Records fall in a special road-race year
Saturday turned into an historic day in an historic year for the Westport Road Runners as two course records were set in the 6.85-mile race on a humid morning at Compo Beach.
Newcomer Chase Pizzoni of Branford, 26, eclipsed the men's mark with a time of 35.05 while familiar face Amy Bevilacqua of Wilton, 38, eclipsed the 25-year-old women's standard with a finish of 40.43.
Since he was competing in his first event in the Westport Summer Road Runners Series -- 10 progressively longer races every Saturday -- not much was known about Pizzoni, who ran at Darien High School a decade ago. However, he broke the previous record of 35.21, set by Georg Diettrich in 1997, by 16 seconds.
A former German exchange student at Staples, Dietrich returns each summer to run in at least one of the races but wasn't on hand Saturday.
Bevilacqua, who also ran for legendary Staples coach Laddie Lawrence in high school, is a professional triathlete and destroyed the existing women's record of 42.17, established by Weston's Kathleen Horton in 1987, by one more than a minute.
Bevilacqua doesn't compete in a lot of the Westport Road Runner races because of her summer-long schedule of triathlons and bicycles races, but she participates in at least one yearly and also finished first among women in last week's 5.85-mile event.
"I think Laddie takes the worst days for me to run, it's so hot," said Bevilacqua, who won the New York City triathlon last month. "It just reminds me of growing up, I grew up in Westport. I know these roads. I used to ride my bike to Longshore for tennis lessons. It's just kind of nice to come back to where it all started a little bit."
With this being the 50th anniversary of the Westport Road Runners, organizers added a new wrinkle this year as sponsors ponied up money for anyone who could set a course record. The pot was cumulative and Pizzoni and Bevilacqua split $600 -- "a little push in the heat," as she called it.
Bevilacqua's time was the second-fastest overall as she beat all of her male counterparts except Pizzoni.
"I tried to come back strong, rather than go out too fast," she said. "I think that's a good strategy, especially in the heat. Once you die in the heat, it's hard to come back to life."
Lawrence, who is in his 47th year as the director of the summer series, said he did not know when was the last time two records were set in the same race. He wasn't even sure if it had ever happened.
Pizzoni, who focuses on 10-Ks and half-marathons, entered Saturday's race when he learned of the possible bonus from a friend. He broke the record after overcoming a brief setback at the 5-1/2-mile mark.
"My race plan went pretty well," he said. "I had to stop for about 10 seconds because I had stomach cramps, so I wasn't sure if I was going to break the record," said Pizzoni, who will compete in a 10-K next weekend on Long Island.
The racing series began in 1963 as a summer conditioning program for the Staples' football, cross country and soccer teams. Mnd most of the competitors in those early days were Staples students.
Lawrence took over as director in 1966 as a summer job while attending Arkansas State. He said the event took off during the running boom of the 1970s.
"It seems it has had another boom lately," he said. "It seems like we're setting records for turnout every week."
According to Lawrence, the weekly average this summer has been around 180 runners, with a high of 224. Saturday's race attracted only 139 runners, a number possibly held down because of the humidity.
The ages of the runners range from five years old to 80-year-old Jim Stevens of Trumbull. Saturday's race even included a runner from London, England.
"It's not uncommon for us to get runners from 15 to 20 states and three or four or five foreign countries," Lawrence added. "There are some very serious runners and some that compete just for the camaraderie."
All of the runners -- whether they're challenging for course records or not --- marvel at how well run the races are under the stewardship of Lawrence, whose key to success over the years has been keeping things as simple as possible.
"It's so important," said 53-year-old Paul Greenberg of Westport, who will run in the nine of the 10 races this summer. "It's the longest running series, I think, in Connecticut, maybe in the country. (There's) an amazing amount of support from Laddie, doing this all of these years.
"It's one of the great things in this town," Greenberg added. "I look forward to the summer, and one of the big reasons is Laddie Lawrence. The charisma of the man is unbelievable."
Greenberg, who is still running six-minute miles, pushed back the start of his vacation so he could run in Saturday's race.
"It's important to have old guys like me run in this, because you know what? It's an example for the young ones. Fitness is lifetime."
New York's Bob Hermesch, 62, has been running in the Westport Road Runners Series for six years and can't say enough good things about it.
"Everything is set up properly ... Saturday mornings, 8 a.m., everybody is where they're supposed to be," he said. "Parking is never an issue, smooth as glass."
Saturday's race was No. 7 in the series. Next up are 8.4 and 9.3 milers before the 10-mile finale that kicks off the Labor Day weekend.
Bob Birge is a freelance writer.
THE NEXT RACE
When: 8 a.m., Saturday, Aug. 18
Where: Start and finish at Burying Hill Beach, Burying Hill Road off Beachside Avenue
Distance: 8.4 miles
Course record: 42:51, set in 1980
Registration: 7:30 a.m.
Parking: Beach lot