Region's bond with Boston Marathon anchored by three legends

While Boston Marathon runners hail from every corner of the country and overseas, southeastern Connecticut has long boasted a special connection with the country's most prestigious road race.

It all began with the late John Kelley of Mystic, the 1957 champion, who went on to become a beloved coach and teacher at Robert E. Fitch Senior High School in Groton. He was followed by one of his students, Amby Burfoot of Mystic, who won the 1968 race as a Wesleyan University senior and ran Monday's race to celebrate the 45th anniversary of his victory.

Finally, there is Patti Dillon, a longtime New London resident, who finished second three years in a row from 1979 to 1981 and set the record for American women in the process.

These three world-class runners inspired many local runners, willingly sharing their knowledge of the sport with those less accomplished.

"I think that has generated a lot of interest in running here, not just because they were talented runners but because they were modest, well-liked people. It has breeded running in this area," said Jim Roy, the chairman of the John Kelley Memorial Fund committee who was coached by Kelley at Fitch High School.

For decades, a strong contingent of area runners has headed up to Boston on Patriots' Day. And that was the case again on Monday.

Five runners - Steve Fagin of Ledyard, Phil Plouffe and Lara Schrage of Groton, Julia Cooper of Stonington and Karina Montoya of Mystic - were all running with numbers that the Boston Athletic Association, the organizers of the race, had donated to the Kelley Foundation to help raise money for a proposed statue of Kelley in downtown Mystic.

The BAA also gave the foundation five numbers last year, which it then sold to people who made substantial donations. The sale of those numbers along with other fundraising events and individual donations have helped the foundation raise more than $35,000 of its $90,000 goal.

Montoya and Schrage finished just minutes before the two bombs exploded; Plouffe, Fagin and Cooper had almost reached the finish when police shut down the course.

Burfoot, who has returned home each New Year's Day for decades to lead the annual run and swim event from Kelley's former home on Pequot Avenue in Mystic, recently retired as a longtime editor at Runner's World magazine.

On Tuesday, he posted a column on the magazine's website about his experience in Boston Monday. He said he and two friends from Vermont had enjoyed a near-perfect run and were planning for the finish line photo. That's when they saw the road ahead was blocked with people and realized they were not drunken college students but fellow runners.

"My next thought, and I hate to admit this now: Who's ruining my party? I wanted to cross the finish line with my two wonderful friends, and celebrate another Boston Marathon completion in the way I had been imagining it for months," he wrote.

That's when his cellphone rang and his wife told him about the bombing and that the finish line was closed. She suggested they walk back to their hotel as quickly as possible.

"It wasn't easy, not with police and ambulance and other emergency cars whizzing past every few seconds, but we made it about 20 minutes later. By then, my cell phone was jammed with texts, emails, and calls asking if I was okay," he wrote. "I was, and feeling very thankful for that. And also very chagrined about my first thoughts, as well as somber and saddened by the harsh reality."

That's when he said media calls began rolling in, the first from The Washington Post.

Burfoot wrote that this "wasn't just an attack against the Boston Marathon. ... It was an attack against the American public and our democratic use of the streets. We have used our public roadways for annual parades, protest marches, presidential inaugurations, marathons, and all manner of other events. The roads belong to us, and their use represents an important part of our free and democratic tradition.

"But our institutions did not become great by following a path of timidity and cowardice. And we can only hope that, when pummeled, as the Boston Marathon was today, they will rise again, stronger than ever."

On their drive home from Boston Monday, Roy said he and Spyros Barres, the region's fastest finisher in 2:47, agreed they would return to Boston to run the marathon again.

"I'm more determined than ever to go back. If we don't, this sad day wins. We don't want to let that happen," Roy said.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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