ICYMI: Joe Concannon. The spirit of the LHRR.
“The biggest thing about Joe was that he was so humble. He never had his name out there and always seemed to take a back seat to everybody. He opened so many doors for me. I have friends I haven’t met yet because of Joe.”
He was, is and always will be a major face of the race. Of this there is no debate.
For all the faces that have made the Litchfield Hills Road Race a New England cultural icon that dominates the second weekend of every June, and there are many from the irrepressible Billy Neller and Rick Evangelisti, to one hard-working lady Beth Murphy and John Clock to Dave Driscoll and a community immersed in road race passion, there is the unwavering presence of Joe Concannon.
Even as the time roars past welcoming a new generation of runners, a different collage of cooler-carrying customers to the centerpiece green and a healthy influx of volunteers to keep the magic of it all present and relevant, Joe’s presence lives and breathes.
Joe the originator along with Neller. Youthful Joe the would-be runner standing on Main Street with Dave Driscoll and running legend Bill Rodgers, one sock high, one sock low and one big smile for the first race in 1977.
Joe the very big-time writer for the Boston Globe. Joe the guy who proudly brought his Boston friends to meet his Litchfield friends, a relationship that prospers to this day. Joe the ambassador of good will and elite partier. Joe the guy who was instrumental in starting a race surrounded by a party and turning it into a multi-day party with a race tucked somewhere in the middle.
The race is in its early middle-ages stage now, somewhat of a starting amazement for those who were there from the start. Joe himself has been gone for 18 years, leaving us at the much-to-young age of 60 on Feb. 16, 2000. There are those now who didn’t know Joe and see other driving forces such as Murphy, an amiable workhorse of the first order.
But you don’t escape Joe. Heck, Joe still parties (he was good at many things). The Saturday before the race there is always a shindig around Joe’s Grave at St. Anthony’s Cemetery and it has been testified to that one year the ground in front of his grave stone swallowed up a beer (or two).
Stories are told, laughs are shared, libations are inhaled, tears are shed. You can hear Joe laughing and telling stories if you listen closely enough. The soul of the race never leaves. There is an uplifting life in death here.
“The race wouldn’t be what it is without the kick start Joe gave it,” said Evangelisti. “I think he would be thrilled it is still here, that it has endured. I think it would be very pleasing to him.”
“Joe will always be a part of this race,” said Neller. “It is what it is because of him.”
The genesis of the LHRR is an often-told story. Joe wrote about running covering the Boston and New York Marathons and loved the Falmouth Road Race. He wanted to start a race in his beloved home town that would bring together his Boston Friends with his Litchfield friends.
So, he sat down with his good buddy, Neller and the beginning of a future icon was off and running. There was less than a positive response from the town fathers in the early going but after some cajoling and lubricating and a successful first race, the LHRR was firmly part of the area culture.
Concannon then added a large dose of credibility to the race. The original idea was for the race to have in Neller’s words, “a picnicky feel” to it. But they wanted a combination of competition and lounge chair, good time and good race. Enter Joe.
Joe brought down the world’s best distance runner at the time in Bill Rogers who won the first race. Vin Fleming, Randy Thomas and Bobby Hodge, all well-known names in the running world, were also in attendance and would win future races.
“Litchfield happened the way it did because of Joe,” Evangelisti told me once for a story back in 1996. He was the catalyst. Without him bringing his friends down from Boston this would just be another small-town race. Bill Rogers helped propel this race to what it is. He put this race on the map and that was Joe’s doing.”
Joe always took great pride in the overwhelming success of the race. He ran with Neller during the first race and always remembered the end.
“When (Billy and I) were running down Meadow Street, Billy caught up to me and said, ‘We did it. I don’t know how but we did it.’ It was a great moment I’ll never forget. “
For the record, Joe ran the first 10 races usually enjoying the scene from the rear. After that he was press truck regular. Joe’s final race had a classic ending. Joe did not feel well after the race and was taken by ambulance to Charlotte Hungerford Hospital in Torrington.
I’ll let Joe tell you the rest.
“They threw a surprise party for me the night before and I got very little sleep and a lot of beer. I didn’t have much water and I needed fluids,” remembered Concannon a decade later. “I was released after about an hour and I walked into Marty’s (a now-hazy memory Litchfield bar) and Neller was there. He said, ‘This is Joe Concannon running the road race and then fell off the bar stool.’ “
Nobody was closer to Joe through it all than his co-organizer Neller. They organized together, talked together, ran together, drank copious amounts of refreshments together, cried together and laughed long and hard together.
To this day Neller still talks longingly of a friendship for the ages and of a guy for the ages. So much of the connection is the LHRR but for all that goes with that story, there Joe the guy that Neller revels in.
“Joe wasn’t just about running. He was gigantic, and I don’t know if people know how big he was. He cut a path through life,” said Neller. “He was famous in Japan, they greeted him when he got off the plane. All because of how he wrote about the Japanese runners. He wasn’t just about Boston. He is very famous in Ireland for the way he wrote about golf. He just about put golf on the map and that comes from (the Irish).”
Joe brought the Galway Rowing Club to the Charles River in Boston and they now present the Joe Concannon Trophy at the regatta. Neller presented the trophy this year.
Neller talked about the writing style of his friend who covered golf, the Boston and New York Marathons, college football and hockey and track and field.
“Joe didn’t write the sensational crap like you read today,” said Neller. “If it was private, Joe respected that. He only printed what was newsworthy. And when you read Joe’s articles you knew what the final score was before the 10th paragraph. “
Joe also helped tons of kids in the Boston area and lent his name to many resumes as a reference. Not bad having Joe Concannon vouch for you.”
I have long been involved in the LHRR, first as one of those cooler-carrying cadets on the green in the early days and in recent decades as a card-carrying member of the press truck. I barely rubbed elbows with Joe in the early days, but we did indeed cross paths and share a drink or two.
As mentioned I did a story on Joe for the 20th anniversary of the race in 1996. This one stuck out because unlike so many of the stories mostly done at LHRR Central, The Village Inn, this one included meeting at Joe’s house.
We sat there for a couple of hours and pored over pictures of the race and of Joe’s life. We talked of races, people, events and whatever else popped up. It was time that sticks you, time when the job is not a job it is a privilege.
I remember the many scrapbooks Joe pulled out that day and in the first scrapbook there was a story of the first race entitled, “Joe’s Long-Awaited Dream.”
Twenty-two years ago, I wrote, “It is Litchfield’s race, but it is also Joe’s race.” The LHRR is now 42-years young and nothing has changed. It is still Litchfield's race and it is also Joe’s race. An ageless gift to a town and people he loved from a guy who excelled at his craft and had a heart worthy of envy.