Recollections of First East Lyme Marathon

Thirty years ago, a group of local residents pulled off a feat nearly as impressive as running a 26.2-mile marathon.

It staged the area's first marathon running event, all within the boundaries of one town: East Lyme

The East Lyme Marathon, first run on Sept. 26, 1980, started at East Lyme High, wound through town to and around Rocky Neck State Park, and ended at the high school. It was a coup within the road-racing fraternity for a volunteer effort to orchestrate such a spectacle in one suburban community. Most marathons are staged in much larger municipalities such as New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and, of course, Boston.

The East Lyme Marathon commenced for nine straight years to 1988 and, after a one-year layoff, was held nearly every year until 2001 under different names (Mystic Places Marathon). The late September event evolved until into what is known today as the Niantic Bay Half-Marathon that was held Sept. 24 at Rocky Neck State Park.

A group of locals, spearheaded by eventual ELM President Bill Donovan, mulled the possibility of a marathon during a period in which road racing was at its zenith in popularity. American Frank Shorter's gold medal in the 1972 Olympic Marathon created a nation-wide ripple effect among runners training to attack the formidable distance of a 26.2-mile run in what was referred to as the "Running Boom."

The boom had already hit southeastern Connecticut. Fitch High produced the 1957 Boston Marathon winner and two-time Olympian John Kelley, who later coached at Fitch, grooming 1968 Boston Marathon winner Amby Burfoot.

Donovan, a former New London High sports standout and long-time local sports contributor whose only connection to road racing was through a father-in-law, NLHS cross-country coach Malcolm Greenaway, helped to organize the first ELM with the help of influential locals.

"Road racing was at an all-time high locally, and I was approached by Dr. Ken Kierstein about the possibility of hosting a local marathon," Donovan said. "The idea was to offer a marathon for local runners, who could not qualify for other bigger marathons, to train and compete in a 26.2-mile run."

East Lyme first selectman George Seebeck enthusiastically supported Donovan's idea of hosting the marathon completely within the confines of East Lyme.

Seebeck instructed the town engineer to design the course, and Donovan and associate Tim Klevecz invited Kelley and Burfoot to ride the course to get their comments and opinions.

"They both approved it, and Burfoot went a step further, saying it was the most beautiful marathon course he has ever seen," Donovan said.

The inaugural East Lyme Marathon gained credibility after Ron Carroll rode his bicycle along the course and certified the distance, allowing the event to become a qualifier for bigger marathons.

"We could not have pulled off the marathon without Ron's efforts, as most runners won't run that long of a distance if the course is not certified," Donovan said.

Bob Stack of New London won the first marathon in a time of 2:25.18, nipping Norwich's Tim Smith, who won in 1981, by 23 seconds in a field of 480. Agnes Ruane was the first women's finisher in 3:20.3.

Stack enjoyed the ELM so much, he became the chief executive officer of the race in 1988.

"I'd much rather compete in the race than direct," Stack said. "Competing, when you are across the finish line, you are done."

The entire event, however, proved to be the big winner. Runners were so stunned at the organization and efficiency of the race, the second East Lyme Marathon drew nearly 1,000 participants.

Thousands turned out to cheer on the runners with hundreds of other volunteers helping out on various stages of the marathon, including setting up water stations in front of their homes.

"It's a good draw to a host town," Stack said. "You bring in people who otherwise may never visit. That generates business for hotels/motels, places to eat, area attractions, and other off-shoot items."

Bob Dargel was also a board member and he and his amateur radio people provided communications along the course in case of emergency or injury. JoAnne Barrows, RN, nurse at Lawrence & Memorial, headed a group of volunteer nurses and doctors to treat runners as necessary in a triage area that was set up in the south gym at the high school.

"They were invaluable," Donovan said. "...Dozens of runners called it the most organized marathon they had ever participated in while first timers were amazed at the efficiency. Due to the success of the inaugural marathon, we had over 1,000 in 1981."

Circa 2000, Mystic Places, a regional tourism bureau, hired professional event organizers to stage the Mystic Places Marathon with Rocky Neck as its centerpiece. The supersized East Lyme Marathon featured beefed-up prize money and a beefed-up field of nearly 2,000 runners.

Some of the local feel of ELM was lost when prize money drew "ringers," out-of-town semi-professional runners, many foreign-born outstanding marathoners working in the U.S. With Kenyans and Eastern Europeans dominating, many top locals gravitated to other running events.

The marathon held in East Lyme in late September evolved into the Niantic Bay Half Marathon in 2007, run by JB Sports, a local event company out of New Haven. Nearly 900 competed in the half marathon and 5K Sept. 26. The half marathon has returned some of the event's laid-back neighborhood feel with a predominantly local and state field - Smith, now 62, was 32nd in the half marathon.

But local feel cannot be totally replicated - not with the realization that a group of volunteer locals conceived and orchestrated the area's first and only marathon 30 years ago.

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