Falmouth’s history: From humble beginnings to long-running classic
The first Falmouth Road Race was held in 1973 on a raw, rainy and windy Wednesday afternoon in August. The green T-shirt marking the occasion noted it was a “marathon,” but of course it wasn’t 26.2 miles. Instead it was the quirky distance of seven miles, give or take a tenth, because it started at the Captain Kidd restaurant in Woods Hole and ended at old the Brothers 4 club in Falmouth Heights.
The idea of road racing was in its infancy in the early ‘70s and more associated with cars. However, Falmouth proved to be in step with the times as a fitness boom began to sweep across the country. And the seaside run from the drawbridge in Woods Hole, past Nobska Light, along Surf Drive Beach, Falmouth Harbor and to the finish by the ball field at the Heights was a pleasant, refreshing route Tommy Leonard often ran.
Leonard, the irrepressible and beloved “T.L.,” was into running before running was in, and if not for his fantastical dream on a late-summer day in 1972 all this all might never have happened. Who knew then where those roads would lead.
Now nearing its 50th anniversary celebration in 2022, the New Balance Falmouth Road Race has grown gracefully into one of the signature events in the world of distance running. Indeed, it’s not a marathon – officially measuring seven miles – but Falmouth is on a very short list of the best races in the country. Running Times magazine once compiled a ranking of America’s 10 most iconic running events and Falmouth was fifth, ahead of the New York City Marathon, among others. (No. 1 was the Boston Marathon.) Sports Illustrated had a feature titled “25 Summer Essentials” and included running Falmouth as a must-do. Life Magazine highlighted the race with a dramatic two-page photo spread.
Falmouth’s roll call of champions reads like a Who’s Who in the sport. The best names in the game have won here, including Hall of Famers, Olympic gold medalists and world champions. And all because Tommy Leonard’s dream came true.
In September of 1972 Tommy was working as a bartender at the Brothers 4. The Summer Games were under way in Munich, Germany and Leonard, who had often run the Boston Marathon, was enthralled watching on television as Frank Shorter compete in the Olympic marathon. The American was leading the race and on his way to becoming the first U.S. gold medalist in the event since 1908. T.L. was more than excited. He turned up the TV’s volume, shut down the bar and, in his inimitable way, provided running commentary on Shorter’s historic victory.
No one knew it at the time — well, maybe Tommy did — but this moment would help ignite the running boom in the United States. “Wouldn’t it be fantastic,” Leonard mused that day, looking out over Vineyard Sound, “if we could get Frank Shorter to run on Cape Cod?”
Lo and behold, it would happen. But first Tommy had to figure out how. He had a vision, to be sure. He wanted to assist the fledgling Falmouth Track Club raise funds to support the high school girls competing in meets. He needed organizational expertise and turned to John Carroll, a teacher and coach at Falmouth High School. Then he enlisted the help of Rich Sherman, the town’s recreation director.
With Leonard’s inspiration, Carroll and Sherman, along with the considerable assistance of their wives, Lucia Carroll and Kathy Sherman, pulled it together. The first Falmouth, on that rainy day in 1973 – August 15, Tommy Leonard’s 40th birthday – had fewer than 100 entrants. They huddled in the Captain Kidd Restaurant in Woods Hole, sheltered from the storm amid the lunchtime crowd. The runners included Leonard, Sherman and the legendary Johnny Kelley, 65 at the time and a two-time Boston Marathon champion.
Soon the front door of the Kidd swung open. Carroll raised a starter’s track pistol and shouted, “Ready, set, go!” The first Falmouth Road Race was off, the runners sloshing toward the finish in Falmouth Heights. David Duba, a Central Michigan University student vacationing on the Cape, was in the field. He ran cross country and track in school and learned of the race when he picked up a hitchhiker in town. Duba is now forever etched into the annals of Falmouth as the first champion, along with Jenny Taylor of Cambridge as the inaugural women’s winner.
Falmouth’s rich history is in step with the growth of road racing in the United States. When Shorter won the 1972 Olympic marathon, a collective nation took note, got up from the couch and discovered that running and fitness are good for you.
“No matter how bad I felt before a run, I always felt better after,” Leonard was fond of saying. “It does give you a natural high.”
Tommy’s wish of having Shorter run at Falmouth became a reality in 1975. The Olympic champion came to town to duel with local favorite Rodgers, who was fresh off winning his laurel wreath at the Boston Marathon in April. The size of the race swelled to nearly 900 – large by 1975 standards – and Shorter outkicked Bill Rodgers by 15 seconds.
While Shorter vs. Rodgers attracted the headlines, 1975 was also notable for Bob Hall’s entry in the race. A 23-year-old from Belmont, Hall was disabled at an early age by polio but went onto to become a world-class wheelchair racer. Earlier in 1975 he finished the Boston Marathon in under 3 hours and Rodgers encouraged him to compete at Falmouth. He would go on to win eight consecutive wheelchair titles and Hall and Falmouth became leaders for the inclusion of disabled athletes in races around the world. Falmouth’s first women’s wheelchair champion was Natalie Bacon in 1979 and like Hall, she won eight straight. The 45th anniversary of wheelchair racing was celebrated in 2019 with a field of 23 competitors.
In 1976 Shorter returned to Falmouth and successfully defended his crown by beating Rodgers again — with some 2,000 other runners, and thousands of spectators filling the streets in a seven-mile block party. The event was fast becoming a nationally known race and a summer social spectacle. It was a unique blend of red-hot athletic competition, mixed with a backyard barbecue atmosphere of a class reunion, all set on a scenic course in the height of the Cape Cod vacation season. It is an irresistible combination.
“A race like Falmouth always has had a tremendous number of spectators,” Shorter said, explaining its appeal. “People watch it and say ‘This looks like fun’ and the next year they decide to run. I think of races in terms of finishing parties, and Falmouth is right up there. Everyone sort of filters around having a good time. From average atomic physicist to average plumber, you have them all.”
“Falmouth has always been a race where you can make a name for yourself,” said Carroll, who along with Sherman was the director for 38 years until retiring in 2011. “Win at Falmouth and you’ve beaten some of the best out there.”
Said Sherman: “For some recreational runners, Falmouth might be the only race they run all year. They train enough to get ready and then come to town to see old friends.”
Rodgers, a three-time champion, would agree on all counts. “I have a lot of fond memories. Back in 1974 Tommy (Leonard) told a lot of us around the Boston running scene about this summer race down on the Cape where there would be girls in bikinis passing out water. That was enough for me. It will always be a special race for me,” said Rodgers. “Good things started happening for me when I won Falmouth. It almost feels like a home-town race. Boston is the classic marathon and Falmouth is the classic American road race.”
The First Lady of Falmouth is Joan Benoit Samuelson, who was a college teenager when she won her first of six open division crowns. She has grown gracefully, still running in her 60s with fierce determination and winning age-group titles all along the way. “Coming back every year is like a homecoming, and I think it’s that way for a lot of the runners. It just feels right,” said Samuelson. Of course, Samuelson became a global icon when she won the gold medal in the inaugural women’s Olympic marathon at the 1984 Games. Her connection to Falmouth inspired her to create the Beach to Beacon 10K race, held in her native Maine as a prelude to Falmouth every summer.
In the 1980s road racing – and Falmouth – became an international sport with the influx of prize money. Soon elite runners from around the globe found their way to Water Street in Woods Hole every August. In 1980, Olympians Rod Dixon of New Zealand and Grete Waitz of Norway were the first two foreign champions at Falmouth. Since then winners have come from Great Britain, Mexico, Ecuador, Italy, Portugal, Morocco, South Africa, Russia, Netherlands, Ethiopia, Burundi, Canada, and, of course, Kenya.
Joseph Nzau was the first men’s champion from Kenya, in 1983. Since then, 22 Kenyans have ruled the roads. The Kenyan women have been nearly equally successful, winning 15 times since 1995.
However, for all its global appeal, Falmouth remains the quintessential American race with its roots deep in the sea and sand of Cape Cod. The fun run atmosphere fostered from a foundation built in the 1970s continues with a kaleidoscope of star-spangled colors, like a Fourth of July holiday fireworks show. One of the memorable images is the huge American flag flying at the finish line waving runners home.
A lot has changed over the years. There were 92 finishers in the first Falmouth in 1973. More than 11,000 will cross the line in Falmouth Heights in 2020. Pencil and paper entries were replaced by online registration. Cotton T-shirts and canvas sneakers gave way to moisture-wicking singlets and high-tech running shoes. Essential corporate sponsorships help fund a lucrative prize purse for the world’s elite. More than 2,000 volunteers really run the race, doing anything and everything to support a professional management team.
And long after the revelry of race day Sunday subsides, the race’s impact continues in the community throughout the year. As Falmouth’s popularity exploded in the mid-1970s, co-director Rich Sherman helped create the Numbers for Nonprofits program, which became a model for other races. Charities (in the early years, before expanding, it was the Multiple Sclerosis Society) apply for coveted bib numbers and, if accepted into the program, runners are then recruited to raise funds. In 2019 there were nearly 3,000 runners who generated $5 million for 150 nonprofits, bringing the total to more than $40 million since 2000.
And Falmouth Road Race, Inc. is also a good neighbor. The many sponsors, partners, supporters, benefactors and patrons are the backbone of the nonprofit’s giving. Since 2012, with a focus on youth, health, and wellness, FRR Inc. has awarded more than $2.7 million in grants, community contributions and scholarships for high school graduates residing in Falmouth.
All this from beloved Tommy Leonard’s dream and his simple desire to assist the girls of the new Falmouth Track Club. Tommy passed away in 2019 at the age of 85, but his soaring spirit endures and he will forever be the emotional heartbeat of the Falmouth Road Race.
“We were a band of brothers,” Tommy Leonard said often of those early years. “It was a race born out of friendship – those who were already friends and those who would become friends.”
Press coverage of that first Falmouth race was scarce, but the archives of the Cape Cod Standard-Times includes an article that provides a telling tagline.
“This affair,” the story concludes, “is scheduled to be held on an annual basis.”
Long may you run.