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LHRR: 35 years of good times, good memories

POSTED May 14, 2011
BY Rick Wilson
Twitter: @scribewilson


                                LHRR – 35 Years of good times, good memories

 Has it really been 35 years since Joe Concannon and Billy Neller brought together their running friends from Boston and other parts of the world and their hometown friends to form what would become the iconic sporting event of Northwest Connecticut – the Litchfield Hills Road Race?

The calendar doesn’t lie. It was indeed June 12, 1977 when the first group of elite and less than elite runners ran past a crowd-filled green and followed Dodgie Doyle’s law enforcement vehicle out of town and into the history books.  It was indeed 35 years ago when the legendary Bill Rodgers’ fleet feet crossed the finish line in 34:30 to lead everyone back in to town.

It just doesn’t seem that long ago in some sense. Yet, a look around and there is no denying the time has flown, seemingly quicker that Rodgers, Gideon Mutisya, Joan Benoit, Andy Ronan, Eddy Hellybuyck and Godfrey Kiprotich’s collection of legendary legs that left so many hopefuls behind.

There are just a handful of hardy souls now that have competed in every LHRR, nearing single digits. Seemingly permanent faces are now gone the clock taking them elsewhere. Terry Collins with his truck almost a permanent landmark on the corner near starting line, is rarely seen.

Trumpeter and basically a landmark himself,  Dennis Meltzer, doesn’t always get back these days from his Michigan home. The man whose presence still resonates in the atmosphere of the race every second Sunday in June, the founder of the race, Joe Concannon, left us a while back, dying much too young.

Heck, even Neller looks a little grayer and just to be fair I had a bit more hair and a bit less overlap back in the day. Only a few like Brent `Hawk’ Hawkins,  an icon in his own right, as LHRR announcer and LHRR fashion coordinator and judge/thespian and landlord of champions Charlie Gill seemed to have battled Father Time to a standoff.

But, this isn’t meant to be a sad reflection on the march of time. More like time flies when you’re having fun. I’ve been fortunate to have been involved with the LHRR for a number of years, enough so as I don’t remember how many.

Like many I started as a cooler-carrying kid searching more for a good time than a great race.  Those early days quickly transformed into the guy with a pen and pad, traveling in the press truck and flashing over the road race course faster than any of the champions ever did. Of course, we cut across at the top of Gallows Lane, and don’t do the last mile but I consider that a minor detail.

Along the way the job became a joy.  The race in reality became secondary. Working on Sunday became waiting for that second Sunday in June. Long ago the LHRR turned from an assignment into a several days of feel good or more if you have stamina, that you don’t get anywhere else.

It’s fun and you have never needed the race to make the day for you. The community has always done that for you.

This has always been about people, you always start there. There is my good friend Mr. Neller who introduced me early to the LHRR and the people who put it together. We have shared stories, libations and he has been my expert on LHRR hydration.

More than anything he has been a friend. More than anyone when I think of the LHRR I think of Neller. He has run the race (forwards and backwards), picked up runners who have run the race, forgotten to pick up runners who have run the race, organized, argued for, watched and done just about everything concerning the race.

Neller has provided the soul for this event, a driving force with a big heart who helped build a big race into a big time. Along with  Concannon, they made history. LHRR time is Neller-time.

I sat with Joe Concannon for several hours one night in a room at his mother’s house going over photos and talking with him for an article I was writing on him. I think the big guy from the Boston Globe liked being on the other side of the pen and pad. He was gracious as always.

Joe was always the heart of the race along with Neller’s soul or maybe the other way around. But either way one always go with the other. They retired his number but he will never be retired.

So many people. During my stint with the Register Citizen in Torrington, Biff Pond was always a contact. I would walk out of the office on Water Street and into the The Place next store. Biff would give me the entertainment lineup of groups playing along the course.  He was always big on Hot Ethel.

Two hours later I would saunter back into the office and they would wonder what took so long. But they knew – it was LHRR week. Rick Evangelisti and John Clock have always been guys you could count on.

I have always been a big one for getting to the LHRR about 11 a.m. or so just to walk around and soak in the atmosphere. It has always been about people. A pop into the Village to see Dave Vigeant and tangle with a Bloody Mary.

A chat with `Hawk’, and maybe Donnie Murelli or Mike Landry or some of the high school runners you might run into.  Can’t forget Dave Driscoll, the running guru of Litchfield and the rest of the Neller boys, Rick and Jack. You find Tommy Leonard, a great Falmouth friend of the race. And always the runners like Andy Ronan and Rod Dixon who always have time for you.

Then the press contingent rolls in. Tim Gaffney of Litchfieldcountysports.com, good friend and writer along with Peter Wallace of the Register Citizen and the Hartford Courant’s Lori Riley are constants. Good at what they do and good people. John McKenna is usually around along with the Waterbury Republican columnist and opera lover Joe Palladino.

We get jostled around in the truck and share a lot riding around the course. We get it right in the end but some years the eyes are that good. Not that long ago we had Bruno Bagnaschi or somebody like that leading the race for a while. Bruno might be good, but not Kenyan-good at the age of 70 or so. He was so close to immortality.

 In the early days, a can or two even got passed. We take great pride in saluting Concannon as we drive by his grave. There is always a bit of levity.

Hey, this is the LHRR and this is our brand of respect.

Through the years I have been to the lobster bake before the race and played in the Open Bud Open after the race. I still can’t figure out how they got my friend Mr.  Ferrarotti to agree to that. It is a unique event.

I have been to the Village, Beverly’s, Marty’s, Bantam Electric and other parts unknown. I have been to Joe Concannon’s grave for a service and celebration. I have heard the stories and even been able to print some of them.

Most of all I have met some of the very best of people. That’s always been the secret of the LHRR or maybe it isn’t a secret. I have been lucky. So I would say this to the good folks of the LHRR and you are many.

Thanks for letting me ride along for so many of what has been a very special 35 years.      

           

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