The 40th anniversary of the Litchfield Road Race


image2.JPGGeoff Smith, Litchfield First Selectman Leo Paul, Jr., Rod Dixon, photo by Jeff Benjamin

This is Jeff Benjamin's story of the 40th Litchfield Road Race and its origins.

The 40th Anniversay of the Litchfield Hills Road Race--By Jeff Benjamin--6/13

And to think it happened in a bar over a couple of beers!

That was how the story was regaled to us by Litchfield Hills Road Race Co-Creator Billy Neller. "After one of the early Falmouth Road Races, Joe Concannon and I were sitting around at a bar and he saying how great it would be to bring all of his out of town running friends out to our hometown so they can run and have fun with our Litchfield friends!"

Located approximately 3 hours from New England and New York, the little town of Litchfield was situated in an area yearning for some kind of event. Not saying that Concannon's vision would bear fruit.

While known as the Boston Globe running writer during the 1970-1980 "Running Boom" years (as well as the co-author of "Marathoning" in 1982, which was Bill Rodgers' first autobiography) who was well-connected throughout the Sport, Concannon (who passed away in 2000), Neller and others had to convince Litchfield town officials of the viability of the vision.

So who did they bring in?

One of the first was Falmouth race founder Tommy Leonard. "Tommy just went on and on passionately about how great this event could be," said Neller, and from those intersection of ideas, the Litchfield Hills Road race was born. The 7-mile distance, a la Falmouth, immediately received legitimacy with the first year victor being none other than Bill Rodgers. "Bill's win put us on the map," said Neller. By the third year, over 800 runners came down to this small town in June and Neller and Concannon knew they had created something extraordinary.

image4.JPGJeff Benjamin, Geoff Smith, Rod Dixon

Along with fellow race winners through the years such as Rodgers, Joan Benoit, Marti Newell, Randy Thomas, Vin Fleming, Patti Catalano, Jan Merrill and Pete Pfitzinger, to name a few, the Litchfield race has grown to large proportions, and with the community's enormous amounts of generosity and hospitality, has turned into a series of annual reunions as well as a place to strike up new friendships.

On the other hand, the race itself is far from easy, starting at 1 PM on a June afternoon with a 7-mile course consisting of a few rolling upgrades culminating with the notorious Gallows Lane, whose steep hill located right at the 6-mile mark has been ranked as the 8th toughest Road Race hill in the country by Runners World. But with large crowds and bands playing along the way, runners are not alone in their quest.

This year's 40th race drew over 1900 runners and with the weather the coolest perhaps ever in the history of the race, one did not know what to expect, but as the race progressed it became a tactical affair as the leaders (and probably ALL of the runners!) must have thought to save their energy until the notorious Gallows Hill.

By the time the men's leaders hit the hill, the pack was down to seven, all of them runners who came up from New York City and also run for the West Side Runners Club. In the end, Yae Dabi almost stopped at the wrong spot but still had enough left to beat teammate Senbeto Geneti Guteta down the final West Street slope to the finish line in a time of 34:52 besting his competitor by 6 seconds..

In the Women's race Kenyann XC runner Nancy Nzisa dominated the field with at time of 38.47 which ranks her second all-time behind Patti Catalano's 38:27 women's course record. Nzai is now 2 for 2 in her American Road Race performances.

However, the true spirit of the race was personified in Esther Erb Atkins. Atkins, a national Marathon champion, had been trying to go for win number 4 here in Litchfield. However fate was against her as she fell about 100 yards into the race, and by the time she got up, she was behind the women's leaders. Nevertheless, Atkins (who won the 2014 USA Marathon Championships and ran in the World Championships Marathon last year in Beijing) persevered to try and catch the leaders yet, while not winning, still ran her 2nd fastest time (39:49) over the daunting course to finish 3rd. As she crossed the line, Atkins gave the two-arm heart sign, essentially capturing the spirit of what this race is all about. It's that kind of spirit that makes many call the Litchfield Hills Road Race, "America's Best Small-Town Race."

Bell Lap--The Race Committee, led by Beth Murphy, Billy Neller and others, once again had a cemetery memorial walk the day before, with the finale taking place at Joe Concannon's grave. A reminiscing kind of ceremony, people have fun, drink beer, and tell stories of the past. The ceremony concluded with the "Litchfield Hills Road Race" song, which was written and performed by Ian Campbell........Murphy and Sammy Kinkade were (of Course!) the first race officials present race morning to set up...Once again, former NYRRC Press official Patricia Owens handled all media and hospitality.....Brent "The Hawk" Hawkins, a darn good collegiate runner who competed and then moved here to Litchfield years ago, handled his yearly duties as the race announcer along with his wife Mary...Also running were longtime Greater Boston Track Club Stalwarts Bobby Hodge and Mark Duggan, along with 2-time Boston Marathon champ and British Olympian Geoff Smith....Cheering the runners along was New Zealand Legend Rod Dixon, Whose Connecticut base of Operations for his "KIDS MARATHON" program is centered here around Litchfield along with his partner Bill Burgess.

FINAL NOTE- For anyone interested in the official 40 year history of the Litchfield Hills Road Race, please consider checking out town resident Lou Pelligrino's outstanding book, "A History of the Litchfield Hills Road Race - In Smallness, There is Beauty". The book, replete with great stories and pictures, includes a forward by Bill Rodgers and can be purchase through the Litchfield Historical Society

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