25 years of running with the ‘Slugs’

“All right, everybody — out the door! Let’s go! We’re wasting valuable drinking time!”

Most “Slug Runs” begin with Way Hedding’s booming command, which we dutifully heed: Slip on hats and mittens, bound outside into the winter air, pose for an obligatory group photo, and then trot off en masse.

This past Saturday, the Slugs launched their 25th season of weekly group workouts — a seasonal series that combines healthy exercise with post-run refreshment.

Originally conceived by serious runners training for the Boston Marathon, Slug Runs have since evolved into more casual outings that attract walkers, joggers and shufflers, along with past and present competitive racers who enjoy a break from the no-pain-no-gain approach to self-improvement.

Attendees typically range from teenagers and millennials happy to push the pace, to octogenarians, including 86-year-old Colburn Graves of North Stonington, whose attendance is as reliable as the U.S. Postal Service — deterred by neither snow nor rain. At least there is no gloom of night; the runs begin at 9 a.m.

Starting in January and continuing through early April, participants travel each Saturday to different homes throughout southeastern Connecticut and western Rhode Island. Once out the door, runners choose their own packs, paces, distances and routes, using maps supplied by the hosts.

At Saturday's gathering in North Stonington, Sabrina Buehler, Dean Berardi, Tracy Romano and I ran alongside two members of the National Distance Running Hall of Fame: Amby Burfoot, the 1968 Boston Marathon champion and former editor-in-chief of Runner's World magazine; and Patti Catalano, the first American woman to break 2 hours and 30 minutes in the marathon who has held a passel of American road-racing records. She also is a champion storyteller and likes to carry on conversations and ask complex questions while you're struggling to keep up.

Though they’ve been friends for decades, it had been a while since Patti and Amby had run together.

“This is great! How long has it been, Patti?” Amby asked, as we loped along hilly and winding Miller Road.

“Too long!” she blurted, surging ahead.

While we were in a group that chose to run on pavement, Patti’s husband, Dan Dillon, elected to tackle trails. Dan is a two-time All-American in cross-country who, like Patti, is a world-class raconteur.

Opting for muddy paths while chatting carries a serious risk: any stumble could qualify one for the dreaded Bloody Shirt Award, presented with much fanfare on the last Slug Run of the season to the unfortunate runner who did something really clumsy and/or stupid that year.

The prize was inspired the first year of the Slugs, when one of the series founders, Marshall Collins, tripped in the woods and crashed, breaking his nose.

Collins and his companions preserved the torn and bloody shirt he had been wearing. Once a year, it is carefully removed from its hermetically sealed plastic bag and presented to the next “winner,” chosen by a panel of past recipients. The new winner must then don the stained garment and pose for a photograph, holding his or her hand against the forehead with thumb and forefinger extended in the shape of an L, for loser.

Way Hedding, who joined the Slugs that first year, is a Bloody Shirt alumnus. He also initiated another Slug tradition adhered to by a handful of regulars — imbibing “chocolate milk” after workouts.

When Patti showed up for her first Slug Run a few years ago, he offered her a cup.

She took one sip and grimaced.

“This isn’t chocolate milk!” she exclaimed.

Certainly not — it was Guinness.

“Did you drink it?” I asked.

“Of course I did! I’m not stupid,” she laughed.

For the most part, though, Slug Runners cool down by nibbling on brownies, quaffing nonalcoholic beverages and swapping tales of past marathons.

Many participants belong to the Mohegan Striders running club, though membership isn’t mandatory to join the Slugs.

The Slug Runs are free and open to the public. This Saturday’s gathering is in New London. For directions, and to get on an email list with a schedule of upcoming runs, send an email to Bob Buckingham at c.buckingham@sbcglobal.net.

For more information about the Striders, visit moheganstriders.org.

If you do show up for a run, bring a snack to share. And if Way offers you a mug of chocolate milk, make sure you take a sip before chugging.

 

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