NEWINGTON - This is a running town if there ever was one.
Not only is Newington the genesis of famed marathon runner Bill Rodgers, but it is also home to a unique running event that has been going on since the 1960s.
Newington’s 2018 Summer Fun Runs are set to begin on Wednesday, July 11. The series continues Wednesdays, July 18 and 25 and Aug. 1, 8 and 15. All ages and abilities are invited to come together at 6:30 p.m. in a gathering on the cross country trails behind John Wallace Middle School, 71 Halleran Drive, Newington.
“It’s not the course they ran way back then, but it’s still free,” coordinator Jay Krusell pointed out. “We’re trying to continue the tradition and to recall the nice running legacy Newington has.”
Cary and JoDee Cyr noted that participation is a good mix of local families and members of the Run 169 Towns Society, who endeavor to run a race in every town in Connecticut.
“It’s a great way to spend a summer evening,” said Cary Cyr. “My wife and I have been cheering and running this series for a few years now, and like it so much we started volunteering on race nights last year.”
The Summer Fun Runs were started by former Newington High School cross country coach Frank O’Rourke, who mentored Rodgers during his long tenure.
“He wasn’t all that stellar of a runner and Frank encouraged him to join the team,” Krusell recounted.
Rodgers went on to win the Boston and New York marathons for three to four years straight in the late 1970s. O’Rourke retired in 1983 and is now living out his golden years in Berlin.
The Fun Runs have continued to this day, due to collaborative efforts from local runners, longtime residents and Newington Parks and Recreation staff, who provide the ribbons and medals participants receive each week.
“We get a wide age range, from kids and teenagers to older adults,” recreation supervisor Nick Pizzoferrato said. “Last year alone we had 250 unique runners. There’s all different terrain and it’s great for all different skill levels.”
For the Callahan family, it’s a chance to catch up with running buddies they’ve met over the last few years’ fun runs.
“We enjoy being able to do something active together to keep in shape and find the course challenging,” Maureen Callahan said. “It is through the woods and fields and has some tough hills, quite a change from our usual runs. We plan to participate as often as we can this summer.”
Participants can choose either a 3K or 5K course, distances of 2 miles and 3.1 miles, respectively. Participants under 18 must have a parent sign the program waiver for them. Runners receive ribbons after each race, no matter when they crossed the finish line. Those who take part in several races through the summer will take home what is perhaps the most unusual trophy of any running event.
“We don’t go out and buy them,” Krusell explained. “We use re-gifted trophies from all different places.”
Among this year’s collection are some from Volksmarches in Germany, donated by Lou Zabohonski, who took part in these non-competitive fitness events in the 1970s and ’80s. His daughter Margaret Waluk lives in Newington and delivered the trophies to Krusell for inclusion.
“My father now resides in New Hampshire,” she said. “But he has come down to spectate the races a few times.”
Waluk and her children, Zander, 10, and Avery, 7, enjoy running with the group.
“We like that we can do it together,” Waluk said. “It’s just a nice group of people - no pressure, just getting together and having fun.”
That atmosphere is exactly the kind Krusell and other race coordinators have hoped to foster.
“It’s just meant to be family-oriented and fun, not super serious,” he said. “We’re trying to broaden the way people think about the sport.”
Expect the runs to carry on in rain or shine. Thunder and lightning storms are the only weather that keep this group from the trails. Check out Facebook.com/NewingtonFunRuns for updates.
Erica Drzewiecki can be reached at 860-801-5097 or firstname.lastname@example.org.