Manchester Race Is Popular Thanksgiving Tradition

Thursday will mark the 60th year that I have covered the

Manchester Road Race

, which was revived in 1945 after a 10-year hiatus.

Six men sat down one night at

the Army

and Navy Club - just a few months after

World War II

ended - and decided the time was ripe to restore the Thanksgiving morning race.


Three weeks after that meeting, the holiday race became official. The sponsor was the Army and Navy Club.

There have been many highlights over the years, including some which will be profiled today.

1945 - 1959

The 1945 race needed local flavor and a "name" to attract 5,000 spectators on a cold, rainy day. Charlie Robbins, 25, winner of an unprecedented four national distance titles in 1944, was granted a leave from the Brunswick (Maine) Naval Station to come home. Robbins' name drew immediate attention. He had enjoyed a productive track and cross-country career at Manchester High School and at the University of Connecticut.


Career-wise, he won 11 national titles, the 20K, 25K, 30K and marathon in 1945 in his greatest 12-month span, plus the Manchester.

He easily won, with three other local runners following: Herb Stevenson, Fran Leary and schoolboy stand-out Bob Bray.

Only eight completed the 5-mile course. It was known as the Manchester Five-Miler until 1978; today, the course is 4.748 miles.

There were two non-residents in the race, and one was

George Carey

of Providence.

Carey thumbed rides to town. He had no money and slept at the police station. He finished last, and was treated to a full-course dinner at the Center Restaurant.

There was no entry fee, and with eight runners and 10 prizes, two runners wound up with two awards - a necktie and a dress shirt. Robbins received a watch from Bray jewelers.

Joe McCluskey, Manchester's all-time great sports figure, was responsible for the popularity of the race in the 1930s. He won in 1930, 1931 and 1932. He survived five years in the Navy, and proved 15 years after his last win that he could still triumph.

McCluskey was 36 in 1947, the oldest to win the Manchester. He was a two-time steeple-chase Olympian.

Little Johnny Kelley arrived on the scene in 1948 and was the most dominant contestant for 15 years.

Kelley came in fourth in 1948, third and second the next two years and in 1951, won the first of six Manchester races. In addition to 1951, he won in 1952, '53, '57, '61, '62. During this time, he twice took out time to run the marathon in the



The 1956 race marked the first time one second separated the first- and second-place finishers.


's Charlie Dyson out-sprinted Alan Shaler to win when the race finished in front of Mary Cheney library.

The last Manchester man to cross the finish line first was Peter Close in 1958. The former Manchester High and St. John's star was also an Olympian.

1960 - 1974

Women were banned from competing in the same event as men by the Amateur Athletic Union.

But 18-year-old Julia Chase had other ideas in 1961. Wearing her Smith College tunic, Chase was joined by English Olympian Chris McKenzie and Manchester's Diane Lechauuse. They all ran unofficially. They all finished unofficially.

Julia Chase tried to compete in 1960, but was waved off by race director Pete Wigren.

Thanks to Chase, and a vigorous protest for women's rights, women were finally given the green light in the 1970s.

Amby Burfoot and Charlie Robbins were strong supporters of the request.

State college runners Ray Crothers (

Central Connecticut State University

), John Vitale (UConn) and Amby Burfoot (Wesleyan) were champions in 1965, 1970 and 1971, respectively.

The 1971 race came the closest to being postponed because of 5 inches of heavy snow, and drifts that reached several feet.

The course had to be plowed twice before the runners took off at 10:30 a.m. - 30 minutes late.

The weather did not bother Burfoot, who won for a third time.

Two runners who finished second were Vitale and Jimmy Keefe of Central Connecticut.

Vitale was second to Burfoot four times - 1971, '72, '73 and '76, while Keefe was No. 2 in 1960, '64, '65 and '68.

Vitale gained some revenge in his battle with Burfoot by winning in 1970. This was the only loss the painter's-cap-wearing Burfoot had in 10 years.

1975 - 1989

Lisa Berry had the distinction of being the first female to win a prize in 1977, with a 160th placement.

The period also marked the start of the Irish Connection when John Treacy was brought in to challenge Burfoot.

Treacy, in 1978, ended Burfoot's string of victories (1971-77). The following year, Treacy, on a perfect running day, set a course record of 21:26, breaking Burfoot's time of 22:21. Treacy's brother Ray was second, 59 seconds behind.

Charlie Duggan, an annual entry since his days at Hartford High, was the only non-Irish-born runner to win during the 1978-87 stretch. He won in 1980.

The Irish Connection took over the spotlight with Treacy's first two wins, follow by Eamonn Coghlan's three (1981, '82, '83) and two more by Treacy in 1984 and 1985. John Doherty won in 1986 and 1987.

The best duel of the period was Coghlan and Treacy in 1983 - two Irish Olympians and outstanding world figures. Coghlan held the world indoor mile record, and Treacy was a two-time world cross-country champion.

Coghlan won by four seconds with a great surge over the last 50 yards after the two ran shoulder to shoulder for several miles.

The Irish Connection grabbed the top five places in 1983 - Coghlan, Treacy, Richard O'Flynn, Charlie Breagy and Brendan Quinn.

Judi St. Hilaire came on the scene in 1984 and John Gregorek in 1988 with victories. With Olympic backgrounds, St. Hilaire and Gregorek were the woman and man to beat.

Both registered four victories each. Gregorek's performance ended the Irish Connections winning ways in 1988. He won again in 1989, 1991 and 1993. St. Hilaire won in 1985, 1988, 1989 and 1992.

The 1985 prize list featured round trips to Hawaii for first place and $1,000 in cash.

1990 - 2003

One second was the margin of victory for Canada's 6-7 Chris Weber in 1990 over John Gregorek. In 1991, Gregorek beat Ireland's Marcus O'Sullivan by a second.

Another wave of international runners took the spotlight when Phillimon Hanneck of Zimbabwe won in 1994 and 1995, breaking Treacy's course mark in '95 with a time of 21:19 - the best to date.

The list of runners to cross the finish line first included: Khalid Khannouchi, Morocco; Aurelio Miti, Angola; Mark Carroll, Ireland; Leonard Mucheru, Kenya; Patrick Nthiwa, Kenya; and Andrew Letherby, Australia.

Carroll was the most consistent. In addition to his victories in 1998 and 2000, he came in second in 1996, 1997 and 1999.

Practically unknown, Emilie Mondor of Canada made her debut in November 2003. She won and set a course record of 23:59, the first woman to finish in under 24 minutes. Mondor broke Cathy O'Brien's record of 24:06, which was set in 1991.

Some of the world's best-known female runners have made the journey to Manchester and come away with victories: All-time great Mary Decker Slaney in 1993; Lynn Jennings in 1994; and Amy Rudolph. Rudolph has built up a big following, having a record five wins - 1995, 1996, 1997, 2000 and 2002.

Rudolph is the only female runner to finish in the elite top 25 in 2000 with a time of 24:26. She placed 24th overall. She bettered that performance in 2002 finishing 22nd in 24:25.


Deena Drossin, the No. 1 distance runner in the U.S. today, led the way in Manchester in 1998 and 1999.


The period also marked the finish of Charlie Robbins' career in 2002. He competed and finished 56 races, the last 50 in succession. Last year, Charlie Dyson achieved the 50 mark.

Nutmeg Forest, Tall Cedars of Lebanon marked its 50th year as a sponsor in 2001.

The prize list today offers 18 categories by age, 14 special performance awards plus cash awards for the first 25 finishers.


The annual

Red Cross

blood drive will take place Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Full Gospel Church on Main Street, Manchester. Each donor will receive an official road race T-shirt ... Chief financial sponsors of the race are Pratt & Whitney and New Alliance Bank ... The oldest record was set by LeslieWrixon, 18, in 1982 when she led all women ... Sign of consistency: Amby Burfoot won for the first time in 1968 in 22:34; 10 years later his time was 22:41.

The Manchester Road Race is scheduled to start 10 a.m. Thursday. The last opportunity to register from the race is from 6:30 to 9 p.m. today at Bennet Middle School/Cone gym on Main Street.

Proceeds from the race will be distributed to local and area charities. More than $100,000 has been distributed in the last seven years.

Enjoy the race, acclaimed as one of the best in the country.

For more information on the race, visit the Manchester Road Race site at

Earl Yost, a retired sports editor for the Manchester Herald, writes about sports in Manchester. To contact Yost, write to him c/o The Hartford Courant, 200 Adams St., Manchester, CT 06040, or fax him at 860-643-8548.