My young self then known as Bob “Hodges” with Billy Rodgers. This photo hangs in the Village Restaurant Bar in the center of Litchfield CT Thanks to Brent Hawkins & Mary for the photo of the photo.
By Bob Hodge
In 1977 Boston Globe sports journalist Joe Concannon, a Litchfield native, created the Litchfield Hills Road Race with a little help from his friends: Billy Neller (another Litchfield native) and Tommy Leonard (bartender and founder of the Falmouth Road Race). How that happened is another story best told in detail by those particular characters. This story involves my journey to bucolic Litchfield for the first annual race.
In the fall of 1976 I made the momentous decision to leave school at the University of Lowell and, with my good friend Ronnie, made a trip across the country visiting National Parks, historic places and other fine locales occurring spontaneously in a “mind on fire”.
Suffice to say that I had had enough of college for now.
I later caught wind of a remark my coach and friend Bill Squires made when he learned of my plans: “geez, Hodgie is going off to pick daisies.” Well, hopefully I would not be pushing up daisies any time soon.
I had gone to college because it was more hospitable than work and I went to work because it was more hospitable than college. At least when I was working I got a paycheck so I chose that, and as a bonus, I felt I could read and follow my interest. An education was much more than a degree and I felt the act of obtaining the degree was inhibiting my education.
I needed some worldly experiences beyond Lowell, MA. I wanted, as Thoreau says in Ktaadn as related to the wild, “contact, contact who are we? Where are we?” types of answers.
I worked at Alexander’s supermarket in Dracut, MA right up the street a mile from home, stocking shelves and bagging groceries. I gave my Dad a small amount of money each week and saved as much as I could for our upcoming cross country excursion. We would leave in the summer, perhaps in June.
That spring I was planning on running my first Boston Marathon and I had a series of races planned leading up to it. I ran with my Greater Boston Track Club mates a few times a week, including going long on Sundays from a location on the marathon course in Natick, MA near the 11 mile mark. After our run we would often go to Friendly’s for a Fribble (an ice cream and milk shake), which served as our recovery drink.
Joe Concannon had a distinguished career at the Boston Globe. He covered college hockey and golf primarily but I knew him from the Eliot Lounge, which served as the de facto Greater Boston Track Club-house. I believe Joe started to cover the running scene in the early 1970’s and of course the Boston Marathon was the main event. Joe somewhat followed in the steps of longtime Boston Marathon chronicler Jerry Nason.
There had always been plenty of reportage of marathon running on Patriots Day in Boston but most of this “coverage” was spotty at best. Joe helped to bring it to a new level at a time when the event was growing and changing and his friendly relationships with the athletes surely helped.
Through those halcyon days Joe became a strong voice for the athletes and when he decided to stage a road race in his hometown of Litchfield, CT we all supported the event.
Perhaps unsurprisingly Joe got the idea from Tommy Leonard, the Guru who has always done a better job marketing athletics than the governing organizations have done. Tommy has always had many great ideas, some of which came to fruition (like the Falmouth Road Race).
So in 1977, inspired by TL, Joe went to work on the Litchfield town fathers with a little help from his friends and an enduring event was born: The Litchfield Hills Road Race, covering 7.1 miles with a killer hill aptly named Gallows Lane.
As the first race approached I was nearing the time to leave on my previously mentioned cross country travel adventure. It was in an adventurous spirit that I travelled to Litchfield, a place with which I was not well acquainted, with my GBTC mates.
On arrival we were taken to our host family abode, which for me was the Rick Evangelisti home right on the race course a half mile or so from the start. Rick was the race director and a longtime Litchfield native living here with his wife and two young children.
We runners from the Boston area became acquainted with our hosts that day and began longtime friendships. My companion runners planned to meet soon at the village green and have a run over the race course. After the run most of us drank beer…lots of beer.
The Litchfield running and drinking society was in session.
I was 21 years old then and the world seemed full of possibilities. My upcoming travel adventure would give me the time and space that I felt I needed to decide my future plans.
As for running, well, I would always be a runner but what about lofty goals, the Boston Marathon, the Olympics? Was that even possible? What about work? To try and climb to the top as a runner you had to have a professional approach where there was no “profession”. Any money made by virtue of your running would be a pittance unless you were one of the very top runners in the country.
Could I support my habit? Did I even want to?
For now there was this special weekend in Litchfield and the rest was to be determined. It would all be very interesting.
Race day it was sunny hot and humid. The race would not start until one in the afternoon at the insistence of the town fathers, it being a Sunday and all. Vinnie Fleming, a future LHRR winner and course record holder, and I warmed up for the race together. He told me that Bill Rodgers had asked him about me and how well was I running at the moment. I was flattered until Vin Ho said “I can’t believe he’s worried about you beating him.” Geezus.
The race was started with the blast of a cannon. I hung with Billy the longest into the White Woods Memorial section of the course before he left me well behind. I would end up with the first of my four second place finishes there. I did notch a victory in 1980 but only because Randy Thomas let me win, according to a headline in the newspaper the next day.
As I rounded the corner to the main drag finish I passed the start area only to receive another blast of the cannon that started the race! I just happened to arrive at that point as Bill was finishing and the plan was to fire the cannon a second time when the race victor crossed the line. Scared the shit out of me.
The post race party was at Beverly’s on the lake. I remember being over-served and wrestling with my backpack down on the ground like a turtle on its back. I also remember the red-headed gal. My host, race director Rick, told me that his daughter reported to him on his arrival home that Bob was in his assigned room with his “wife”.
In the morning we went to Joe Concannon’s family home for breakfast served by his mom Mae. Later we went for a run straight out of the Colcannon home, where there was no place to go but up some unholy hill.
We were nearly talked into staying over another day but we made our escape and savored our excellent Litchfield adventure all the way home.
As I write this the 40th Annual Litchfield Hills Road Race is upon us. Joe and Mae Concannon are no longer with us but are not forgotten. There was a period throughout the 1990’s when I did not make it to the race every year but it always drew me back eventually. My atavistic endeavor.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
-Lord Alfred Tennyson Ulysses