By Christopher Pagliuco
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Fall 2009
The Manchester Road Race, held each Thanksgiving in Manchester, Connecticut, can lay claim to all sorts of historically significant superlatives. First run in 1927 as an extension to the high-school cross-country running season, it is among the oldest road races in the country. The race also made history when, in 1961, 19-year-old Julia Chase became the first woman in the country to complete a major distance road race. The event began with just 12 runners; it grew to nearly 12,000 by 2000, and today an estimated 10,500 run each year to benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Association and local charities. From local legends such as Groton’s John Kelly and Wesleyan grads Bill Rogers and Amby Burfoot to international starts such as Phillimon Hanneck and John Treacy, the Manchester Road Race has even had its share of world-class running phenoms break the tape as champions.
But you don’t need to run the 4.748 miles in 21 minutes to feel like a champion each Thanksgiving Day. My family has made running in the race an annual holiday tradition since my father first entered in 1976. For my family and thousands of others across the state, the experience of running the Road Race has offered many victories over the years. Just finding a place to park in the maze of Manchester back roads, for example, and devising a clear exit strategy is a point of pride for many runners. As we make our way to our traditional parking spot before the race, we share our fondest war stories of Road Races long past. We reminisce about the most amazing weather variations that can occur on Thanksgiving Day. Our best finishes always happen when a 60-degree morning sneaks through at the end of November. Snowy, 10-degree Thanksgivings are also surprisingly common, though. Undoubtedly everyone’s least favorite weather is the bone-chilling 33 degrees and rain. The weather is particularly important, of course, because each runner has to make the crucial decision as to what to wear: long or short sleeves, pants, shorts, gloves, or hat. Unconformable apparel can make or break a good time.
Veterans of the race enjoy comparing the number of consecutive Manchester Road Races they have personally run. Although I started in sixth grade at age 11, and I am now 31, I know that it will be a long time until I catch up to my dad, who started 12 years earlier and continues to run each year. We have a picture from one of his earliest racing in 1982, with Dad proudly standing near the starting line in the insanely short, and tight, cut off jean shorts that he insists were in style at the time.
Each family seems to have its own tricks and traditions when it comes to race strategy. Some gear their entire approach toward making it to the top of the daunting Highland Street Hill. Others run from mile marker to mile marker. I prefer a more “inspiring” approach. Without divulging too much of my secret strategy, I can tell you that I run from motivational point to motivational point. These spots including the throngs of enthusiastic spectators at the Hungry Tiger Café, the downhill stretch where the “Rocky” theme song is played, the Bag Pipers on the straightaway, and the brass band on the home stretch. (They play a mean version of “The Holly and the Ivy” and other Christmas carols that help get me through that grueling time.) In between, I look forward to seeing “Safety Man,” who will keep me on the course, and to watching, in bewilderment, the barefoot runner.
In many ways I’ve grown up with the Road Race. It marks many major stages, or one could even say mile marker, of my own life. As a child I was a spectator with my mom, eagerly searching for my dad. “Would he finish first?” I wondered. In my early years as a racer, I just hoped to complete with the race without having to resort to walking. In high school and college I earned the coveted “under 30 minutes” starting card, which allows me to join the head of the pack at the starting line. This year, I may be running with a baby carriage; I have to check the rules.
After the race, I linger at the finish line to catch up with friends, neighbors, teachers, and teammates, folks I only see once a year. I meet my family at our secret rendezvous spot and exchange times. After our annual photo, we go home to eat a well-earned Thanksgiving meal.
The Manchester Road Race is a sporting event reserved not for a limited few ultra-talented athletes but for runners, spectators, and walkers alike. It’s Connecticut’s race in every sense. But the top superlative I’d award the Manchester Road Race, more important than its long and exalted history, is that it’s the most fun. See you in November!
Christopher Pagliuco teaches history at Daniel Hand High School in Madison and is a member of the Connecticut Explored editorial team.
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Brain Sandberg, Chris Pagliuco and his father Anthony Pagliuco before Chris’s first race in 1990.
Chris Pagliuco and friend Godfrey Berger before the race in 1996.