Running for Lenny

This Saturday will see the next running of the Maple Leaf Half Marathon and Kotler 5K, one of the truly cool events in both the sporting and social calendars of this area.

The event has an illustrious past, as many readers already know. Born in the mid-to late 1970s, the race enjoyed some big-time moments in its early years, attracting prominent runners of the day who saw it as a useful tune up for the New York City Marathon. For a time, the world record for the half marathon was set here. In 1979, the women's world record for a half marathon was established by Patti Catalano (1:14:03). In 1981, Herb Lindsay did the same for the men's division with a time of 1:01:47. Both marks have long been eclipsed - the current world records are 58:23 for the men and 1:05:50 for women. I don't know if you have to have had run a half marathon to appreciate just how incredible such times are, but trust me, that's incredible, having taken my shot at this distance about six times now.

The event has waxed and waned since those days, and it's great to have it back and once again enjoying a surge of popularity. For that, credit must go to many people - Jay Hathaway, the former director of the Chamber of Commerce, the Lions Club, which took it under its wing and provides the nucleus of supporting staff, Dave Pardo, the current chairman of the board which oversees the race, and many more, too numerous to mention.

But one we need to single out is Len Kotler, who sadly passed away earlier this year and who served as the race director since the event's revival in 2007. Many, many people from around here knew Len, and his wife Becky (it's hard not to think of them as a team), even though Len arrived here not all that long ago from "away." But he and Becky made it their business to get involved in just about everything that was going on, and were instrumental in adding a 5K run to the Loyalty Day parade, back when that enjoyed a brief revival. I'll never forget how much fun it was to be part of the pack of runners who started the parade, and running down Main Street with people who were lined up to watch the parade cheering you on. Such a contrast to the solitude that normally accompanies a distance run. Not that there isn't something to like about that, but having folks clapping hands and offering encouragement sure bumps the adrenaline up a notch.

So it was natural for Len to get deeply involved in helping revive the Maple Leaf when that time came, and he started off by devising a truly fiendish course which had a lot of us gasping for breath by the end of it. You're forgiven, Len. The substitute you came up with is plenty challenging, but at least the "Heartbreak Hill" segment - a.k.a Wind Hill Road - now comes when you have a little gas left in the tank. Hopefully.

I reminded myself that this course isn't any pushover by going for a final training run over it this past weekend. Even though I've run it now several times, you forget some of its nuances. Like just how long it seems to take to get from one end of Manchester West Road to the other. Or how exhausting that final mile from MEMS to the finish line back at the Rec Park is. Or how much steeper Wind Hill Road is at mile 8 or 9, compared to when you fly over it on fresh legs near the start of a recreational run.

Let's hope we have that bagpiper positioned there again this year, to stir the soul out of the Celtic mists.

This year I got to have a closer look at the inner workings of the race and all the planning and preparation that goes into it. There are so many moving parts - from the advertising and marketing of it, the T-shirts, the water stations, the awards ceremony, the pre-race dinner that it's remarkable how it all comes together. It most definitely doesn't happen by itself. So hats off to the team that manages the "behind the scenes" stuff that allows this to happen.

This year the 5K portion of the event was renamed to honor Lenny, and such recognition is richly deserved. It will be hard not to think of Len and his affable nature while cruising along the course. It will be strange not to see him at the finish line when it's over. Somehow, I have a feeling he'll be watching over the proceedings with his trademark smile anyway.

Thanks for everything you did, Len. And the Yankees are going to be OK too. It's still early.


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