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The New Year's Run-Swim: A Joyful Tradition for Lunatics

Let us now, through the magic of imagination, suspend time.
You are frozen horizontally in place with arms stretched out, hovering inches above the surface.

You are wearing only running shorts. Clumps of snow and ice cling to your bare feet, and your skin is covered by goose bumps.

Your eyes are squeezed shut, your jaw clenched in a grimace, bracing for the awful shock. In that terrible moment before you hit the water, you whimper to yourself, "This is going to hurt!"

Before we activate the motion, let me explain the situation. You and about 200 of your closest friends, all hooting, hollering and blowing noisemakers, have just run five miles on New Year's Day from Mystic to Groton Long Point, as part of a madcap tradition that began more than 40 years ago.

Approaching Main Beach you tear off your shirt, shoes and socks and sprint toward the surf. An icy wind is blowing and the water temperature is about 40 degrees. You take a breath and launch your dive.

Let me first apologize to faithful readers who may recall my past chronicles of this experience, but bear with me. Let's also back up a bit, before we allow our imaginations to hit the water, to a seminal date in local history: Jan. 1, 1969.

On that day, three buddies – 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 – decided to ring in the New Year with a dip in Fishers Island Sound.

I've had their reasoning explained to me several times, and the best explanation I can come up with is: You had to be there.
Anyway, the trio drove to Esker Point in Noank, dashed across the frozen sand, plunged into the water and then drove back home.

The next year Amby, Lee and Marty repeated their crazy stunt, and in 1971 a handful of other friends joined in — but instead of simply jumping into the icy water they decided to warm up with a 5-mile run.

And so they started from the Pequot Avenue, Mystic home of Johnny Kelley, Amby's high school cross-country coach who himself had won the Boston Marathon in 1957 and competed twice in the Olympics. In order to extend the distance to five miles they moved the swim from Esker Point to Groton Long Point's Main Beach.

The following year I joined that small band of lunatics, along with Bill Billing of Mystic, who is married to Amby's sister, Natalie.

The year after that, Kim Murphy of Stonington came along.
This New Year's Day, Bill and I will be making our 40th consecutive run-swim, and I expect Kim will be making his 39th. I know he is hoping that one year Bill or I will pull a hamstring or twist an ankle so that he can claim possession of first place in the consecutive year tradition.

Dream on, Kim — I'll be there even if I've just had an emergency appendectomy, and I'm sure Bill would be, too.

Amby, who is executive editor of Runner's World magazine, missed one run-swim a few years ago when he was on assignment, and Lee hasn't been running much these days, though I still kayak with him on occasion.

Alas, Marty was killed trying to stop a robbery in Alaska years ago; the event is dedicated in his memory.

The joy of the New Year's run-swim (it doesn't have a formal name, or a cause, or an organizer) is that it's free and open to everybody. You don't have even have to run the whole way, or at all.

If you're reading this in time, here's all you have to do: Show up on Pequot Avenue in Mystic before noon Saturday. Be prepared to run (or shuffle; the pace will be slow) for 5 miles. You might want to carry a towel, or have a friend meet you with one at the beach.

Now, the moment of truth we've all been waiting for: You are suspended horizontally in place with arms stretched out, hovering inches above the surface.

Our time-freezing thaws out, and ... SPLASH!


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