Slowing down and running a race might sound like a contradiction, but in this tiny, picturesque town in Pennsylvania, the two go hand in hand. Every September, Bird-in-Hand hosts a unique running event – a half-marathon through a world without cars and electricity.
You run down the road, putting one foot in front of the other, past cornfields and cow pastures, horse-drawn buggies and haystacks. As far as the eye can see, there are no cars, no smartphones – not even power lines. But you haven’t stumbled onto the set of a Hollywood movie about a bygone era. This is Lancaster County in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania, home to the nation’s largest Amish community. Some 80,000 members of this Christian fellowship live here in Pennsylvania. Many members of the Amish community live as they did in former times, without electricity, cars, or many modern technical innovations. They drive horse-drawn buggies, sew their own clothes – and of course, never use smartphones. One of the oldest localities, with a history dating back about 300 years, is the hamlet of Bird-in-Hand. And although it has a population of only around 400, most of whom work in agriculture, the place has gained a certain degree of international fame. Because once a year, usually in September, the community plays host to the Bird-in-Hand Half Marathon, one of the most unusual running events on the worldwide marathon calendar.
“This is a course that challenges your body and refreshes your soul,” say the organizers. And this is largely due to the surroundings. Idyllic landscapes, well-tended farms, and nature-loving locals are all par for the course in Lancaster County. Time may seem to stand still in this small corner of the world, but it does have its own history. The first European settlers arrived here in 1683, among them members of Anabaptist fellowships – the forbears of today’s Amish community – from Germany, Switzerland, and Alsace. The more familiar features of their chosen lifestyle include plain clothing, no electricity, and a rural existence. Some people will recall the portrayal of Amish life in the film “Witness,” in which Harrison Ford plays a police officer on the run from criminals who seeks refuge in an Amish community. Today around 300,000 members of the Amish fellowship live in Canada and the United States. Lancaster County is home to descendants of the original Amish settlers, members of the Old Order Amish.
But the local community is also full of running enthusiasts, and enjoys the opportunity to show its spirit of hospitality. The Amish cook for the runners on the evening before the race, there is a traditional bonfire, and, on the morning of the race, a colorful hot-air balloon festival. And the Amish community also helps put a special face on the event. Amish horse-drawn carts or buggies serve as the pacemakers. Small children in traditional clothing and calling “Water, water!” do their part to keep the runners hydrated. And sprinkled among the breathable running tops and super-grippy running shoes – some with Continental soles – you’ll even see a few Amish runners wearing homespun linen shirts. The Amish culture makes a definite mark on this run – both on the course and on the sidelines, where you’ll find traditional baked goods, laughing children, and interesting conversations. An encounter between two cultures that live so close together. And at the end beckons a special medal that will surely stand out on any trophy shelf: a horseshoe that was made by a blacksmith in the community and has been worn by a local horse.
But the truly unique honor goes only to those who complete two races in Amish country in a single calendar year. In addition to the Bird-in-Hand Half Marathon (next race on Sept. 7, 2018), in April (most recently on April 14, 2018) Lancaster County also hosts the Garden Spot Village Marathon, a race covering the full marathon distance. Whoever successfully completes both runs receives the coveted Road Apple Award – a handful of genuine, sanitized, purified, petrified horse droppings mounted on a photo plate.