Falmouth’s essence remains the same

By John Powers
Globe Staff / August 13, 2011

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FALMOUTH - When Bill Rodgers first won this seaside ramble in 1974 he lost money on the deal. He won a Waring blender but had his car towed. The first American man and woman in tomorrow morning’s 39th Falmouth Road Race will collect $10,000 and double that if they win. That’s one of several major changes as what began as a bar-to-bar race continues its evolution.

New Balance, which had been a footwear and apparel sponsor, has signed on in the title role for 10 years. And the husband-and-wife teams of John and Lucia Carroll and Rich and Kathy Sherman, who had been race co-directors since the inaugural 1973 run, have stepped down as the board moved to streamline the organization. “As the song says, turn, turn, turn,’’ says race founder Tommy Leonard .

But the essence of the 7-mile, summer fixture hasn’t changed. There’ll still be the bugler’s call to post at the starting line in Woods Hole adjacent to the Captain Kidd Restaurant. The picturesque course along Vineyard Sound and around the harbor to the Heights and the finish at the ballfield at the bottom of the hill is the same. And there’ll still be an eclectic mix of elite and recreational runners, as there has been since the day when Rodgers and Olympic champions Frank Shorter and Joan Benoit Samuelson turned up. “Keeping the flavor alive is attractive to us,’’ says Josh Rowe, New Balance’s marketing manager for running. “We don’t want to change anything.’’

With the Carrolls retiring and the Shermans resigning in March, the immediate focus was to maintain organizational stability and continuity. “I’m standing on the shoulders of those four people who did such an amazing job,’’ says acting director Matt Auger, who’d been the office manager for a decade. “To make large changes doesn’t make sense.’’

Some of the changes, like online registration, a revamped website and a more robust social media presence on Facebook and Twitter, were made to keep the race current. Others will be discussed in the upcoming months as New Balance and the race’s board of directors confer about the future. “The fact that we’re in the same industry is great,’’ says board president Christine Frazier, who first ran the race when she was nine. “We can sit down and brainstorm.’’

New Balance, which also sponsors the Cape Cod Marathon, the Tufts 10K and the New Balance Grand Prix, already has beefed up this evening’s Falmouth Mile, which will feature a dozen sub-4 minute men. But so far the sponsor is happy with the character and structure of the road race. “From the top down they said, keep doing what you’re doing,’’ Frazier says.

Certain things appear to be immutable. Unless the Nobska Point lighthouse floats away, the course won’t change. Nor will the traditional date. “An unequivocal no,’’ declares Auger. “When we changed from the third Sunday of August to the second it was not a pretty sight. We had people writing to us asking, what do we do with our time shares?’’

At the head of the waves of more than 11,000 recreational runners at the Water Street drawbridge there’ll still be a group of elite international competitors as there has been since Norway’s Grete Waitz and New Zealand’s Rod Dixon won in 1980. “A lot of people say that if you take the elites out of Falmouth, Falmouth still would happen,’’ says Auger. “But we wouldn’t have the same sponsor support and we wouldn’t have the same recognition.’’

While paying appearance money would help lure bigger names, Falmouth won’t ante up. “We’re not going to offer fees,’’ says Auger. “We’re going to put the money in the prizes.’’ If you’re an American, those prizes now are significantly more lucrative, with the US payout double last year’s.

The idea is to give the top domestic runners an attractive road alternative to the marathon and its six-figure payouts. To that end, Falmouth and USA Track & Field have been talking about the possibility of having the race double as the national 7-mile championships, which would draw the likes of Olympic marathoner Ryan Hall, who won the title last year.

That wouldn’t alter the structure of the race but another possible change would - a separate women’s start that would showcase the top competitors who now have to thread their way through the field. “Some of the best women runners in the world come here,’’ says Auger, “and nobody gets to see them.’’

But a separate start would mean beginning even earlier than the current 9:40 a.m. wheelchair race, which would affect ferry schedules and church services that already were rearranged when the race was switched to the morning. The seaside setting with its narrow streets and the August rhythms that make Falmouth a charming event also make it difficult to rework.

That wasn’t a problem in 1973 when 93 people, including Johnny Kelley the Elder, sloshed through sheets of rain and a Central Michigan student named Dave Duba won a trophy that he’d just as soon have swapped for the second-place wristwatch. Once Rodgers turned up the next year, deluded by Leonard into thinking that bikinied lovelies would be passing out water, thousands followed.

The Falmouth of the ’70s, a sand-and-suds party mecca for lifelong collegians, is long gone. So is the Brothers Four, the drinking spot where the run once ended. The race endures and evolves. “I’m happy it’s still alive and I hope it goes on beyond the time when I’m not here any more,’’ says Leonard, who remains as the race’s grand marshal and universal greeter. “I had my thrill on Blueberry Hill.’’

John Powers can be reached at