Our Town’s World-Class Run

Falmouth’s famous road race turns 45 this year.

by Bill Higgins | Photography by Julia Cumes

The New Balance Falmouth Road Race will celebrate its 45th renewal on August 20 when nearly 13,000 runners gather at the Woods Hole drawbridge for a seven-mile jaunt to the ball field by the beach in Falmouth Heights. Call it a Sunday symphony of sweet sweat, choreographed by director Dave McGillivray, assisted by a finely tuned staff and upwards of 2,000 volunteers. It is a well-orchestrated movement of the masses in what has long been a centerpiece of summer on Cape Cod. “My role is more of a conductor,” says McGillivray, now in his sixth year with the baton. “My strength is surrounding myself with good people and letting them do what they do best. I’m just trying to keep all the pieces working together smoothly and harmoniously.”

A runner for many years, this is Dave McGillivray’s sixth year as the road race director. “My role is more of a conductor.  I’m just trying to keep all the pieces working together smoothly and harmoniously.”

If McGillivray is the leader of the band, then Tommy Leonard is Falmouth’s maestro. The irrepressible Leonard was inspired by watching Frank Shorter win the 1972 Olympic marathon. Leonard’s dream of staging a local road race came true in 1973 and blossomed into a world-class spectacle with an elite international field competing for prize money and one of the most coveted non-marathon crowns in the sport.

But it wasn’t always this way.

Leonard was into running before running was in and competed often in the Boston Marathon. He also spent many summers as a bartender on the Cape and in 1972 was at the Brothers 4, a popular club in Falmouth Heights. The 1972 Summer Olympics were in Munich, Germany, and when the marathon came on the television, Leonard turned up the sound and shut down the bar. Instead of dispensing drinks, he poured his heart out with animated analysis as Shorter raced to victory, the first American gold medalist in the event since 1908. “Wouldn’t it be fantastic,” Leonard remembers saying, “if we could get Frank Shorter to run a race on Cape Cod?” And the rest is history.

Leonard met John Carroll, a teacher and track coach at Falmouth High School, and Rich Sherman, the town’s recreation director. Together they organized the “Woods Hole-Falmouth Marathon” for a rainy Wednesday afternoon on August 15, 1973—Leonard’s 39th birthday. Of course, it wasn’t a 26.2-mile marathon, but the peculiar idea of road racing was in its infancy and such details were of little consequence. In fact, it was a fun run from one bar (Captain Kidd) in Woods Hole to another (Brothers 4) in the Heights. Thus, the quirky distance of seven miles.

Runners roll out of Woods Hole in the first of seven scenic miles.

Leonard and Sherman were two of the 92 finishers. The legendary marathoner Johnny Kelley, 65 at the time, also ran and was the star at the post-race party jitterbugging on the dance floor amid Schlitz beer and bologna sandwiches.

For the second race in 1974, Leonard recruited Bill Rodgers, promising that there would be girls in bikinis passing out water along the beach. He wasn’t yet “Boston Billy,” a future Boston Marathon winner and Hall of Famer, but he nonetheless beat the better-known Olympic miler Marty Liquori. Press reports called him “Will Rogers.” He won a blender and his car was towed.

In 1975, Leonard’s fantasy became reality when Shorter, the Olympic champion, indeed came to town to run and win. He won in 1975 and in 1976, and he has been back many times, as has Rodgers. Falmouth was off to the races as a “must-run” on the sport’s calendar. “I was a track runner,” says Shorter. “Falmouth was my first real road race and I knew right away it was something special, and that’s because of the powerful personality of Tommy Leonard. Falmouth always has a tremendous number of spectators. People watch it and say ‘This looks like fun,’ and the next year they jump in to run. It’s a great way to spend a summer day.” Rodgers agrees. “Boston is the classic marathon and Falmouth is the classic American road race.” Shorter and Rodgers, now both 69, are scheduled to return for the 45th celebration. Also expected is Joan Benoit Samuelson, the “First Lady of Falmouth.” She is a six-time champion and the gold medalist at the inaugural women’s Olympic marathon in 1984. She turned 60 in May and is still a fierce age-group competitor. “In many ways, my career launched at Falmouth,” says Samuelson. “Coming back every year is like a homecoming, and I think it’s that way for a lot of the runners. It just feels right.”

The route borders Vineyard Sound.

Leonard, now 84, will be on hand as the grand marshal. “This whole thing—the race, the town, the runners, the volunteers, everyone—has a seductive hold on me,” says Leonard. “It was borne out of friendship. Those who were already friends and those who would become friends. I wanted to do something that would make people feel good.” Leonard remains the beloved spirit of Falmouth and his imprint was recognized at the 40th anniversary with a plaque naming the starting line in his honor.

For his part, McGillivray has carried the baton from the original directors, Sherman and Carroll. “I’m a caretaker,” says McGillivray. “I’m trying to be respectful of those who created a world-class event. Falmouth was here long before me and it will be here long after I am gone.” The race is big business, with corporate sponsorships, paydays, parties, T-shirts and trinkets. But Falmouth has never lost its soul. A holiday atmosphere abounds and an enduring image is the large American flag flying at the beach, ushering runners to the finish.

Race founder Tommy Leonard remains the beloved spirit of Falmouth.

For all the camaraderie and competition on race day, Falmouth’s impact on the community is year-round and significant. Race proceeds benefit numerous nonprofits and youth groups. There are also student scholarships for Falmouth residents. Since 2012, the race has helped charities raise $16 million and Falmouth Road Race, Inc. has contributed more than $1 million through its Community Giving and Grants program. “We’ve worked hard to be good neighbors,” says Scott Ghelfi, president of the board of directors. “I think the town appreciates us and what we do. We’re committed to promoting health and wellness and supporting local organizations. That’s our mission and we take it very seriously.”

And so, strike up the band and let the good times roll. It’s go time in Falmouth once again.

Pounding the pavement on the way to the finish in Falmouth Heights.

Falmouth will celebrate its 45th year on August 20 with a field of nearly 13,000 runners.

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