In 2008, Paul Coats discovered a trail running race in Newport, NH that caught his attention. The longtime director of the Lebanon Recreation, Arts, and Parks Department – and a serious runner himself – Coats knew competitive athletes expect professional timing and precise distance measurements. These quality characteristics found at the Newport Recreation trail race were usually reserved for events abutting metropolitan areas. In a few short years, a wide-ranging host of trail and road running events for all ages and abilities would be brought to the Upper Valley, in large part thanks to Lebanon Recreation, Arts, and Parks.

In the early 2000s, trail-running competitions nationwide exclusively spanned lengths far beyond that of a marathon. Significantly more lengthy – and technical – trail running “ultras” made road marathons look like speed walks in the park.

Coats joined forces with fellow competitive runner Chad Denning, former associate director of Hanover Parks and Recreation. Coats recounts, the two had “become fast friends as work colleagues, and were dedicated to collaborative programming that would inspire people to play outside.”

Denning had built a repertoire of race-directing acumen while working and racing in Colorado. They networked with current and former Newport, Claremont, and Sunapee directors, P.J. Lovely, Scott Hausler, and Jon Reese, respectively, to create the Western NH Trail Running Series. “It was truly a collaborative effort from the beginning,” explains Coats.

The Western New Hampshire Trail Running (WNHTR) Series – primarily of four to eight-mile races – culminates on September 23rd with Lebanon’s Farnum Five, held uphill from the Lebanon Police Department Headquarters and across the street from Poverty Hill Orchards – a venue that opens runners and supporters following the race.

Sadly, Denning died just a few years after these collaborative efforts bore fruit. Aged 39 at the time, this local legend has been duly honored by subsequent race directors. 

But the spirit of race directing that Coats and Denning ignited in Lebanon and the surrounding Upper Valley region still lives on. “It’s incredible what happens organically when the right people… come together,” reflected Coats, because their story of collaborative event planning was just warming up. 

Within one year after the inception of the trail running series, the Upper Valley Running Club was born. Two years later, that club launched a series of road races certified for professional timing and accurate race lengths. For both, Lebanon Recreation was behind the scenes – the discreet linchpin and financial account holder. 

An original and ongoing Board member of the Upper Valley Running Club and Upper Valley Running Series Coordinator, Geoff Dunbar, recalls, “Paul stepped up and said, ‘You can be a program [of Lebanon Recreation].”

Dunbar explains that this type of marrying is “very unusual.” According to Dunbar, Coats offered insurance and registration through Lebanon Recreation. It was a similarly supportive conversation with starting the racing series.

UVRC members pause for a pre-race photo at the Shamrock Shuffle

Although “Lebanon has taken a leadership role, Lebanon is not in the name of any of these programs,” explains Coats in characteristic, tell-tale humility. “We take pride that we take part…But we’re not so prideful that we have to be one-on-one associated,” with originating or continuing to support these wide-ranging events and programs. 

This season, Lebanon hosts the Upper Valley Running Series’ four-miler Skip’s Run on June 18th and the 10k Downriver Rail Run on October 7th.

To wrap in more participants, the thriving running club launched another successful offering – the “Couch to 5K” program. “We help anyone [run],” exclaims Dunbar. 

Originally an opportunity for individuals to safely begin a fitness regimen with coaching support, the Couch to 5k program provided a critical community for individuals otherwise isolated during the pandemic. 

“Anytime you’re bringing [together] a group of people, [the shared passion] crosses all those boundaries of who you vote for, any other civic organizations you’re in, [or]…what high school you went to,” Coats says. 

And that experience is meeting the objectives Lebanon Recreation set out to achieve: “Our objective, our mission,” according to Coats, “is to build community in Lebanon.” And more than that even: “We want people from the bigger metropolitan areas to think, ‘I can move to that area…and call it home.’ That’s part of our charge.”

These programs, labors of love, fruits born of countless hands, started from the tipping point of just a few. As author Malcolm Gladwell explains, the influence of even one individual can be understatedly powerful. “I do love what I do,” admits Coats with a smile. And it shows.