Run to the Hills

 

This is all my wife’s fault.

I think the same thing every time at the starting line just before the gun goes off. It was just about a year ago when Sue decided that she wanted to enter an event called “The Warrior Dash”—a 5K race on a mountain course strewn with obstacles from tires and barbed wire to mud bogs and fire pits—scheduled on Sept. 17, our anniversary. Sue’s got a great sense of adventure, and for her, this was an opportunity to get in better shape in a fun way. In a moment of what could only have been temporary insanity, I agreed to run it with her. A unique way to celebrate our 16th year of wedded bliss, right? Plus, it certainly wouldn’t hurt (so to speak) for me to improve my health.

So as my 45th birthday rolled around last May, I found myself doing something I hadn’t done since joining the track team in my senior year of high school: running regularly. It was challenging to get back in the groove, but to help train for the Warrior Dash, I decided to try running in a few local 5Ks over the summer—another new adventure.

Very quickly, I discovered the world of organized running, which like any type of regular athletic competition has its own culture and rites. Times are universal gospel; even though everyone sincerely asks, most really want to talk/brag about their own (myself included). I’ve learned to never judge runners by their running gear—I’ve observed that high white tube socks and battered sneakers are not a barrier to running five-minute miles, just as I’ve seen that $200 Nikes and a Garmin GPS/heart monitor don’t ensure a finish anywhere near the top 100. I’ve also learned that runners are a superstitious lot who will eat the same meal or tie their sneakers the same way before every race, and often run the same races every year.

One of the storied traditions of the Connecticut running scene that I will be participating in for the first time is the Litchfield Hills Road Race (LHRR), celebrating its 35th anniversary on June 12. Started by the late Boston Globe sportswriter Joe Concannon, his friend Bill Neller and a group of other eager Litchfield-area runners, the race gained instant credibility when Concannon was able to convince world-renowned marathoner (and Hartford native) Bill Rodgers to run in the inaugural race. Two hundred other runners turned out that day and the event has been going strong ever since, growing to 1,300 racers per year and often attracting top competitors from around the world.

“It’s what started me running,” says Leo Kulinski, 61, a Litchfield resident and one of the 11 competitors who have run the race every year since its inception. “I hadn’t run before that first race. I was 27, and saw the race advertised while working down the road in Bantam. So a few of us got together after work and we would train for it. We started in April for a June race—that’s only two months. I had no experience running, but we were young, so we got out there and kind of pushed ourselves. But I don’t think I did a seven-mile distance until race day, and I was very shocked at how hard it was! Afterward, I had trouble walking downstairs for about two weeks.”

Aside from the world-class field and course, part of the LHRR’s draw is the warm way in which the town has embraced the event, also known as “The Friendship Race.” (“It’s almost like Christmas in June for me,” says Kulinski.) Much of the action happens around downtown—The Village Restaurant essentially becomes Race Central—and it’s a weekend-long celebration that includes activities such as Gallery on the Green, the art-and-crafts festival on Saturday. In addition, there are dozens of parties, pasta dinners and get-togethers where old friends, out-of-towners and runners gather to socialize, both before and after the race.

Then there’s the Sunday race itself. A little firsthand preview, courtesy of Kulinski:

“It’s basically the same course since the start, beginning and finishing in Litchfield center. Most of it is run through the White Memorial Conservation Center, a 4,000-acre nature preserve here in town, which makes for just a beautiful course. It’s also tough. Usually the second Sunday in June turns out to be a warm, humid day, and that adds to the difficulty.

“There’s also a rather large hill—Gallow’s Lane. You actually run down it in the first mile, and then come back up it with about a mile to go. It’s the placement of the hill that makes it so difficult. By the six-mile mark, you’re pretty well spent. It’s not a long hill, but it’s steep. You’d be surprised at how many spectators like to watch from that vantage point just to see people struggle. I’ve walked up it a number of years, and I’ve run up it, depending on what kind of shape I’m in. Either way, you’re not really moving all that fast. If I feel like a little bit of a break, I don’t mind walking. I have no pride.”

For the record, I’ve never gone 7 miles in an official competition, although anytime I’m running, in my mind it’s like Chariots of Fire—a world-class athlete sprinting gracefully along an idyllic beach. In real life and to the rest of the world, however, it’s sure to be more like a Budweiser commercial, and I’ll be the guy in the black Inov-8s, panting and plodding like a Clydesdale up Gallows Lane toward the finish.

For more info—including to register (come on, join us!)—visit lhrr.com.

Run to the Hills

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