It was a Saturday in September, and somehow Hugh Weisman persuaded Priscilla Cohn and Morgan Shipway to enter his race down Middle Road. They weren’t competitive runners, but this was just five kilometers. Do it and spend the day recovering at Lucy Vincent Beach.
That was in 1978. They pushed, walked and coughed their way to the finish with 253 other runners and a yellow Lab named Sunshine. And while the practice may have been painful, something clicked, pushing the two to pursue the sport. To run daily. To enter marathons. And return every year for what’s now an Island institution - the Chilmark Road Race.
On Saturday at 10:30 a.m., Mr. Shipway and Mrs. Priscilla Cohn Karnovsky will be among the 1,500 people taking part in the 20th running of the race. Registered runners are asked to pick up numbers and shirts at the Chilmark Community Center between 5 and 7:30 p.m. on Friday or between 8 and 9:30 a.m. on Saturday.
This is a race where serious competitors run alongside panting wannabes who prey to complete a 10-minute mile. A race for mothers to push strollers. For families to find similar strides. For local law enforcement officials to show their gams. And for neighbors to exchange greetings as each tries to finish first.
“Ultimately, the race is very much a part of my life,” Mrs. Karnovsky says. “It’s important enough that every year I manage to make it back and it’s always a great day. I have 20 years of photographs and I look at those pictures and notice I’m always having a good time.”
The course starts one-half mile east of Tea Lane on Middle Road and ends next to town hall. The first mile and a quarter is essentially flat, winding through woods and farms, with a few dips and peaks in between. There’s a long, steep downhill followed by a challenging climb past the two-mile marker, another dip and then a glorious run past a south shore scene and a quick down hill finish.
Only a few changes have taken place since Mr. Weisman started the race in 1978. They don’t use construction paper for bib numbers any more. Dogs aren’t allowed. And you can’t just stroll down race day and expect to enter. (If you’re reading this and you haven’t entered, you’re not running.)
What hasn’t changed is that community flavor. Just ask Eleanor Shabica. The 83-year-old Oak Bluffs resident won the over-70 age group last year, edging out her husband by two seconds. Mrs. Shabica is busy entertaining company and is nursing a back fracture this year, but is already planning a comeback.
“It’s wonderful. Hugh is the best,” Mrs. Shabica says. “I’ve always enjoyed it. You get to see so many people you know that it has a lovely family atmosphere. It’s not big time, big time. It’s just a nice, gently country race.”
While individuals like Mrs. Shabica make up most of the contestants, several notable groups always arrive. This year a contingent from the state police barracks is running. There’s the group from l’etoile restaurant. And watch out for the MacMasters, that fine family of athletes that always fields runners.
Mr. Weisman, a New York based architect and Chilmark summer resident, has maintained the title of race director, also employing a crew of volunteers. Sitting in a rocker at the Chilmark Store, he recently recalled the first race, when he borrowed a couple of vans and a pick up truck to carry runners to the finish line. And he remembers the well-wishers who surprised him as they lined up shoulder to shoulder to cheer on the finishers.
“There’s a lot of satisfaction in running the event. I sometimes get a few complaints, but there are so many people who come up to me and say the race is the highlight of their summer or what they base their vacation around.”
In this world with T-shirts for every occasion, the Chilmark Road Race is no exception. Many admit that wearing one is a symbol of shared love of the race, of up-Island vibes and a great community with country roads.
Over the years, Mr. Weisman has introduced five or six designs in a variety of colors. All in all, Mr. Weisman estimates he’s responsible for putting out 30,000 T-shirts to the world. T-shirt connoisseurs will have a pleasant surprise on Saturday, a secret Mr. Weisman wants to keep for race day.
Mr. Weisman has ignored any temptations to take on big corporate sponsors. NAYA, a bottled water company, provides the stuff to drink, but you’re not going to see sports logos or car emblems plastered on banners or pace cars.
“If corporate sponsors take over they insist on doing things their way,” Mr. Weisman says. “I want it done my way. And I do what most people would expect from a small race.”
Prizes include lobsters and dinner at the Home Port. MR. Shipway also gives his notorious Wilcox College Award. The prize, a case of beer, goes to the person who finishes last. Empathy sparked its creation after he staggered through the first race. Now 55, he has run every day for the past 14 years and has completed 25 marathons.
“The spirit of the road race is so positive and it’s so much fun, that if someone gives an honest effort they should be rewarded,” Mr. Shipway says.
Mrs. Karnovsky doesn’t mind saying that she’s never won any prize. Now 33 years old, she’s still competitive, but that doesn’t go beyond just trying to edge out local kids.
“I can’t see myself ever stopping,” Mrs. Karnovsky says. “I look forward to running with my kids. I don’t really race when I run. More than anything, running shows me I’ve been able to maintain this constant. That what makes me so pleased.”
Neither Mr. Shipway nor Mrs. Karnovsky appears ready to quit. While this annual contest requires endurance, there seems little to endure for these athletes. They love Chilmark. The love to run. They love this race. And we’ll likely see the another 20 years.