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Old faithful at Falmouth

By Barbara Matson
Globe Correspondent / August 12, 2012
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FALMOUTH -- It was on the heels of Frank Shorter’s gold medal in the 1972 Olympic marathon in Munich that bartender Tommy Leonard put together the first “Falmouth Marathon.’’

Of course, it wasn’t really a marathon; it was a 7-mile course. But distance running was an exotic undertaking in those days, an unknown, and any long distance was called a “marathon.” Leonard, a runner, wanted to make it more familiar, and he wanted to add a race along the Falmouth coastline to the Cape Cod summer.

Leonard staged the race on his birthday, a Wednesday afternoon in 1973, with rain pelting down and the temperature struggling to reach 55 degrees. Some 100 runners and runner-wannabes set off from the Captain Kidd restaurant in Woods Hole and ran to Brothers Four in Falmouth Heights, a bar-to-bar hop with 93 finishers. Some of them haven’t stopped running since.

Sunday marks the 40th version of what is now properly called the New Balance Falmouth Road Race, a 7-mile seaside saunter that is an important event on the calendar of elite runners and a summertime tradition for thousands more. In Falmouth, it’s not just a road race, it’s a weekend party.

Among the 12,800 registered runners who will start at 10 a.m., five have run every race: Mike Bennett, Don Salzberg, Tom Brannelly, Don Delinks, and Ron Pokraka. Only Salzberg and Bennett knew each other when they toed that first starting line. The others were strangers. Now they are close friends, bound together by the Falmouth experience.

“Hats off to you guys,’’ said Joan Benoit Samuelson, one of a clutch of former champions brought back to Falmouth to help celebrate the 40th. “You are just amazing. You’re what our sport is all about.’’

Dave McGillivray, longtime Boston Marathon director, has taken over as director of Falmouth, and amidst the impressive array of former champions collected at the prerace press conference (including Samuelson, Bill Rodgers, Frank Shorter, Rod Dixon, Craig Virgin, Craig Blanchette, Tony Noguiera, and Candace Cable), McGillivray stopped to salute the persistent quintet of amateurs.

“We’ve all got to take bets on how much longer you can keep doing it,’’ said McGillivray.

The race was a decade old when the group recognized their status as tops among the Falmouth faithful. They have earned the sobriquet the “Falmouth Five,’’ but in 1973, they were young men in their 30s, including two scientists from the nearby Marine Biological Lab in Woods Hole, a veterinarian, and a financial analyst, and, like Leonard, they were inspired by Shorter, and harbored ambitions to run marathons.

“We just heard old guys ran them,’’ said Salzberg.

Bennett, at 41 the oldest of the group, already had run a marathon, but the others wanted to try.

“Basically, Shorter was the inspiration for everybody,’’ said Delinks.

The neophytes had to learn their road racing by trial and error on the pavement.

“The first year, I was halfway down the hill when I finally figured out you’re supposed to draft on someone,’’ said Delinks.

All went on to run marathons in other places, but in 40 years, the five have never missed Falmouth, despite crumpled knees, hip surgery, and even brain surgery.

“After you’ve done 10, you can’t stop,’’ said Delinks, 74.

Now gray-haired with lined faces, they were still full of conspiratorial anticipation as they prepared to run Sunday’s race.

“There were a couple of really hot ones in the 70s,’’ said Salzberg, who has overcome ligament damage in his left foot, hip surgery, and brain surgery, but counts heat stroke in 1978 as his worst race. “I was actually in the hospital with Alberto Salazar. I was in the same room with him; I wasn’t as bad — but he did beat me.’’

.   .   .

The men’s marathon at the London Games also takes place Sunday morning, but the absence of Olympians didn’t stop Falmouth from drawing an international field of elite runners, led by defender Lucas Rotich, 22, of Kenya. Among the challengers are several countrymen, including 22-year-old Alan Kipron (winner of this year’s Bolder Boulder 10K, Bloomsday Road Race, and Bellin Run), making his Falmouth debut. Others include Stanley Biwott, 26, who won last week’s Beach to Beacon 10K, and 29-year-old Ed Muge, third here in 2011 and a two-time TD Bank Beach to Beacon champion.

The elite women include 2010 champion Wude Ayalew Yimer of Ethiopia, Kenyans Lineth Chepirui, Margaret Wangari-Miriuki, Emily Chebet, and former Boston Marathon champ Rita Jeptoo.

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