Falmouth, Frank Shorter and Serendipity- by Jeff Benjamin-8/15
Serendipity– a “fortunate happenstance” or “pleasant surprise”
The past and present collided headlong into one another at yesterday’s New Balance Falmouth Road Race press conference, yet in a truly harmonious way. Race director Dave McGillivray stated that this race, which was the creation of local bartender and now sports icon Tommy Leonard, with the help of the John Carroll and Rich Sherman, drew 92 participants in it’s 1973 inaugural run. This years’ 43rd edition will draw close to 12,000 participants. Along with the changing times also came announcements of positive growth in other areas as well. This years edition will also be raising over $474,000 for local charities and, for the first time, the race will be introducing random drug testing. As was stated with the advent of the drug-testing, this policy reinforces “Our belief in being good partners not only to the athletes, but to the sport itself”. Another interesting new concept this year is “The Countdown”. In this old-style throwback to the old handicapped- time races of the past, “The Countdown” clock will start when the first women’s finisher crosses the finish line. The clock will then count down the number of minutes and seconds the winning man has to beat in order to win the bonus, according to a pre-determined formula. If the clock runs out before he crosses the finish line, the victorious female will get a $5000 bonus. If not, the bonus will be awarded to the men’s champion.
Among those attending the press conference were American Neely Gracey (Whose father, 1991 World Champion Bronze medalist and 1992 Olympic marathoner Steve Spence) , new masters runner Meb Keflezighi, wheelchair champion Tatyana McFadden, top female entrant Diane Nukuri and defending men’s champion Stephen Sambu.
Yet the highlight of the press conference was the appearance of Joan Benoit and Frank Shorter. In introducing Shorter, Benoit, the greatest American female distance runner of all-time (who, aside from her many accolades as a Falmouth champ, world record holder and 1984 Inaugural Olympic Women’s Marathon Gold Medalist has also won her age group here at Falmouth more than 10 years in a row!!) praised Shorter as a mentor, and a “wise young sage,” who, with his groundbreaking 1972 Olympic Gold in the marathon and subsequent silver at the 1976 games, inspired Benoit and ” pulled me off the college field hockey team to run on the roads”.
When Shorter spoke he returned the praise right back, stating that he always had an intuitive ability to spot running talent and “Joannie was one of my favorites”. Shorter returned this year to also be honored on the 40th anniversary of his 1975 Falmouth victory, a race that ignited the running “boom”. Tommy Leonard’s 1975 edition had multiplied into an unheard of amount of close to 800 runners, and it was because of the presence of Shorter and 1974 champ Bill Rodgers , who had his breakthrough American record performances in 1975. ” I believe that the late 1960’s and early 70’s was a unique time, with a confluence of positive events” said Shorter, as he discussed how the American public was turning to the benefits of physical fitness and the growth of high level running clubs (Oregon, Florida and the Greater Boston Track club) even as he was winning gold in Munich on the television sets of millions who, like Benoit, became inspired. ” It was truly serendipity”.
When Leonard contacted Shorter to run Falmouth in 1975, Leonard and his crew were quite surprised to learn that Shorter knew the area quite well. Relaying his tragic story of family abuse, Shorter recounted how he joined a so-called “surrogate” family who took him along to the Cape Cod area during his youth. He also wanted to race against Rodgers, who was also his teammate on the U.S. World XC team in 1975, where Rodgers won a Bronze medal in defeating Shorter and others in his breakthrough performance. ” I remember seeing Bill in Morocco that day and thinking, “man, there’s something here,” said Shorter, who defeated Rodgers at Falmouth that year. As the years have gone on, Shorter does see some great positives around the event. “The traditions here have been maintained. What’s really great is that families who started here years back keep coming back.”
PostScript- talking with Falmouth Race Board Director Karen Bissonnette, one can see the echoes of Frank Shorter’s perspective on the continued success of the event. Bissonnette was a sprinter and field athlete for coach Carroll when, after having children approached him about getting in shape to run Falmouth. “He doubted that I could do it, because I had cut corners in track practice and wasn’t that dedicated,” she said.
Well, her determination grew as she successfully completed the race and nowadays serves on the Board. ” This race is about giving back and I learned that through Coach Carroll and Falmouth”
True Serendipity indeed!!