Breaking through: A veteran racer takes us on the course

JO ANN KIRKLAND PHOTO | Islander Bryan Knipfing on his daily run through scenic Dering Harbor.

Every long distance race has a place, a moment, when the athlete’s endurance and will is tested. It’s that time and location where the invisible (don’t use that word with runners) “wall” is hit.

In Boston, it’s a place called Heartbreak Hill, which after April 15, 2013, will forever have a deeper meaning. In New York, it’s called “the Bridge of Sighs,” or the Willis Avenue Bridge, where the runners are alone until the crowds in Harlem just ahead over the bridge re-energize them.

For Islander Bryan Knipfing, 28, a wall appears in the Shelter Island 10K after running past spectacular views of Dering Harbor, crossing a narrow bridge where a tidal flow runs past at the base of a hill. “I know I’m close,” Bryan said, “with only about 1.5 miles to go. But my legs are tired.”

Bryan should know the place. He’s a veteran of the 10K, running every one since 2008. His best time has been just under 33 minutes for the 6.2-mile course, finishing in the top ten last year.

That wall is, of course, an exaggeration for someone who pounds out 40 miles a week, but Bryan does feel something once the adrenaline of starting the world-renowned race begins to fade. Maybe it’s because that beautiful stretch of the course along the harbor is similar to the loneliness of New York’s Bridge of Sighs. There are fewer spectators providing encouragement and buzz to keep Bryan’s energy level soaring.

Recently, the Reporter went along with Bryan to check out the course.

The race starts for the assistant director of Camp Quinipet and head of the Shelter Island All-Faith Youth Group with no thought of walls or obstacles. Arriving an hour before the gun goes off, Bryan follows a strict ritual of stretching at the old black anchor resting just next to Town Hall.

“With the music playing and buzz of voices, I’m getting ready with all the excitement,” Bryan said.

At the start, with the course taking the mad scramble of runners down hill past the Presbyterian Church and 18 Bay restaurant, Bryan is finding his rhythm, keeping a close eye on the other elite racers who are breaking out from the pack. Crowds line North Ferry Road in full voice.

The first turn is a left at the traffic circle, with runners continuing to jostle, sprint and dart, making moves to establish positions to get on the paces they’ve planned.

Suddenly the air will be filled with the sound of heavy iron music: the bells of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church up ahead on a rise greeting the runners. But before passing St. Mary’s, Bryan always gets a boost at the corner of Thomas Street where old friends gather to call out his name. “Here I’ve found a pace and settled into it.”

Ahead, huge sand-colored boulders, left where the last Ice Age deposited them, signals a slight turn, taking the runners past the gaudy display of the Whale’s Tale mini-golf course.

A steep hill begins at George Fox Lane that climbs to meet a pristine white fence rolling with the land up to where the road plateaus. Most runners, including Bryan, are still stoked on the atmosphere and have reserves to burn.

At the top of the hill is just one of the reasons the Shelter Island 10K is different. “I’ve run a lot of different races in different places, but what makes Shelter Island’s unique is it’s the most beautiful,” Bryan said, looking out at the long vista of Coecles Harbor, blue water winking in the sunshine.

Downhill the view remains, but there are few spectators until a second rise is reached where there’s an annual 10K party of revelers. The field has thinned with the elites putting distance between them and other runners as they make their way along the water bordered by lush wetlands.

A left at Cobbetts Lane, which switchbacks under trees until opening out to the old Manhanset firehouse on the left. “It feels like I kind of get stuck here,” Bryan said. The fire station is the first water stop, usually manned by a group of energetic volunteers, but Bryan ignores their offerings. “It’s difficult with all the grabbing and then trying to drink.”

Soon it’s back under the tress, the road dipping and rising gently — and there’s quiet. But after a right at Manhanset Road, people are appearing at every corner as the woods thicken. It’s like running in a green tunnel.

Bryan has hit the 3-mile mark at Havens Road where there’s a quick right and left. The road bends and twists to finally come out to views of the bay, with ferries gliding dream-like in the distance and sailboats cutting past, a foreground for Greenport across the water. “This is one of my favorite places,” Bryan said.

Up past a classic New England scene of the Dering Harbor Town Hall and it’s down to meet the bay again at Shore Road. Here the 10K course narrows significantly. Bryan’s in the second of three packs of runners now as the racers funnel into a quickening pace along the water.

There are three or four elite runners ahead, and Bryan, who chooses to run solo here, has three or four runners behind him. It’s close quarters on the narrow lane and then he’s at the place he dreads, beginning to feel his legs at the sight of the Dering Harbor Inn and a crowd of partying spectators.

Bryan knows he’s got reserves after he’s hit the mini-wall and breaks through. “I won’t start my kick here,” he said. “I’ll wait until the 5-mile mark,” which is another half mile ahead.

A left on North Ferry Road and he’s back on the main drag of the Island. But he’s holding his kick for the 5-mile mark, which comes soon enough at the right turn onto West Neck Road and a quick left onto Midway Road. Here he’ll spot a friend, John Monaghan, cheering him home. At Sleepy Hollow Road, a Boy Scout troop is handing out water, with people crowding every driveway.

“I’m trying my best here,” Bryan said. He can hear the loud buzzing of crowds at the finish line and an amplified voice calling out the numbers of racers.

“I’m in a sprint,” Bryan said as he makes the left at Bateman Road. About 100 yards in and Bryan’s on the school athletic field taking a half lap to the finish.

Crossing the line, only one word suits: “Exhilarated.”