Inspiration, Perspiration & Celebration at the Falmouth Road Race
By Dr. Rebecca Breslow
On August 15, 1973, a small group of runners lined up at the start of the inaugural Falmouth Road race in Falmouth, Massachusetts. In that group were race founders Tommy Leonard, a devoted runner and bartender at the Brothers 4 Club in Falmouth Heights, and Rich Sherman, the town’s recreation director. Famed American distance runner and two-time Boston Marathon champion Johnny Kelley was in the group, along with the first champions to prevail over the seven-mile course, a visiting collegiate runner, David Duba, and a Cambridge native, Jenny Taylor. Dr. Brian Salzberg, a Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania, also stood on the line. It was a position he would assume every year for the next half-century, the only one of the original race starters to run in every Falmouth Road race since its inception on that rainy August day.
This year, Salzberg finished the race in just over 1 hour and 41 minutes, good for 5th place in the men’s 80-to-84-year age group. When asked if he had outlasted and outrun so many others because he had been born to run, he is modest.
“I don’t think I have any special ability,” he says. “I think the nice thing about running for me is you get out of it pretty much what you put into it.”
55,600 Miles of Joy and Inspiration at the Falmouth Road Race
As it turns out, he’s put in quite a lot. He has logged every run since 1968, and estimates running more than 55,600 miles.
What inspires someone to run more than 50 thousand miles over a lifetime? Carol C, a nurse in her 60s who is both a marathon and army veteran, and who also ran in this year’s Falmouth Road Race, describes the simplicity of running.
“…If you want to run, you’ve got to run,” she says.
“I shouldn’t say anybody, because there’s a lot of people that have medical conditions that will stop them from running. But most people can run if they just put one foot in front of the other.”
Despite this, few people run as much as Salzberg or Carol C, and many aren’t active at all. The World Health Organization (WHO) and most major sports and exercise medicine organizations recommend that healthy adults participate in 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic physical activity (like brisk walking) or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity (like running) weekly, along with muscle-strengthening exercises at least twice per week. Globally, less than 20 percent of adults follow these recommendations. The American College of Sports Medicine published its position stand on exercise prescription a decade ago, which provided practical suggestions for increasing physical activity levels among adults. Even the clout of the ACSM has not appreciably changed physical inactivity rates since that time.
Born to Run, or Inspired by the Falmouth Road Race?
Is this because only a few of us are born with the drive to exercise, and the rest of us are not?
We know from behavioral researchers that some people are programmed to seek out rewards while others are more motivated to avoid punishment.
Dr. G is a serial marathoner who has run the Falmouth Road Race roughly 40 times. Though he claims his habitual running practice has nothing to do with being born a runner, he expresses exactly how a naturally reward-seeking person might get hooked on running. “…What happens is you enjoy it,” he says. “And once you enjoy it and you’re good at it, it becomes a passion.”
The link between enjoyment and passion is what led Tommy Leonard to conceive of the Falmouth Road Race all those years ago. His passion transformed his favorite running route, a beautiful stretch along the spectacular Cape Cod shore, into one of the most celebrated courses in the United States. His small, close-knit running community became a global community of runners of all types and abilities, expanding the original social connection behind the race. The Falmouth Road Race has the key ingredients required to inspire devotion to running, whether or not it comes to someone naturally: achievement, connection and beauty.
“A Naturally Occurring Tranquilizer”
Salzberg, Carol C, and Dr. G have all found joy in running. It’s what brings them back to Falmouth, and other races like it, year after year.
“…It’s a tranquilizer, a naturally occurring tranquilizer,” says Dr. G. “And it gives you a sense of you don’t care about pains, you don’t care about people’s problems. You don’t care about your own problems…it’s just wonderful. It really is. It’s real. It’s for real.”
Rebecca Breslow, MD is an expert in road race medicine, has served as a volunteer physician at the Falmouth Road Race and the Boston Marathon (along with numerous other Boston-area road races), and was a USA Track & Field team physician at the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar.