Saturday, March 30, 2013

Growing up with The Falmouth Road Race

Meeting with Amby Burfoot in 2000.
I grew up in the small Cape Cod town of Falmouth. Falmouth is a town whose population more than triples in size during the summer season due to its lovely beaches and seaside lifestyle. Falmouth is also know for its annual road race and it was in Falmouth that I first loved running and racing as I literally  grew up running right along with the Falmouth Road Race. This post is a sort of part 2 to my previous post on Cameron Stracher's new book: Kings of the Road: How Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, and Alberto Salazar made Running go Boom. His book traces the history of running during the running boom years of 1972-1982 and highlights the Falmouth Road. Having started running a month after the first Falmouth Road Race in 1973 and being one of the 800 runners that ran the 1975 race with Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers, I consider myself fortunate to be an ordinary runner during those extraordinary days and to witness and partake in the running boom years. These are just some personal reflections of growing up during those times as well as added reflections on the decline of running post 1982.

As a kid, I was not fast, as I don't think I was granted many fast-twitch muscle fibers. I was born with a lot of endurance, however, and I was told I would be a good distance runner some day when I didn't really know what that meant. I had some books on running and famous Olympic runners when I was in elementary school and decided that I wanted to run the Boston Marathon when I was in third grade. No one would take me to the race, so Amby Burfoot won instead! I guess I was a bit ahead of the curve, as I acknowledged the Boston Marathon, even as a kid. Running in the 1960s was not on many people's radar or even lists of things to do (unless you were a kid).

I recall being in 7th or 8th grade and the gym teacher had all the boys run a mile at Gov. Fuller Field. I was in the lead until about 3/4 of the way when stomach cramps hit me, but I was still the third runner to finish and I felt some accomplishment in beating all the guys in my grade who were considered the athletes at the time. Around the same time, I realized that one of my female classmates was very special, Johanna Foreman made the Faces in Crowd section of Sports Illustrated for her running prowess and the entire school had an assembly in her honor. At a time when girls where starting to pursue equality in sports, John Carroll began coaching girls alongside the boys and the girls were gaining National prominence for the Falmouth Track Club. Without knowing it, Falmouth was becoming known for its runners. Johanna went on to be a top American middle distance runner when she was in high school along with two other girls mentioned in Stracher's book: Tammy Hennemuth and Nancy Robinson (and there were plenty of other fast female runners). While I liked the idea of running and had even cut a few articles I had found of people who had actually run across the United States as some sort of inspiration for a later date, I was just a normal kid having fun doing all the sports of the neighborhood: street hockey and street football games, pickup baseball games at Worcester Court or at the ball field in Falmouth Heights right across from the beach, or just riding our bikes all over town.

Then I met my first runner. Well, I knew who he was already, but my family would marvel as we watched a high school friend and runner constantly running by our house and all over town through the summer seasons. Tommy Johnston lived a couple miles away and we kept seeing him zipping around and I think I recall that he was usually doing 8 mile runs. All that I can say is that I was very impressed and wanted to do likewise some day! In those days it was extremely rare to see anyone running on the roads at all!

Tommy Johnson running in the 1976 Falmouth Road Race.
I remember that during the summer of 1973, I kept hearing of a "marathon" that was going to be held in Falmouth. I had watched the great runners for years in track meets that were televised so readily in the 1960s and 1970s. I remember watching Jim Ryun at the 1968 summer Olympics in Mexico City and had watched everything that I could of the 1972 Munich Olympics including Frank Shorter's victory in the the marathon. Now a year later, a road race of 7 miles was going to be held from Woods Hole to that Falmouth Heights ball field just a short distance from my house. I recall thinking that it would be fun to run the race and that I might be good at it, but didn't really know what to do about it so nothing happened. I was happy that I didn't run when I saw how wet and rainy the race was in the newspaper articles afterwards. Tommy Johnston finished 9th in that inaugural Falmouth Road Race less than a month before he headed off to Wheaton College, where he continued to run cross-country.

A few weeks after that first Falmouth Road Race, I was a 9th grader at at the brand new Falmouth High School. I had intended to go out for the soccer team, but had been on vacation with my family during the preseason camp and sign up. A few weeks into the school year, Tommy's brother Stewart and I decided to join the cross-country team. It was an early release day, so there was plenty of time for running that day. I think the date was September 19, 1973 and if so, that is the date I became a runner. We ran the entire 2.9 mile cross-country course as a preview plus warmups and strides around the track as it was also a race day, we ran down the road to cheer on the varsity runners before our race. Stu and I ran together near the back of the pack when our race went off and about a mile into the woods, we went left where we should have gone right. We got lost and two girls from the opposing team followed right along. There was a lot of walking and a lot of time before we made it out of the woods and onto Gifford Street far past Brick Kiln Road where we were supposed to be . By the time we made it back to the school an hour or so later, everyone was worried about the two missing girls. No one even cared that Stu and I had been lost! I didn't run again until the next Monday (another race). All that I remember was that I could barely walk for days, let alone think about running. My legs were impossibly sore (at the time I think we calculated that we had done 8 miles of running and walking that afternoon).

Stu and I did not distinguish ourselves as runners and we usually finished last on our team of some very good runners. The only highlight would be the end of season team race which was a handicap race on our home course. I improved my best time on the course by 37 seconds and was the first to finish in an unremarkable time of 19:53 but I ended up "winning" the race: well, at least being the first finisher as I had improved the most and the starting times were based on your best time. I may not have been good, but I was hooked on running.

Unfortunately, with a new school came some really weird scheduling ideas and and an "out-there" school philosophy. Of course, this was the year when streaking became a fad and so there was a lot of overall weirdness going on. Classes were often only 20 minutes long (called mods) and there was tons of free time to study or seek out help from teachers. Right! Basically, I would spend hours in the gym each day playing basketball or would just hang out in the library with a large group of friends. By Spring, I would ride my bike to school, so I could leave school early and ride to a friend's house. We would stop along the way, if it was warm, and swim in the pond at Goodwill Park and then take his two person kayak out from Salt Pond, go under Surf Drive through the metal "tubes" underneath the road, and swim and play along the ocean off Surf Drive (around mile 4 of the Falmouth Road Race). I got a lot of biking and swimming in those days, which would serve me well in a few years.

With the school system in disarray, I along with 3 other Falmouth boys headed off to the Stony Brook School on Long Island. I knew the 2nd edition of the Falmouth Road Race was going to be happening that August and even though I was now a runner, I did not train or enter the race that year with all the planning I needed to move away from home.

I did go out for the cross-country team at Stony Brook where I found a great running coach in Marvin W. Goldberg and where I also found a running program steeped in tradition and success. Of course, I still was not fast, but I continued to love to train and to race. I also had a coach that would send me postcards in the summer months and mention that road race in my hometown and even the exploits about Johanna Foreman. The summer of 1975 was the first year I ran the Falmouth Road Race and it was my first ever road race. I was also incredulous at the thought that the two biggest names in the running world: Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers were going to dual it out on the streets of my hometown. What a sport! I could run a race alongside the current Olympic marathon champion and the current Boston Marathon champion (and American record holder). By golly, I wasn't going to miss that race. Mr. Goldberg eventually made it out to Falmouth to watch the road race a few times as well and also to convince Bill Rodgers to be a speaker my school and at the New York State Cross-Country meet in 1977 (the year after I graduated).

After finishing the 1975 Falmouth Road Race.
I don't remember too much of the actual race. I recall heading down the wooden bridge to the Woods Hole shoreline in the first mile and running on the grass on the left side of the road when I could. I recall people shouting out and then seeing a guy in a wheelchair, Bobby Hall, go speeding by. I remember finishing and how very tired I was at the end and for the rest of the day, but I was hooked on the Falmouth Road Race and the running boom, now in its infancy was about to experience explosive growth, according to Cameron Stracher in his new book Kings of the Road: How Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, and Alberto Salazar made Running Go Boom. Many key components that fashioned the emerging growth of running as a sport happened at the Falmouth Road Race between the years of 1972 and 1982 with that 1975 race being a pivotal race. Road running was entering its heyday and Falmouth was the spot where the best runners in the country came to race and party. Every year each new edition of the race was like Christmas to this runner. All of the champions and up and comers that I had been reading about in running magazines would show up in my seaside community and duke it out on the roads I knew so well. Not only that, but I could join them, further back in the pack, and prove myself through my own running exploits. I was becoming known as a "runner" and even though my family never once saw me race a cross-country or track race, I would get their attention each year at Falmouth.

Classic Runner's World cover
of the 1978 Falmouth Road Race.
For 40 years, my dad was the pastor of the Falmouth Baptist Church on Central Park Avenue right down the road from the finish line at Heights Field. The runners would run by the back side of the church on Falmouth Heights Road right between services each race. I would always have a large cheering section there before hitting the 6 mile mark of the race and my parents would always be there cheering and snapping a few photos of the top runners from the cheap cameras I had at the time. Still to this day as I run Falmouth, I always look around hoping to see a few friends from long ago in the crowd at that point in the race and stop at the church to meet the few people I still know there as I walk back from the finishing line

After graduating from the Stony Brook School, I enrolled at Wheaton College in Illinois and ran cross-country there too! Yes, that is the same school that Tommy Johnston ran at and I chased his best times until the final cross-country race of my senior year where I finally beat his college best time. Even though Tommy was the first real runner I knew, I don't ever recall running one step with him despite both of us running for Falmouth High School and Wheaton College.

Heading for the finish in 1980.
In college, I still wasn't fast enough and with a teammate who could probably be rated the greatest division 3 distance runner of all time on my team. I knew that I would never approach being fast enough, because I truly saw what fast really looked like. I had the marathon bug. I had really wanted to run the first 5 borough New York City Marathon in 1976 when in my last year of high school. I could have just hopped on train the from Stony Brook to get to New York City, but wonder of all wonders, I was finally good enough to be on the varsity cross-country squad.I still regret  not running that race. However, after my first college cross-country season, I went down to Dallas to run in the 1977 Dallas White Rock Marathon. I was a full and willing participant in the running boom and completed 8 marathons while in college.

Eventual winner Alberto Salazar with Mike McLeod at the
1981 Falmouth Road Race.
The Falmouth Road Race continued to be a highlight of every year. I couldn't wait to see Bill Rodgers finally defeat Frank Shorter and then new champions emerge like Craig Virgin, foreigners like Rod Dixon, and finally a young upstart named Alberto Salazar. I loved the race so much, I even cut short a summer traveling around Europe with some friends so that I could be home in time to run in the 1979 version of the race.

1979 Falmouth winner Ellison Goodall
I was also watching the women's side of running as a sport make an emergence. That 1968 Boston Marathon that I wanted to run as a kid, was a year after Jock Semple had tried to pull the bib number off of runner #261 K. (Katherine) Switzer. The Falmouth Road Race also welcomed the world's best women runners and I got to see Greta, Joan, Gayle Barron, Kim Merritt and other top female athletes of the time. Sometimes, I even got to run with them. I remember running down Nobska Hill with Joan Benoit in the race one year and staying with her until we went under the bridge and she took off. One year, I finished alongside women's running pioneer Nina Kuscick. It may have been 1977. I am missing from the results, but I see her listed in different places as finishing in 9th place in 43:05 or 43:45 and that sounds about right where I would have been.

Cameron Strachers's book Kings of the Road: How Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, and Alberto Salazar Made Running Go Boom covers the glory years of American distance running during the running boom and the Falmouth Road Race plays an important part in the story. He says that the running boom ended with the 1982 version of the Falmouth Road Race. Not only did Alberto Salazar start to struggle being on top of the world after that race, but the dominance of American men in the running scene started to decline as well. In fact, since 1982 only one American male runner has won the Falmouth Road Race. It is erroneously reported in the book that Bruce Bickford won in Falmouth in 1985, but the only American male champion since Salazar was Mark Curp in 1988 (Bickford was ranked number one in the world for 10,000 meters in 1985). The 1983 race was won by a Kenyan, Joseph Nzau.

There are a few reasons for the decline of American male distance running after 1982 and Stracher covers those reasons in his book. I would also like to add one more reason to his list and it also has its Falmouth ties.

In February 1982, at a little known event held in Hawaii that catered to a small group of fitness fanatics, a young lady crawled to the finish line. Sports Illustrated had done an article on the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon a few years earlier and ABC had televised the race for a few years. I remember watching it in college and not having an understanding of the biking and swimming legs at all, but being enthralled with what type of athlete would prove most dominant. Julie Moss was less than one mile from winning the female race when her body gave out and television cameras caught the gut wrenching display of Julie making it to the finish line any way she could and ultimately being passed by Kathleen McCarthy for the win just before stretching her hand across the finish line. When the race was televised on Wide World of Sports  thousands of people watched and decided that they just had to do that race (including me). The television broadcast was such a hit and created such a stir that it was shown again the next week.

I think that event had as much of an impact on the way American's viewed endurance sports as Frank Shorter's triumph in the Olympic marathon. People took notice!  Just as I was on the running boom  and marathon bandwagon, I was soon to be on the triathlon bandwagon. The next year at the 1983 Boston Marathon, it was announced that Dave McGillivray was going to put on an Ironman distance race on Cape Cod that September. Dave was a big running figure already in New England as he had run across the country for the Jimmy Fund in 1978 and received a lot of publicity for his efforts. He had also participated in the Hawaii Ironman. As soon as I heard about the race, I was in, despite not having any swimming or biking background. I went out and bought a $300 bike and started training. I had no coaching and did not know any person who had even completed a triathlon, let alone any swimmers or cylcists. I swam that summer off (appropriately) Racing Beach in Falmouth trying to learn how to do the freestyle stroke and keep my head in the water. I biked out to the Cape Cod Canal and back and I ran. One note: Dave McGillivray became the race director of the Falmouth Road Race in 2012.

The Falmouth Track Club had been putting on a members only triathlon for a couple of years and that summer in 1983 that race became my first triathlon. I finished fourth overall, but the newspaper reports had the organizers already complaining about the size of the event and the non track club members in the race. Then, big time triathloning hit Falmouth. The nationwide Bud Light Triathlon Series showed up in Falmouth and about 900 triathletes came to race at Old Silver Beach. It was credited with being the largest open water swim on the east coast at the time and the race organizers were also credited with creating hills on the swim. It was stormy and the storm and angry waters were not just in the salt water. Falmouth officials did not want the swim to go off on time and instead wanted the organizers to wait for the waves to die down. The race organizers did not listen and the race started on time, but they were not invited back to Falmouth again. I got the feeling that the town was not really appreciating the attention the race got when they already had a road race that needed attention. Triathlons did not happen for many years after that in Falmouth.

One other side note about the USTS race. The day before the race at the prerace show, the featured guest was a young lady whose finish had brought the nationwide spotlight onto triathlons. Julie Moss was in town to be the master of ceremonies at this Falmouth event. While triathlons being hosted in Falmouth were stalled after that race, the attention given to triathlons and multi-sport races was on the upswing. And yes, that September I did complete my third triathlon at the Cape Cod Endurance Triathlon (a full distance Ironman event). The race passed through many Cape Cod towns, from Sandwich to Provincetown, but the one town it did not get near to was Falmouth.

Scott Tinley (here in 1985) and Scott Molina would both later win
the Cape Cod Endurance Triathlon.
I think Julie Moss, Ironman races, and triathlons in general heralded a shift from running to an interest in other endurance sports. It was the new kid in town and those athletes who were getting tired of running, found some new ways to test out their bodies. I also think that triathlons started a shift in thinking away from an admiration of whippet thin runners to more muscular or well rounded athletic bodies. If Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, and Alberto Salazar were going to be replaced as icons of endurance sports, then Dave Scott, Mark Allen, Scott Tinley, and Scott Molina were more than happy to take up the mantle. People also started getting curious about this new idea called cross-training and soon Greg LeMond and his Tour de France victories started getting people interested in cycling. Fitness takes on many forms and activities these days. I am glad to see American distance running making a comeback on the international scene, however the average runner these days does not have the drive and enthusiasm for all out training and racing like what was going on during the running boom years. It is amazing to think that those early years of the Falmouth Road Race are now part of the running past and showcase the history of your sport. I am thrilled that it happened in my own back yard and that I got to be a participant an observer of those wonderful days.

Other Falmouth Road Race Posts

And here is the coolest part of Cameron Stracher's book. It is nice to see my past blog posts played a part in his research for the book.

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