Hugh Weisman’s daughter Jennifer Sullivan was 13 years old when the first Chilmark Road Race was held in 1978. On Saturday, Mr. Weisman’s grandchildren, 15 and 18 years old, will run the same course.
“It’s become a big family tradition for a lot of people, and year after year people come back just for this week,” Mr. Weisman, founder and organizer of the five-kilometer race, said on the front porch of the Chilmark Store this week. “It’s become a community event.”
“My family is proud that I’m a part of it,” he continued. “They all, to some degree, have a relationship with it, (‘oh God, it’s the race again,’), but they love it and the kids love it and the grandchildren love it.”
It is that spirit of family and community that has propelled the annual road race to success year after year. On Saturday, 1,500 runners will gather on Middle Road just past Tea Lane, run past the rolling hills of Keith Farm and the field tomatoes at Beetlebung Farm, and finish at Beetlebung Corner. As of publication, the National Weather Service is calling for partly sunny skies with a high near 79 degrees on Saturday.
“It’s a part of Martha’s Vineyard in the summer,” Mr. Weisman, 74, said.
Registration for the annual 5K run for the lobster closed July 12, the earliest it’s ever closed, Mr. Weisman said. As per tradition, the winner takes home a huge lobster from Larsen’s Fish Market. Winners in the children’s division win a pair of chicken lobsters.
Entry fees benefit the Chilmark Community Center, a place close to Mr. Weisman’s heart.
“It allows them to offer significant scholarships to all Island kids to attend summer programs, which is a wonderful, wonderful experience for kids and Island kids who might otherwise not be able to afford it,” he said.
It was while working at the community center that Mr. Weisman came up with the idea for the road race. He was leading a running clinic there and wanted to create an outlet for Chilmark runners. A mere 200 runners turned out for the inaugural race.
Mr. Weisman bought three dozen T-shirts, now a collector’s item, and hand wrote the contestant’s racing numbers. Race times were kept manually. It wasn’t until the third year of the race that a professional timing company was brought in, Start2Finish, “and they’re still with us.”
“The man who ran it is no longer involved but his son has taken over. It just keeps going on and on and on.”
“The community as a whole has been supportive from the very start when I set up the race,” Mr. Weisman said. “I was very concerned that the town would be upset if we used the road, but it’s never been a problem. They support it completely.”
When the Chilmark Road Race began in 1978, venerable marathon runner Bill Rodgers and Olympic marathon runner Frank Shorter were making headlines. “Running was huge,” Mr. Weisman recalled. “Running was the thing. And we were there. We’ve held it because it’s now become a tradition for people.”
The number of participants kept increasing every year, and about 10 years ago eclipsed 1,500. Due to logistics and the demand on security, the race was eventually capped at 1,500.
Runners vary from seven year olds to 99 year olds, from hard core runners to newbies. “There’s plenty of people here that it’s the only race they run. That’s not to say we don’t have serious runners here, but we have had less than in years past.”
The current record holder is making a return this year, Mr. Weisman said. Art Smith of East Chop and Cambridge won the race in 1996 by a wide margin with a time of 14 minutes, 38 seconds. He was 28 at the time.
The transport to the starting line from the finish line also sets the Chilmark race apart from others, Mr. Weisman said.
“It started as a ragtag group of pickup trucks and vans shuttling people to the start, and then we used the West Tisbury School bus, and then we finally had to charter buses from Martha’s Vineyard Sightseeing,” Mr. Weisman said.
This year the race will have nine buses, all of which will like make two or three trips each.
Mr. Weisman said he has plenty of help from volunteers to get everyone from point A to B. There are no regular committee meetings and no paid positions, he said, and many of the volunteers are here on vacation.
“Half of them I probably never speak to before the race and it all happens. It’s not like there’s some giant organizational dictator controlling everything, it’s a community.”
People ask Mr. Weisman how long he’ll continue as leader of the pack, but he dodges the question.
“I’m proud of it, there’s no question. I work all year and I’m busy...but it’s also a time that I’m doing something for the community.”
The 36th Annual Chilmark Road Race begins at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday. Buses to the starting line begin leaving the Community Center at 9 a.m. A bus is available from the Steamship Authority in Vineyard Haven leaving at 9 a.m. Registrants must pick up their numbers and shirts on Friday evening or Saturday morning before 9:30 a.m. Runners must be in line by 9:45 a.m.
For more information, visit chilmarkroadrace.org or call the Chilmark Community Center at 508-645-9484.