s New England Road Race Grand Prix, of which Needham is a part. Next on the circuit is a mile run in Hopkinton July 21.

Linden set a new course record of 14:26, beating the previous one by about 19 seconds. Though he didn’t set out with a record in mind, Linden said he entered with the goal of crossing the finish line first.

“For this last spring season, I was actually aiming for sub-14 on the track, which I was able to do three weeks ago or so,” Linden said. “This was just going for the win, didn’t really care about time.”

Molly Huddle, a Boston Marathoner and former Olympian, approaches the finish line at the Great Bear Run in Needham on Sunday. (Cameron Morsberger)

Former Olympian Molly Huddle placed first in the women’s division with a course record of 15:56. With a 2-year-old to raise, Huddle, who lives outside Providence, said traveling far for races is not so easy anymore, so the New England road races are good opportunities for her.

While she couldn’t run with her daughter — no strollers were allowed — Huddle “crushed it,” second-place women’s finisher Melissa Lodge said.

“I was just trying to run fast,” Huddle said.

The 5K takes runners down Harris Avenue, along Great Plain Avenue, down South Street and up Dedham Avenue and Bradford Street by DeFazio Field before they turn back onto Harris and finish where they started.

Dozens of volunteers — all counselors from the Needham Youth Track Club — handed out medals and teddy bears to young runners, which have become synonymous with the event. Hrones, the longtime director of the race, said his and his wife’s affiliation with the stuffed animals inspired the name and imagery of the race back in 1991.

A runner grabs a teddy bear after completing the Great Bear Run 5K on Sunday. (Cameron Morsberger)

“I think we had a few teddy bears, and there’s a teddy bear inn in Vermont that we went to,” Hrones said. “I don’t know, it just sort of grew.”

Sam Damiano, 9, of Needham, celebrated his first Great Bear Run and first ever 5K race. His dad Matt also ran the race, but Damiano ran solo in his own group. A track runner, Damiano said it was the longest he’s ever run, and reaching the finish line was exciting. He got both a medal and a teddy bear, but he’s only keeping the medal.

“I gave it to my sister because I don’t really like teddy bears,” Damiano said.

This was Emma Bagnell’s first race as the sole director, taking the reins from Hrones. Last year, the pair co-directed, Bagnell said. She previously ran the 5K with a neighbor and her children, both of whom got a teddy bear at the finish line.

T-shirts from prior Great Bear Runs — dating back to 1991 — were displayed outside Pollard Middle School during the race Sunday. (Cameron Morsberger)

While she wasn’t able to participate in the run herself, Bagnell got her running high last month, when she completed the Boston Athletic Association’s 5K. It was her first road race in about two years, she said. Across the region, it’s not hard to find runners of all kinds.

“Boston is such a running community,” she said.

What makes the Great Bear Run unique is its emphasis on inclusion, Hrones said.

“The idea is that we have enough races that there’s something for everyone,” he said.

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