Change Coming to the New Year's Run-Swim


Never in their wildest imaginations could the three buddies who more or less spontaneously sprinted across a beach on New Year’s Day nearly half a century (!) ago and leaped into the icy waters of Fishers Island Sound conceive that a huge mob would literally be following in their footsteps as part of one of the region’s nuttiest, long-held traditions.

The annual New Year’s run-swim – in keeping with the madcap nature of the event it has no formal name, no official organizers, is attached to no cause and has no real purpose other than for participants to proudly proclaim, “We are all idiots!” – began Jan. 1, 1969, when Amby Burfoot, then of Groton Long Point, who a year earlier had won the Boston Marathon, Lee Burbank of Mystic and Marty Valentine of Noank all decided to take a dip on Jan. 1

Contrary to what most modern-day acolytes believe, the trio did not run from Mystic to the beach that year, but drove to Esker Point in Noank, where they plunged into the water and then motored back home.

They repeated the drive-swim stunt the next year, but on Jan. 1, 1971, a handful of other runners joined the fun, and they decided to start off with a five-mile jog from the Pequot Avenue, Mystic home of Johnny Kelley, Amby’s high school cross-country coach. Johnny, who also had won the Boston Marathon and competed twice in the Olympics, joyfully introduced me to the event way back in the Nixon Administration, and over the years it has grown to a throng of several hundred colorfully clad, noisemaker-tooting celebrants.

For some four decades the run launched from Pequot Avenue and ended at Groton Long Point – with many participants also running back after the swim, extending the distance to 10 miles.

Traditions evolve, and the annual run-swim is no exception.

Last year, because of road construction at Groton Long Point, the swim moved back to Esker Point, where the town of Groton generously offered use of its beach facilities.

Johnny, my old friend and mentor to generations of runners, died Aug. 21, 2011, and four months later we sadly started the run-swim for the last time from Pequot Avenue.

This New Year’s Day we will begin from one of Johnny’s favorite stomping grounds, near the banks of the Mystic River. Runners will gather about noon near the starting line for the Tarzan Brown road race on Pearl Street, then head south, cross West Main Street and continue south on Route 215 to Brook Street, where they will turn right, run up the hill to Groton Long Point Road, and turn left for the final stretch to Esker Point.

By my calculations that will shave the distance to about 3.3 miles, but who knows, maybe in keeping with the spontaneous nature of the event the course will evolve en route, adding a loop or two to extended the tally to an even five miles.

Truth told, the distance isn’t all that important. The main idea is to have fun, reconnect with old friends, and honor the memories of those who have passed, including one of the original trio, Marty Valentine, who died years ago in Alaska, and of course, Kell. Monday, Dec. 24, would have been his 82nd birthday.

Even though the run-swim has no connection to a cause, it should serve as a reminder that none of us would be loping together on New Year’s Day and jumping in the water if it weren’t for Johnny. With his elfin sparkle, Peter Pan personality and boyish charm he was the glue that bound us together.

A bunch of friends plan to honor his memory with a life-sized statue in downtown Mystic. Check out The John Kelley Memorial Fund at

As for the run, it’s free and open to everybody. It’s not a race – more of a shuffle – and the group stops frequently to allow stragglers to keep up.

Bring a towel, or have somebody meet you at Esker Point.

Above all, have fun!




Reader Comments


Utah Rocks: Adventures Among The Arches And The Rapids (Part I)

You know how it feels when you witness something so astonishingly exquisite and surreal it literally takes your breath away, and all you can do is gasp in amazement?

Oops. I Meant To Say, Whatever You Do, NEVER Try To Pose For A Selfie With Bear Cubs While Mama Grizzly Is Watching, And Other Corrections

• Alert readers have correctly pointed out a slight flaw in my instructions for the proper rock climbing command when you have unclipped from your rope. You should loudly announce, "Rappel off," not "On rappel."...

Use It Or Lose It: Trails Disappear If Nobody Hikes Them

Nature really hates a vacuum when it comes to paths.

Plunging Through Plum Gut And Bongo Sliding Through The Race In A Kayak: Maybe There Is Such A Thing As Too Much Fun

So a rabbi and a psychiatrist are kayaking in the ocean when a giant wave crashes over them and knocks the rabbi unconscious. The psychiatrist manages to pull the rabbi ashore, where he regains consciousness.

Once Again, Pink Gloves (Plus a Clever Signal) Help Save The Day At The Josh Billings Runaground Triathlon

"On your left!" Phil Warner shouted from the bow of a tandem kayak, racing toward a buoy during the paddle leg of last Sunday’s Josh Billings Runaground Triathlon in Lenox, Mass.

It's Swallow Time Again On The Connecticut River

Early Thursday evening was a magical time to paddle on the lower Connecticut River near Lyme.

Rocks In Their Heads Again: Another Bunch Of Idiots Knock Over An Ancient Stone Formation, This Time In Oregon

"Every now and again people do something so monumentally destructive, dimwitted and dishonorable it belongs in a class of disgracefulness normally reserved for trophy hunters ... It’s almost as if they wake up one morning and say to...

Who Needs Bug Zappers When Dragonflies Are On The Prowl?

Citronella candles, bug zappers, insecticides – people go to elaborate and often poisonous lengths to combat mosquitoes, deer flies and other nettlesome insects as we move into the steamy weeks of late summer, but I’ve been letting...

Life's A Beach: Eavesdropping In The Sand

"Sweetie, do you know what that is?" No response. "Look at that bird! You know what they call it?" Still no response. "It’s a seagull!"

Surf’s Up! Hanging Ten In A Kayak

All right, technically my buddy Spyros "Spy" Barres and I weren’t hanging 10 toes off the end off boards while riding waves at Westerly’s Fenway Beach on Thursday, but we were surfing.

I'm Always Chasing Rainbows

All of us who have ventured atop mountains, out to sea, or simply into a nearby park have occasionally faced Mother Nature’s wrath – a sudden thunderstorm, pounding blizzard, gale-force winds, locusts …

Loading Your Backpack: Less Is (Usually) More

Some years ago, preparing to hike the Hundred Mile Wilderness – the final stretch of the fabled Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, I stuffed my backpack with what I initially considered to be the absolute bare minimum for a week in...

Sun, Sun, Sun Here It Comes (Enough Already!)

When I was a kid, the Fourth of July was one of the year’s high holy days, right up there with Halloween and the last day of school, because that was when my parents took my sister and me to the beach for the annual fireworks...