fb-pixel

FALMOUTH — They were there when it all started. Quite literally.

With a little more than 90 other runners, they stood in a driving rainstorm on that Wednesday afternoon in the summer of 1973, and then ran from barroom to barroom along the Cape Cod seashore.

And into the history books of the Falmouth Road Race, which marks its 47th running Sunday.

They are the Falmouth Five — Ron Pokraka, Brian Salzberg, Tom Brannelly, Don Delinks, and Mike Bennett — who have run every single Falmouth Road Race since its inception 46 years ago.

It’s an elite group of runners, not as measured by their finishing times, but by their doggedness, determination — and good health insurance.

Advertisement



Nothing has stopped them.

Not torn muscles. Not broken bones. Not hip replacements. Not prostate surgery.

“I think about 500,000 people or maybe more have run this race over the last 40-plus years and when you think only five people have been there every single year, you’re in a league of your own,’’ said Dave McGillivray, the race director.

“They’re in the DNA of this race. They symbolize the duration of the race. The legacy of the race. They’re very special.’’

The five can also remember when bartender and race founder Tommy Leonard decided to raise money for the Falmouth High School girls’ track team. It happened to be his 40th birthday. So he concocted a race from the Captain Kidd in Woods Hole to the Brothers Four in Falmouth Heights.

Then all in their 30s, the five guys laced up their sneakers. Two were scientists from the nearby Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole. One was a veterinarian, another a financial analyst.

Pokraka, an electrical engineer, wore a number on his jersey that had been scrawled with a marker pen.

“I’d been running for five years and all of a sudden I meet this guy, Tommy Leonard in a bar,’’ Pokraka told me the other day at his home here. “And he said, ‘I’m having a road race! And it’s going to be the best in the world once it gets going.’

Advertisement



“And I told Tommy, ‘I don’t know what you’re drinking, but I’m not buying into it.’ ’’

But then he did exactly that.

What he and the other charter members of this very special and unofficial running group have seen along the way is embedded in the lore of the now-marquee running event, following roughly the same course as in that inaugural 1973 run.

Delinks, Pokraka, and Bennett and their fellow Falmouth Five members had run every Falmouth Road Race since its inception in 1973.
Delinks, Pokraka, and Bennett and their fellow Falmouth Five members had run every Falmouth Road Race since its inception in 1973.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

They were there when Dave Duba of Central Michigan University ran that first race in 39:16 to edge out Pat Doherty of Boston State College. They were back in the pack in 1975 when an Olympic gold medalist, Frank Shorter, won the race.

Bill Rodgers. Alberto Salazar. Joan Benoit. All of them racing royalty. All running the same race with the Falmouth Five.

“I once said to somebody that when I die, I want to be able to have run the Falmouth Road Race that year,’’ Salzberg told me the other day. “How’s that for ambitious?’’

Considering his, um, track record, it certainly isn’t out of the question.

Salzberg, now 76 and a professor of neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, was working at the Woods Hole biological lab the summer before the first race. Then he took up running more seriously.

Advertisement



He was hooked from the first Falmouth finish. So devoted, in fact, that a benign brain tumor did not stop him from toeing the starting line in 2004. Not even a sprained ligament in his left foot kept him from the 2008 race. One year, he got heat stroke during the race and wound up in the same hospital room as Salazar.

“I think it’s the best non-marathon race in the country,’’ Salzberg said. “It’s certainly the most beautiful course and it has a small-town atmosphere that attracts the best runners in the world.’’

And some of those runners ended up in Pokraka’s Falmouth backyard for post-race libations and a plate of lasagna.

“Alberto Salazar brought his wife and his family here after the race,’’ Pokraka told me the other morning as he reviewed mementoes of the race, including plaques on his wall marking his 10th, 20th, and 30th anniversaries at the starting line. “Alberto came over after he won the race. So gracious. So modest.’’

Jacqueline Gareau has been his post-race guest, too. Gareau was the Canadian running champ whom Rosie Ruiz had tried to cheat out of the Boston Marathon title in 1980.

“She came here the year after Rosie Ruiz stole her title,’’ Pokraka said. “She was in the backyard. We had a bouncy house here which was a baby sitter for about 40 kids.’’

The Falmouth Five have watched the race evolve from an intimate, boutique event to one that today draws the best runners in the world. They are part of the race’s storied history.

Advertisement



“We’ve all been lucky,’’ said Brannelly, 77. “My stretching takes me more time now than the actual running.’’

That’s just a slight exaggeration.

“We’re very proud of our streak,’’ Delinks, the veterinarian, said. He’s 81 now. His son just turned 50 and has run every Falmouth race but the first.

“It’s a matter of pride that at my age I can still do it,’’ Delinks said. “I’ve always been a competitive person. I just wanted to keep doing it. Now that I have all these good buddies of mine, we do it because we want to run with these people. We’re almost like brothers. We’re so close. It’s been a great event.’’

Then Delinks paused for a moment to mark what will be a big change at this year’s starting line.

“Ron’s dropping out so that’s one less,’’ he said. “That brought tears to my eyes.’’

Yes, Ron Pokraka makes his transition this weekend from competitor to spectator. You can spot him at the 6-mile mark this year, cheering on his old pals.

“Noncompetitive,’’ Pokraka explained. “I’m a competitor. Last year 2 hours and 57 minutes. For me, it’s really a walk and sit and relax and stretch. Time to hang ’em up.’’

These days, he’s playing tennis. Or golf. He’s leaving running to his old friends.

“I’ll let each of them know where the other one is when they come by,’’ he said. “I think the only one who’s really running is Salzberg. The rest of the boys are just kind of running and walking and getting their way through.’’

Advertisement



He’s got advice for this year’s runners: Run conservatively for the first 3 miles. The flats can be hot and humid. It’s going to hurt. Do your best.

His 11-year-old grandson, Max Pokraka, will be heeding that advice this year.

“It’s a family thing,’’ he said. “Our grandchildren run it.’’

And the man who, until this year, had run in every Falmouth Road Race is making this prediction: “Max is a natural athlete,’’ he said. “I think he’s going to beat his three uncles.’’

We’ll know for sure at 9 on Sunday morning when 12,000 runners line up near the drawbridge in Woods Hole and begin to write their own chapters in the storied history of this race by the seaside.


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FarragherTom.