Eight Stories in Eight Days. Day 1: A Physical and Emotional Test for the Soul. By John Torsiello.
Like the Masters golf tournament, the Indy 500 auto race, and the Kentucky Derby horse race, for the locals, the Litchfield Hills Road Race is a yearly sporting milestone that welcomes in a new season.
The LHRR ushers in that sweetest of all times of the year, summer, with its long days, warm temperatures and days at the beaches, like, say Bantam Lake’s Sandy Beach.
The race is an excuse for a party in a town that hardly needs an excuse to party, a time when the modest moguls living along South and North streets hang out with the regulars at the Village Restaurant and celebrate life, friendship and running.
I’ve had the privilege to cover over 20 Litchfield Hills Road Races and every one has been a blast. Riding on the press truck that manages somehow to keep just ahead of the lead pack of runners, is a treat.
My favorite portion of the race is not the end, where the top several runners have thoroughly distanced themselves from the pack and the horde of followers, but the beginning, when the gun erupts and sends thousands of multi-colored, sometimes scantily clad runners, in a mad rush down West Street, around the corner and onto Meadow Street.
The latter road becomes a sea of bobbing humanity--reds, blues and yellows meshing like a wave cascading down towards Gallows Lane and the first mile marker.
Bands play along the route, adding a further festive air to the proceedings, fans shout encouragement and volunteers offer water to the runners, who continue on in their quest of winning one of New England’s premier running events, or merely finishing the 7.1-mile journey of the body and mind.
Litchfield’s Joe Concannon, then a sports writer for the Boston Globe, knew what he was doing when he got a group of friends together over some beers in 1977, enticed some his elite running buddies that would include world-renowned marathoner and author Bill Rodgers, and got the town behind a road race Joe knew would unite his hometown in a weekend of fun every June.
Some of those friends are still running the race, not having missed any since it’s founding. Sadly, Joe isn’t with us anymore but he’s smiling down on the Parlor Town every second weekend in June and getting a kick out of watching the proceedings that he began.
Over the years the race has attracted some great runners, Rodgers, Gideon Mutisya, Joan Benoit, Eddy Hellebucyk, Godfrey Kiprotich and others have all laid claim to the LHRR trophy and set standards for today’s runners and those to come in the future.
I covered the race from the inside one year. I was really into running, in those days before the knees and hammies started to sing to me every day, and had a need to prove something to myself by running the race, which I consider one of the most demanding non-marathon or half-marathon runs one could face.
I trained hard, putting in lots of miles and several long runs to prepare and was ready come race day.The rush of standing on the starting line with over a thousand other people preparing to run over seven miles on a warm afternoon was awesome.
The gun blast, the sprint down West Street and turn onto Meadow Street was a blur. The adrenaline settled about the mile mark and then it was getting myself mentally and physically ready to make sure I finished and ran, not walked, up Gallows Hill, which was very important to me.
Halfway through the race came another adrenaline burst and the feeling that the backstretch was in reach. Four miles, five miles and then the six-mile mark and staring up at Gallows Hill. Keep the head down, don’t look at what appears to be a mountain rather than a molehill. Feet pounding the pavement, encouragement from the sidelines, breathing deep, arms low and seemingly almost touching the road, a slight flat level and then another small incline and the corner was in sight, and suddenly I was on South Street, knowing that the toughest part was over and the finish line almost within my grasp.
Rounding the corner at the top of West Street and finishing off downhill gave me a boost of energy, and the applause from the crowd (that echoes for every runner, sometimes more for a local favorite) felt like salve for my tired feet.
It pushed me across the line and into the long line that was waiting to exit, all of us milling together like happy horses on the way to the drinking trough. I had glanced at the clock when I came across the line and I saw that I finished in 57-something, which was good for a recreational runner, placing me somewhere at the bottom of the top third of the field. I can still recall the feeling of satisfaction, pleasant tiredness, and pure joy that coursed through my body once the race was done.
I went on to continue to run recreational and for exercise but never ran another LHRR. I had my emotional pelt, I was satisfied.
For runners in this year’s race, they will enjoy that feeling of accomplishment once they have crossed that finish line by Murphy’s Pharmacy and bask in the applause, most of all the applause that emanates from within their souls, at the end of the day.