Doug Benedetto: The Man With The Flag

TORRINGTON – Doug Benedetto was feeling pretty darn proud of himself. It was November of 2011 in Philadelphia and his body energy registered about two levels below that needed to sustain life after finishing his first ever marathon in 3:24.39, good enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon by .21 of a second.

Friends Kim Marchand and Skip Renzullo had helped pace him as he grinded his way to the necessary time and finish line for his ticket to Boston.  Marchand pacing him from the 13-mile mark and Renzullo from the 20-mile mark. The body drain couldn’t be ignored but was secondary to the resulting surge of adrenaline and euphoria.  Not a bad way to celebrate your birthday.

“I got across the finish line, looked at my watch and oh my God I was so excited,” Benedetto remembers vividly. “I went to the hotel, showered and then to a sports bar. My legs hurt so much, I was in so much pain. I ran into a girl at the bar and I told her how excited I was to qualify for Boston.  My head was bigger than the doorway. She then said to me, “I ran 2:30 and just missed qualifying for the Olympics by 30 seconds. She was an elite runner. That will deflate your ego. I was so humbled.”

Hardly deterred, Benedetto still chuckles to this day about the bit of perspective.  All in all, nothing was going to dent the day. Hey, he was going to Boston.  A pretty good introduction to a whole new world of running marathons.

Benedetto would have to wait until 2013 to run his first Boston Marathon when the qualifying time was changed but has run every one since then. He has run 18 marathons in total all over the country including Las Vegas, New York and Chicago.  And at the age of 56, there is no slowing down in sight.

“At 56 it’s hard and some people say to slow down,” Benedetto said. “But, I’m just getting going. You have the rest of your life to sleep. I have an expiration date. I’m going to get the most out of my life.”

It was never in the plan book this marathon thing. Benedetto never had any great passion to run further than most people like to drive their cars. A 1985 Torrington High graduate, he was a football, basketball, baseball guy.  The only running was what the sport demanded.

It wasn’t until 2007 at the age of 40 that maybe hoofing a fast pace attracted his attention and it was the iconic Litchfield Hills Roade Race that provided the lure.

“I had some buddies running and joked around that I might run,” Benedetto said. “I trained for 30 days and finished in under one hour. I thought if I trained more that I could do better. “

Benedetto began to run in shorter 5k and 10k races and started meeting  people in the running community. In 2009 he moved up in distance running the Hartford Half Marathon finishing around the 1:40 mark.  He began to feel some benefits from the added miles.

“I was making friends and there is a running high you get from competing,” Benedetto said. “I was getting faster and was in better shape. In 2010 (Hartford) I weighed 235 lbs. and was in the Clydesdale division. I finished first. It really inspired me. “(For the record, Benedetto is 190 lbs. now.)

Benedetto would make the move to marathons through the inspiration of friends and his success running the shorter distances.

The Guy With The Flag

Doug Benedetto is an easy guy to find in a race. He doesn’t usually finish first but he doesn’t get lost in a sea of runners either. You can’t miss him. He’s the guy carrying the American flag. Patriotic? For sure. But the story goes deeper than that. Back to a day when the Boston Marathon became so much more than a race.

Benedetto’s coveted goal of competing in a Boston Marathon became a reality in 2013 and proved beyond anyone’s fertile imagination to be so much more than a 26-mile labor of love through the streets of the legendary city. The first time can never be duplicated, with all of its newness and energized atmosphere that included 30,000 runners and a colorful exuberance. Yet there was so much more than that. If the race was just a day, the impact of the day was for a lifetime.

Benedetto ran his race and went back to his hotel. His friend Skip Renzullo was still out on the course and after freshening up he headed back towards the finish line on Boylston Street near Copley Square.

Then the bombs exploded.

“When the first explosion happened it felt like a gas explosion underground,” It didn’t cross my mind that it was a bomb,” Benedetto remembers. “About 30 seconds later I was about two blocks away and the second explosion went off.  Somebody told me a generator went off. Then the police began pushing everyone out of the way and sent us back to our hotel. When I saw them starting to carry people to the medical tent I knew it was something serious. Back at the hotel the TV was reporting it was a bomb.”

The explosions went off at 2:49 p.m. and were the product of a domestic terrorist attack – two homemade pressure cooker bombs that included nails and BBs. At the time there were still 5,700 runners on the course. Three people were killed and 281 were injured with at least 14 people requiring amputations. Boston airspace was restricted and many hotels were evacuated.

As with so many of the runners and crowd who tried to contact panicked family around the country, Benedetto tried to call his wife, Jill, but cell phones were jammed. He finally got through on a land line.  His wife in turn posted the information on Facebook to alert the concerned.

Eventually Benedetto was escorted to his bus (Hartford Track Club) about 8:30 p.m. to get back to West Farms Mall. He arrived back home at 10:30.

“The ride home was quiet,” Benedetto said. “We didn’t know the extent of what had happened. Nobody had answers. It was sad. I remember thinking about the people that may have been hurt and the idea that if I had run slower I would’ve been right in it.”

While the race and bombings would always be seared in his memory, there was an aftermath that remains fresh and became part of Benedetto. Six months after the bombing he went back to Boston to participate in a five-mile run, allowing those who were still on the course at the time of the bombings to complete the Marathon and raise money for charity.

“I was standing around before the race and somebody came up to me and asked me if I wanted to carry the flag,” Benedetto said. “I was a big guy and said sure and they gave me the flag.”

Benedetto has not stopped carrying the flag since then except on occasions when he has not been allowed to for security reasons.

“I said I was going to try to carry the flag in every race. I carried it in the first race I ran after the Marathon, a 20k race in New Haven. It was challenging but I felt very proud and patriotic after the bombing.  The hardest part about carrying the flag is the amount of people who come up and hit me on the back to congratulate me.  But, I also have other people who tell me they can’t believe how fast I can run with it and they follow the flag to pace themselves.”

Benedetto has been on the cover of the 2015 Marine Corps Marathon program. He has touched base with legendary marathoner Bill Rogers and chatted with former Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie this year.

“I had a shirt with my name Doug on it and this guy tells me I can’t wear the shirt because his name is Doug,” laughs Benedetto. “It was Flutie. I told him I thought I might have heard of him before.”

Benedetto and the flag have been common and noticed participants wherever he runs. In 2013 while running over the Verrazano Bridge during the New York City Marathon a photographer yelled to get his attention. Benedetto put one finger in the air and the scene was immortalized. A year later the New York Daily News ran a story with the headline, ‘Stronger Than Ever.’  Who was on the cover? Benedetto carrying the flag.

There have been obstacles. Attired in a `Boston Strong’ shirt, Benedetto tried to carry the flag in the 2013 New York City Marathon and was stopped by the police who said rules prevented it. A supervisor intervened and said you can carry the flag with no pole.

“I was pissed off.  He cut off the flag and threw it to me,” Benedetto said. “That was disrespectful.”

Benedetto’s plight was taken up by some Coast Guard policeman standing there.

“He told me to follow him and said the cop was an a–. We’re going to get you a pole,” Benedetto said. “He came back with two bamboo sticks and we duct-taped the flag to them. Thousands of people cheered.”

On the 10th anniversary of the bombing this year, the flag also became an issue in of all places – Boston.  Benedetto got through three check points before he was told the flag was illegal. He was forced to run almost two miles to put it back on his bus and missed his starting time.

“I’m proud to carry the flag, people respect it and this bummed me out. I ran almost four miles before the race started. It messed me up mentally,” Benedetto said.  For the record Benedetto still finished in a very respectable 3:55.28.

Benedetto works out at Planet Fitness and runs four or five times a week and about 10 races a year. He still thrives on the experience, there are too many benefits.

“Running puts you on a schedule, you learn how to train and hydrate,” Benedetto said. “You know you only have so many days. You learn to be very disciplined and motivated. It’s a stress reliever. At 56, it’s hard.  The other thing is beating the younger generation. “

For Doug Benedetto marathons are not a labor of love, they are a love of the labor. He was a late entrant into the running world but hit the road with flying feet. And there is no slow down in sight.

It’s about running strong, running long. It’s about working hard and having fun and carrying the flag into the sun.

Doug Benedetto – running with purpose.

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