Chelmsford’s Peterson caps Merrimack River 10 mile trail race – Lowell Sun



The award and raffle ceremony following the Merrimack River 10 mile trail race is a show onto itself due to race director Steve Peterson, a Chelmsford resident. Here he announces a raffle winner.
Chelmsford resident Steve Peterson poses in front of past T-shirts last Saturday morning minutes before the 29th and final Merrimack River 10 mile trail race in Andover. The race director won the first race in 1992, when it was 11.5 miles long. (Courtesy Steve Peterson)

It;s 20 minutes to race time, and Steve Peterson stands at the starting line under a collection of T-shirts from past races.
“I hope I don’t cry,” the 55-year-old Chelmsford resident said Saturday morning.
Controlling his emotions wasn’t easy. The race director of the Merrimack River 10 mile trail race announced the 29th-annual race would be the final one.
“Thirteen minutes!” he later screams, his voice filling the parking lot behind the DoubleTree by Hilton.
No microphone is needed. Peterson is wired, a bundle of energy.
Peterson marvels at the dedication of his volunteers, many who have been by his side for decades, including Billerica native and renowned runner Dave Dunham, his “right hand” man for the race.
“It was a lot of years,” Peterson says. “You put your heart and soul into it.”
The race began on April 4, 1992. It was a humble start. Only 37 runners finished. Crossing the finish line first was none other than Peterson. Dunham, meanwhile, captured the 1996, 1997 and 1999 races.
When he addresses the runners seconds before Saturday’s finale, Peterson is, as always, entertaining. There are laughs. There are poignant moments, too. Peterson talks about how the race has raised $25,000 for the Thomas Chamberas Memorial Scholarship, given to a UMass Lowell cross country or track and field athlete.
Chamberas was shot and killed in 1994 during a robbery in Providence, R.I. Peterson ran at UMass Lowell with Chamberas and Dunham. Peterson notes the presence of Chamberas’ parents, staunch supporters of the race.
“Once a teammate, always a teammate,” Peterson says.
As Peterson addresses the runners, one yells out, “One more race, one more race.”
Peterson’s interaction with runners isn’t over. He hustles out to the course, yelling out encouragement at the bottom of a very steep hill more than three miles in.
“Petey has always been a bundle of energy and positivity. I think that really comes across when he directs the MRTR. Funny, when he first came up with the idea late in 1991 I told him it will never happen. I have never been so wrong!” Dunham says. “As a race director myself I know the commitment it takes to put on a race. Petey had to work especially hard this year with so many restrictions due to the ongoing pandemic. Fortunately he has the dedication to see it through.”
The 2014 race featured 306 finishers. This 71-runner field was the third smallest in the 29-year history, likely due to COVID-19. All but two of the first 28 races were held in late March or early April. The October start was necessary due to the pandemic, which forced last year’s race to be cancelled.
Groton resident Scott Spence, a good friend of Peterson who also ran at UMass Lowell, ran 27 out of the 29 races, reaching the coveted 200-mile river club.
“This was something to give back to the running community,” Spence said. “It was something he and Dave were passionate about.”
Peterson was not the most talented runner when he arrived at UML.
“He just worked and worked and worked. I can’t say enough about that,” said Spence, noting that Peterson brought that same work ethic to directing the race.
As usual, Spence provides a post-race meat-filled chili. The Chamberas family supplies a vegetable chili.
Each runner seems to know Peterson, or “Petey,” as he’s known to his friends, of whom there are many. The race fosters a friendly, even a family, atmosphere. Peterson is at the center of that vibe.
“I know all the names and I know all the faces, but I don’t know all the names with the faces,” he says. “Everyone is just great. They always shake my hand after. It’s heartfelt. I’ve always wanted a cheap little race.”
Indeed, in an era when a 5K (3.1 mile) race can cost $45-$50, the Merrimack River 10 mile trail race was $10 for pre-registered runners. One buck per mile? Unheard of. For many years the race was only $5, including the first two when it started and finished at Greater Lawrence Technical High School and was 11.5 miles.
Peterson is entertaining prior to the race. But it’s at the post-race award ceremony and raffle when Peterson elicits ear-to-ear smiles and loud laughs.
The raffle prizes are numerous – and random. A jar of olives. A box of Mike and Ike. A bag of licorice. He hands them out with a child-like enthusiasm. Nearly every runner leaves with a couple of items; all leave smiling.
For the first time he adds a bonus. He announces an A to Z music trivia contest. In a booming voice, Peterson reads (and a couple of times sings) lyrics from songs. If a runner correctly names the band or song, they will win a third item picked from a large box.
An engineer at Raytheon, Peterson transforms into a showman.
“I don’t know where that came from,” he says.
At the conclusion of the raffle, Peterson thanks the runners and volunteers.
Spence steps forward. He tries to thank Peterson for his dedication, but he’s overcome with emotion. He presents Peterson with a chili bowl crafted by his daughter, Courtney. It’s a touching moment that has Peterson struggling to regain his composure.
Peterson, who has run the Mount Washington Road Race 33 straight years, loves the out-and-back course.
“Right between Lowell and Lawrence … I bet a lot of people don’t even know about it,” he says. “You almost feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere. I like that.”
He will still run the course though his race director days are over.
So many memories.
The 1994 race when Olympic medalist and world cross country champion Lynn Jennings was inadvertently run into, forcing her to withdraw due to injury. The 2001 race when runners had to plow through waist high, frigid water after the Merrimack River flooded parts of the course. While only one woman finished the inaugural 1992 race, nearly 37 percent of all finishers in 2014 were female, 113 in total. In 2015, due to snow, the race was delayed until May.
The 29 races saw an average of 189 people finish.
Peterson lives in Chelmsford lives with his wife, Danielle, and their sons, Oliver, 18, and Andrew, 16.
After Saturday’s swan song, long after the last of the 71 finishers had left, Peterson jogs two miles into the scenic course along the banks of the Merrimack. He picks up direction markers placed in the woods.
He is in no hurry to return to his car.
“It was kind of like saying goodbye,” he says. “You don’t want to say goodbye. But it’s just time.”

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