How a bartender dreamed up the Falmouth Road Race
Only a certain race every April can claim a more storied history in Massachusetts than this Cape Cod classic.
SETTLED IN 1660, Falmouth was incorporated as a town in 1686. And 286 years later, on September 10, 1972, two strangers nearly 4,000 trans-Atlantic miles apart — Thomas Leonard, a Massachusetts-born orphaned amateur runner working in a beachfront Cape Cod bar, and Frank Shorter, a German-born American elite runner competing on the Olympic stage of athletics — unwittingly became intertwined in an event that would soon transform the running calendar.
While at work behind The Pub bar inside the Brothers 4 in Falmouth Heights, Leonard watched the Munich Olympics on TV. One event in particular — the marathon — sparked great interest. His reverence for the Boston Marathon reached pious levels every Patriots Day during his bartending shifts at the Eliot Lounge, a runners’ haven of libation inside the Eliot Hotel near the final mile of the Boston course. So when Leonard stopped in his tracks to watch ABC-TV’s Jim McKay, Chris Schenkel, and Erich Segal call the marquee Olympic 26.2-miler, so, too, did the beer taps.
“Yeah,” recalls Leonard. “I refused to serve anybody when Frank Shorter came into the stadium. And George Robbat, one of the [owner] brothers, said, ‘Tommy, do whatever you want.’ And I did. And I was sort of giving commentary,” he adds with a laugh.
By the time Shorter finished in a gold medal-winning 2:12:19.8, enough time had passed for Leonard to begin to formulate a seemingly irrational idea. Over time, Leonard’s eyes glistened at the possibility, despite the obvious (to everyone else) obstacles involved.
“I followed his career when he was at Mount Hermon,” he says of Shorter’s boarding school days in Central Massachusetts, “and then at Yale. After the Olympics — it had been building up — I said to myself . . . ‘Wouldn’t it be something if I could get Frank Shorter to Falmouth. . . . People said, ‘You’d never get him.’ That only made me think all the harder.”
THE FALMOUTH ROAD RACE was born out of necessity as a fund-raiser for high school girls to travel to meets. It wasn’t until 1971 that the first Massachusetts State High School Cross-Country Championship for girls occurred (Falmouth won six of the first seven). The state meet concluded the season.
There were women’s tournament meets, but girls were not permitted to compete as a high school team. That was solved when Falmouth High School girls’ track coach John Carroll created the Falmouth Track Club in 1972. “These are the types of kids Tommy Leonard saw and said, ‘Let’s raise some money.’ That’s sort of how it started,” says Carroll.
While the Frank Shorter dream still resonated with Leonard, he realized that there was a more immediate need closer to home. “Everything was youth hockey. I was involved with the [benefit] bicycle race prior to that year, and I said [to myself], ‘What am I doing helping out hockey when I can’t even skate?’ ”
Cape Cod offered plenty to do, with its restaurants, theaters, beaches, souvenir shops, ice cream parlors, bars, and nightclubs. In summer, the Cape was the place to be — offseason, not so much. “The Cape hadn’t emerged to full-fledged status at that time,” Carroll notes.
Falmouth first hosted a Christmas parade in 1964, Fourth of July fireworks in 1975, and an Arts & Crafts Street Festival in 1978, but events were few. There was no conscious effort — or need — to boost its global profile in the summer with an international event that would attract 90,000 people. However, there was a need, Leonard thought, to offer a small-town event to raise funds for some of their own.
Empowered with his race idea, Leonard began to contact people sometime around June 1973. First was Carroll by way of a chance meeting with his wife, Lucia Carroll, at Guv Fuller Field. “Tommy wanted to know who this guy was,” says Lucia, “and so I told him. He said, ‘Do you think he could run a race?’ I thought maybe he meant [compete] in a race.”
After John Carroll said, “No problem,” Leonard contacted Selectman John DeMello Jr. and Police Chief John Ferreira. “John DeMello told me to go see Chief Ferreira. ‘And whatever he says, it’s OK with me.’ I went to Chief Ferreira, and he said, ‘Whatever John DeMello said is OK with me.’ ”
Leonard got in touch with Rich Sherman, director of the Falmouth Recreation Center. Sherman was a special services Navy man, Massachusetts Air National Guard member at Otis air base in Bourne, and an athlete who had just run the 1973 Boston Marathon. He recalls that race applications were most likely typed and mimeographed at the recreation center. The entry fee was $2.
Leonard had often run from Woods Hole to Falmouth Heights, so he was familiar with the two points he thought could form a course. And bar-to-bar runs were not a foreign concept to him, thanks to many such runs in Boston. “The Captain Kidd was the place to be,” says Charlie Rodgers, running great Bill Rodgers’s brother. “Everybody that was a runner wanted to be there. It was quite nice. You could sit out and look at the water — boats right next to you.”
Everyone knew the hot spots. “One was Falmouth Heights, which had the Brothers 4, Casino-by-the-Sea; second place was On the Rocks at the Mashpee Rotary; the third place was the Mill Hill Club in Yarmouth,” John Carroll says.
The course starts in front of the Captain Kidd (a.k.a. Cap’n Kidd) on Water Street, proceeds over Eel Pond Drawbridge and right onto Church Street, then continues to the first mile near Nobska Point Lighthouse. The course hooks around the lighthouse to Nobska Road, past the 2-mile mark, onto Oyster Pond Road. The course exits Woods Hole, enters Falmouth Village, and continues on Surf Drive through mile 4. Then it takes a left onto Shore Street, a right onto Clinton Avenue (and mile 5), a left onto Scranton Avenue (Falmouth Inner Harbor), a right onto Robbins Road, and a right onto Falmouth Heights Road.
Entering Falmouth Heights, the course heads toward Grand Avenue and swings left to the final downhill to the finish line between Central Park Avenue and Falmouth Road Race Finish Line Garden.
The race date of August 15, 1973, was significant for two reasons: It was Leonard’s 40th birthday and, as the celebrant gladly acknowledges, “it was a holy day of obligation!”
THE FIRST NEWSPAPER MENTION of the race appeared in the daily Cape Cod Standard-Times (July 21) and biweekly Falmouth Enterprise (July 27), which noted that the race Leonard had planned (assisted by Captain Kidd’s Mike Scher) would field 200 (possibly including Ireland Olympian Patrick McMahon).
It was big news when two-time US Olympic legend John A. Kelley of East Dennis confirmed participation. The 65-year-old was a two-time winner of the Boston Marathon.
“Falmouth was a rather sleepy village in 1972-73, and Woods Hole was really defined only by the [Marine Biological Laboratory] and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution,” notes Brian Salzberg, a Yale postdoctoral fellow whose summer work at the lab led him to run every Falmouth race.
Race week greeted residents and vacationers with Cape temperatures in the 80s and plenty of sun. By race day, however, the sun had taken a vacation. Nearly 3 inches of rain fell, and only about half the expected entrants showed for the noontime start. “It was a Wednesday afternoon, and it was pouring rain,” Leonard says. “Couldn’t rain any harder. Forty-mile-an-hour winds! Gale-force winds! And I had a McDonald’s bus — the hamburger place — double-decker English bus [for runners].”
But Leonard nearly missed his own race. “I had a ride . . . and we got stuck in a puddle out by the lighthouse,” he says of his drive.
Woods Hole congestion was minimal. “We got there about a half hour before, hour at the most,” says Rich Sherman. “We hung out in the Captain Kidd because it was raining. The entire race was in the Captain Kidd, pretty much.” As the lead vehicle, John Carroll — with starter’s pistol — used his legendary Porsche 911 Targa convertible. “I raised the gun and fired it. Said, ‘Ready, set, go!’ and off we went,” he recalls. “I may have said, ‘Follow us,’ but we had told everybody where to go, and almost everybody lived in Falmouth, so they weren’t going to get lost.”
Nine Cape towns, 16 off-Cape communities, eight states, five countries, four colleges and universities, four athletic and track clubs, and four other organizations were represented. The course was open to traffic, meaning no closed-off streets. There also were no water stations, traffic cones, police fencing, signage, mile markers, or directional arrows.
In 39:16, Dave Duba of Central Michigan University edged Pat Doherty of Boston State College. “I was on vacation with [John Shultz] from high school whose uncle and aunt lived down the Cape and worked for the oceanographic place,” says Duba. “We drove from Michigan and we picked up a hitchhiker, and he told us about it. I think we were not even in the Cape yet. I really had never been there. Oh, and those roundabouts! You’ve gotta know what you’re doing. Not too many in Michigan,” he says, laughing. “We registered right at the bar there that morning.”
Bill Dougherty, one of the first volunteers, recalls, “Rich, John, and my brother [Frank] and I created a finish line made from a clothesline.”
In 15th overall was Jennifer Tuthill (47:23) as the women’s winner over Birgit Lowenstern. Tuthill, a Cambridge Sports Union member familiar with the area by way of friends and family, embraced the welcoming running community, a far cry from the pre-Title IX verbal insults directed toward her in college.
FRIENDS, FAMILY, AND FINISHERS were rewarded with the warmth and merriment of the Brothers 4, which opened its doors wide and seemingly forever. “What a party after!” says Thomas Leonard with a hearty laugh. “We had a banjo band — Your Father’s Mustache banjo band — and warm Schlitz beer, only two cases. I had everybody singing the songs that were popular then — ‘I Believe in Music’ [by Mac Davis].”
Post-race provisions were basic. “I owned a restaurant which was located inside Brothers 4,” Bill Dougherty says. “We served mostly bologna sandwiches, beer, and Gatorade. It rained harder than I ever remember to this day, and at the end of the race, we crowded into the pub and partied till midnight.”
Red Cavanaugh’s chowder was also provided.
It all served the purpose to raise funds. “We’ve never given out shirts. We sold the shirts to make money for the race and to make money for the kids,” says Lucia Carroll.
Entrance fees, shirt sales, donations, and prizes all helped. “I went around with a cigar box. Collected about four hundred bucks,” Leonard says. “Before, I got a camera [and] dinners for two. I went to Malchman’s, and I said to Mrs. [Eleanor Malchman] Smith, ‘I know you get hit by every charity in town from A to Z, but I’d like to do something for the girls track team at Falmouth High School.’ And she said, ‘You know, son, I do get hit, but I like your spirit.’ She walked me over to a women’s handbag section and she said, ‘Take this.’ It was an expensive handbag. I literally danced out of that store, I was so excited.”