Like many people, Sandra Allen was frustrated that the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted her plans last year.
In her words, 2020 “just sucked.”
Allen, an avid runner who moved to Keene from Concord in 2016, had been registered in a half ironman — a long-distance triathlon — and the local Clarence DeMar Marathon, but both events were canceled. A trip to Key West that her husband, Rusty, had planned for her 50th birthday was also bagged.
For her 51st last week, Allen vowed not to let the pandemic spoil her celebration again.
Her idea? To run 51 miles — the equivalent of nearly two marathons.
“I wanted to do something that couldn’t get taken away from me,” she said.
Last November, Allen asked another local distance runner, Thomas Paquette of Keene, to help her train for the 51-miler. She told Paquette to keep the plan a secret.
By Christmas, though, Allen had worked up the nerve to tell her family how she wanted to celebrate her birthday.
“Everyone was so supportive,” she said. “They didn’t make me think that I was crazy.”
Allen was used to logging 15 to 20 miles per week, having regularly run long-distance events, including the 45-mile Ghost Train trail race in Milford three times. Paquette’s regimen called for building up to around 50 miles each week, though.
Training in the winter meant battling bleak conditions: Allen ran 26 miles during a late February snowstorm.
“The roads were just crappy, and drivers weren’t very nice that day,” she said. “They had said it was only going to be a few inches, but it turned out to be a lot more, so I was a little crabby.”
It was ironic, Allen said, that when it came time for her 51-mile run April 10 — two days before her birthday — the biggest challenge was heat, with temperatures climbing well into the 70s. (In an appropriate coincidence, Allen said it was 51 degrees when she started at 5 a.m.)
Her route, which included five different loops from the Panera Bread parking lot on West Street, was designed to make it a social event.
Starting with a 5-mile tour of Optical Avenue and Baker Street in Keene, Allen then ran 10 miles up Court Street and back past the Keene Family YMCA and the high school. She logged 16 miles on the Cheshire Rail Trail, turning around in Westmoreland, before ending with 10 miles on the Ashuelot Rail Trail and another “short 10-miler” on the Cheshire Rail Trail.
Allen said she wasn’t alone for a single step of the 10½-hour odyssey, crediting her friends — who she said “wouldn’t shut up” — for keeping her mind off running when they joined at various points along her route.
“I kept saying, ‘You guys can go, it’s really OK’,” she said. “No one would leave.”
Changing into a different brightly colored outfit after each segment, Allen said those intervals pushed her to keep going.
“I remember coming off of the [Ashuelot Rail] Trail at mile 40, and the Panera parking lot was just cars everywhere,” she said. “… Everyone was there. The thought of not finishing just didn’t occur to me because all these people had showed up.”
Even after her 51-miler, Allen isn’t ready to relax.
She and her son, Jaden, 25, who ran the final four miles with her April 10, participated in a 5k in Londonderry on Saturday — just one week later. She plans to run the New England Green River Marathon, from Vermont to Massachusetts, in August and also has her eyes on a few half marathons later this year.
With Paquette’s help, Allen said she is training smarter and running faster, even logging a personal-best time at the Shamrock Half Marathon in Manchester last month.
“He’s a great coach, and he did it in such a way that I was never hurt,” she said. “… I feel awesome.”
More than any changes to her running routine, Paquette said it was important for Allen to prioritize eating and sleeping well and hydrating. Focusing solely on running, rather than swimming and cycling in preparation for a triathlon, also improved her strength in that discipline, he said.
Paquette explained, however, that Allen’s success was equally a product of her mental toughness, adding, “I can’t coach that.”
“She just has this flair, this spark in her that nothing will stop her,” he said. “If she has her mind set on something, she’ll do it.”
How that spark will burn when Allen turns 52 is unclear. She mused that she may take inspiration from a 90-year-old man who recently ran 90 laps on a track to celebrate his birthday.
For now, she remains committed to something that she said pushed her to keep going for 51 miles, even when she felt hot, tired and worn out.
“My personal mantra was there’s going to come a day when I won’t be able to run, and today is not that day.”
The Hot Hogs BBQ food truck in downtown Keene is going out of business after nearly five years, as its owner moves to a less demanding job.
Shana Davis, a Keene resident who opened the award-winning truck in 2017, said her decision was not related to any financial challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. On the contrary, she said Hot Hogs’ most recent season — from last April to the end of December — was “hugely busy.”
“I couldn’t keep [food] in stock,” she said. “… We were selling out frequently.”
But the pandemic prompted Davis to reflect on the future of the business and her own work-life balance.
When Hot Hogs was open — most of the year, excluding the winter months — Davis said she often spent more than 70 hours per week preparing and selling food, managing the truck’s finances and doing its marketing. Expanding the business further would have prompted additional costs like purchasing a larger trailer and hiring staff, she said.
She decided to step away instead and has taken a human-resources role at a local company that she said offers much-needed stability.
“It will be nice to work a 40-hour-a-week job with a consistent schedule and not have to worry about what happens if something breaks or if it rains,” she said.
Davis and her husband, Ricky, opened Hot Hogs shortly after winning an amateur pulled-pork competition at Alyson’s Orchard in Walpole, she said. The day after the contest, they saw that a food truck had left its former spot near the corner of Emerald and Wilson streets, so they decided to start a truck of their own at that location.
Ricky was initially going to handle most of Hot Hogs’ operations, since Shana — an accomplished country vocalist — had little cooking experience, she said. That changed, though, when the couple realized it made more sense for her to run the truck while he kept his day job at Polyonics, a Westmoreland label and tape manufacturer.
“All of a sudden, we had this switcheroo,” she said. “I had to learn how to cook really fast.”
Davis said she quickly grew to love the work, which included smoking her own meat and pulling it by hand. The truck’s barbecue fare, which she sold at its location downtown and various catering events, proved popular.
Hot Hogs was named best food truck in New Hampshire in WMUR’s viewers’ choice contest in 2017 — an award it won again last year. WMUR viewers also crowned the business as having the best barbecue in the state in 2018 and 2019.
Davis said she thinks Hot Hogs customers appreciated that its food was made from scratch. The truck garnered a loyal clientele, she said, calling the decision to close “heartbreaking” because she will no longer see those people every day. (Anyone with an outstanding gift certificate can request a cash refund, according to Davis.)
“They’ve all become friends,” she said. “I got to know exactly how they wanted their barbecue or how they liked their hot dogs.”
Although she is selling Hot Hogs’ two trailers, Davis said she plans to keep her trademark on the business’ name — partially for sentimental reasons but also with an eye to the future.
“You never know,” she said. “Maybe someday we’d be in a position, when we retire, to bring it back in some capacity … We really enjoyed doing this. It was a labor of love.”
The most immediate impact over the state’s lifting of the mask mandate will likely be felt in the retail sector, where businesses must now decide whether to set and enforce their own COVID-19 policies, and customers will face a patchwork of restrictions, store to store, restaurant to restaurant.
Patrons at any of John Tinios’s restaurants on the Seacoast will now encounter a sign that explains they would appreciate customers continuing to wear masks, but there will be no requirement. “We are not going to fight with our customers, or police them, if they decide not to,” Tinios said Friday.
Servers and cooks, however, will still continue to wear masks. Tinios said he’s hearing mixed reactions from other restaurateurs about the new flexibility.
“I think there are a lot of them that are rejoicing, while others are lamenting that they have a larger role to communicate to their customer,” he said.
Other businesses are taking a firmer approach, including at Jetpack Comics in Rochester, where anyone entering the store will still be required to wear a mask. “We are going to enforce masks, until every person that works here feels comfortable about people not having masks,” said Ralph Dibernardo, the shop’s owner.
Dibernardo said he’s supported Sununu’s decisions throughout the pandemic, but believes the repeal of the mask mandate comes “a little too soon.” One fear he has is that the governor’s decision will lead to more confrontation.
“All of the staff, we are just so used to dealing with it that we don’t engage in the argument anymore,” Dibernardo said. “If somebody wants to start a discussion about it, there’s no discussion to have. This is our rule, if you don’t want to follow it, you don’t have to shop here.”
Health-care sector still under strain
In announcing the expiration of the mask mandate Thursday, Sununu pointed to the availability of hospital beds and an easing of the health care labor crunch.
Martha Wassell, director of infection prevention at Wentworth Douglass Hospital in Dover, said, while staff shortages have gotten much better, thanks to the rise in vaccinations, many staff are worn down by the pandemic.
When it comes to beds, the hospital has been “full to the brim” over the past two weeks with COVID and non-COVID patients, she said, and the hospital opened up annexes to house and care for more patients.
Statewide, New Hampshire’s inpatient and ICU hospital beds are about as full as they were when the mask mandate first took effect last November, and COVID patients are occupying a similar share of beds, according to federal hospital data.
Anne Sosin, program director for the Center for Global Health Equity at Dartmouth College, said dropping the statewide mask mandate is premature. She said, when it comes to the state’s younger population, many have not yet had the opportunity to get vaccinated.
“Many young people are working in higher risk settings such as grocery stores, retail, where they’re not choosing whether or not they’re exposed to COVID-19,” she said.
Lifting the mandate leaves them at higher risk for contracting the virus, Sosin said, especially as COVID variants continue to spread.
State government gets leeway
What the lifting of the statewide mask requirement means for the 10,000-plus state workers isn’t entirely clear. In his Thursday announcement, Sununu didn’t specify any policy for state government, one of New Hampshire’s largest employers.
Charlie Arlinghaus, commissioner of the state Department of Administrative Services, said in an email that agency leaders will have latitude to implement health and safety policies specific to their departments.
“Every space is different and every operation is different, so agency heads will work internally to have internal protocols that encourage safety and normal operations,” Arlinghaus said.
But Rich Gulla, president of the State Employees Association, the largest union representing state workers, said he hopes state leaders will still opt for mandatory masks within state office buildings.
“I think it makes common sense, based on everything we are seeing right now, to keep wearing masks for the safety of fellow citizens,” Gulla said,
A spokesman for Sununu said public-facing state offices and facilities — including state-run liquor stores and DMV offices — located in cities and towns with mask mandates will “follow and comply with local rules.”
Schools still push masking
Meanwhile, schools are reminding students and parents that despite the end of the statewide mask mandate, masks are still required in school.
K-12 schools have been exempt from the statewide mask mandate and given flexibility to develop their own mask rules, but school leaders say the statewide mandate reinforced their rules for mask-wearing on buses, in classrooms, and during sporting events.
Some school officials say they’re already getting inquiries about whether the mask rule will change and worry about pressure from parents with the statewide change.
State health officials say masks are essential to limit the transmission of COVID-19 as schools fully reopen next week, particularly as some relax their distancing restrictions to accommodate more students.
Several cities and towns are keeping their own mandates in place in lieu of the expired statewide mandate. More than a dozen municipalities had already passed their own mask mandates before the state requirement took effect last November. That includes Hanover, Lebanon, Keene, Concord, Nashua, Franconia, Plymouth and several Seacoast towns, including Durham.
Other towns, like Conway, that don’t currently have a mask ordinance in place, plan on discussing the expiration of the statewide mandate at upcoming select board meetings.
New Hampshire is now the only state in the Northeast without a statewide mask mandate.
QUECHEE — Saturday, the last day he was open for business this season, was a quiet one for Jack Henderson, owner of Henderson’s Ski and Snowboard on Route 4 in Quechee. Customers would occasionally show up to return their equipment rentals, but otherwise the most noticeable presence was the Grateful Dead and reggae music filling the store.
“I’m just so glad to get out of here,” said Henderson, but not for the reason you’d think. He called the 2020-21 winter ski season for his shop — the year when the COVID-19 pandemic that shut down entire countries and economies — “extraordinary” and one of the best he’s seen in 37 years of business. He reported a 30 percent increase in leasing of ski equipment both for adults and juniors and strong demand for climbing skins and new skis for backcountry skiing.
“We made it through 9/11. We made it through the pandemic. It just shows how resilient the ski industry is,” Henderson said.
But while ski shops across New England reported a strong year for business, other segments of the ski industry saw different outcomes.
The consensus: New Hampshire’s ski resorts fared better than Vermont’s; hotels experienced setbacks, sometimes severe; and ski shops in both states had banner years.
For overall ski traffic, the difference between the Twin States is striking, and most industry experts attributed it to COVID-19 travel restrictions and proximity to population centers.
Vermont ski resorts reported “some fairly steep declines,” particularly in the sale of day passes, said Molly Mahar, president of Ski Vermont, the state’s ski-industry trade group.
“Strict travel requirements for coming to Vermont definitely had a big impact on our business this year,” she said.
Although final season numbers will not be tabulated until later this spring, a picture nonetheless is already clear.
She said that although sales of season passes were up, daily lift-ticket sales fell 40 percent, food and beverage sales at resorts — due to seating capacity limits — plunged 70 percent and overall business at Vermont resorts over the three holiday periods of the winter — Christmas/New Year’s, Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Presidents Day — was off 30 percent to 35 percent.
Ski resorts in New Hampshire fared better, pleasantly surprising with a year something like normal.
Jessyca Keeler, executive director of Ski New Hampshire, the trade group that represents the state’s ski resorts, said preliminary numbers show that “ski visits” in the state appear to be keeping pace with prior levels. New Hampshire has been averaging about 2.1 million ski visits — defined as one skier’s visit to one ski site per day — in recent years.
“I think we are going to be close to that, which is pretty amazing considering everything,” said Keeler, who credited New Hampshire’s more liberal travel guidelines with the results.
Both Mahar and Keeler attributed the rift between the states to Vermont’s restrictive travel and quarantine policies, which for much of winter asked visitors to hole up for 10 or 14 days after crossing the border into the Green Mountain State. People traveling to Vermont account for 75 percent to 80 percent of skiers in the state, and many likely decided it wasn’t worth the trouble.
“We are very reliant on out-of-staters for business,” Mahar said.
With travel curtailed, hotels suffered accordingly.
Patrick Fultz owns the 10-room Sleep Woodstock Motel on Route 4 between Woodstock and Bridgewater, which caters to skiers at both Killington and Suicide Six. When 75 percent of his bookings canceled their winter reservations, he did something he’s never done in the eight years owning the motel: He closed for the winter.
The federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program helped Fultz continue paying his two employees and, with state business grants and his own savings, he has been using the downtime for some needed renovations. The motel will reopen on April 29, and Fultz reports that summer wedding bookings are already looking strong.
Still, he estimates he could have lost upward of $100,000 in revenue.
“Normally we’d sell out on weekends during ski season, but this year we had zero bookings,” he said.
On the other side of Woodstock, Barbara Shehan, manager of The Shire Woodstock, a 50-room hotel at the east end of the village, said it was not unusual for occupancy on weekends to be below 10 percent.
“We really struggled,” she said, describing the season as “a fraction of the business we do normally.”
New Hampshire ski-area hotel operators also experienced a sharply different winter than their Vermont cohorts.
“By no means was it the best year we’ve ever had, but by no means was it the worst, either,” said Tom Behrens, owner of the Mountain Edge Resort & Spa and Sunapee Lake Lodge, both in Newbury.
Behrens said occupancy was down 15 percent this season. But that’s largely due to the cancellation of group bookings and a policy to keep rooms vacant for a day in order to clean them between occupancy.
Taking all that into account, the decline doesn’t seem so bad in an industry that was unpredictable long before COVID-19.
“We could be off 15 percent due to weather,” Behrens said.
One common refrain from in the past year of COVID-19 was an increased interest in open-air activities, which run a much lower risk of transmitting the airborne virus. As the pandemic stretched into winter, so too did the increased demand extend to ski shops on both sides of the Connecticut River.
Like Henderson’s in Quechee, Frank MacConnell, longtime owner of Bob Skinner’s Ski and Sport near the base of Mount Sunapee in Newbury, also said his store saw one of the best seasons it’s had in the 36 years he’s been in business.
He thinks New Hampshire ski areas benefited not just from Vermont’s travel restrictions but also from the influx of so-called COVID-19 refugees — families who either rented or bought second homes in the state while working and attending school remotely.
“Wednesday is normally a slower time, but families were showing up midweek to ski at Sunapee,” he observed.
Time will tell whether that means good news for the industry in future seasons. But the results from this winter are hard to argue.
Although he was initially bracing for a slow season, “in December the lid blew off, ” MacConnell said, and he was stunned at the number of skiers coming to the store.
“It’s almost embarrassing,” he said.
This article is being shared by a partner in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.