Chilmark Road Race is a state of mind, not age

About 1,500 runners lined up for a wet start last year. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

This Saturday morning about 50 men and women over the age of 70, and one or two in their nineties, will put their running shows on the mark at 10:30 am on Middle Road in Chilmark, joining an estimated 1,500 runners in the 36th running of the 3.1 mile Chilmark Road Race. Add in youngsters and the over-60 set will likely send 250 runners to the starting line.

While many seniors may consider the jaunt from the recliner to the bathroom as their exercise period, these septuagenarians and octogenarians have been training for weeks for Chilmark’s signature summer athletic event.

Some past senior performances are noteworthy. For example, 98-year-old Eleanor Shabica of Mt. Pleasant, North Carolina, finished the 2012 race with a chip time of less than 59 minutes amid a cluster of 5- to 8-year-olds with similar times. Susan N. Wilson, 82, of Princeton, N.J., finished in less than 42 minutes, well ahead of runners 30 years her junior.

In anticipation of the race to the finish, The Times spoke to several Island-based seniors and asked them to explain why they are not acting their ages. The answers varied, but explicit in every conversation were the ideas of community, family, and tradition. Invariably, all find an exuberance in living their lives that is expressed in running the race.

In short, age is part of their reality but not part of their life equation. They are mildly competitive, they check their finishing times, and they hope to better previous times, but that’s not really the point, they said.

Sam Feldman, 84, of Chilmark is a retired retail entrepreneur who grew and sold a successful chain of menswear stores.

“I’ve being doing the race since 1985, so it’s 28 years now. The race is a fabulous family event, and everyone in my family loves to do it. It is somewhat competitive: we all check our times and there’s a lot of kidding. But the race is just fun — a wonderful gathering on Middle Road of 1,500 people, and a true community event. You can walk it, crawl it, run it, anything you want.

“Hugh Weisman [event founder and maestro] kindly changed the age categories [adding an 80+ division] so we, um, older, mature people could compete, and generally four or five men are in our division. Jesse Awedia trains in Boulder, Colo. in high altitude, so he generally wins. I have little chance of winning, but I’m hoping in four years Hugh will add a 90-99 age category, so I’ll maybe have a chance then.

“I don’t train arduously, but I’m a member of the New York Achilles Track Club. Achilles sponsors disabled runners in half-marathons and marathons, and we get to be guides for disabled athletes. It’s wonderfully gratifying to help someone who wouldn’t otherwise be able to do it and you get to run — or walk — the New York City marathon.”

Perhaps the most cordial competition in the 80-plus division is between Mr. Feldman and his University of Pennsylvania classmate, Dr. Roy Vagelos, a seasonal Chilmark resdent.

Roy Vagelos, 83, retired CEO of the Merck pharmaceutical firm, said the race is a Vagelos family affair.

“Our entire family runs the race, 16 runners this year. I began 14 or 15 years ago. I like to stay active. My wife, Diana, 79, and I started walking two miles then three miles a day, then we switched to running. It’s the only race we do; we use an elliptical runner and a rowing machine the remainder of the year.

“I feel better when I do it, not that I enjoy it particularly, but it makes me better at tennis which I really enjoy. I most enjoy it as a family tradition.

“I’ve been sneaking some practice in. Sam is a classmate, but I generally come in first and I don’t want that to change. This is part of staying fit to enable you to do other things. For instance, Diana and I are going to Mongolia for 10 days soon for a nature conservancy. My specialty is bio-medical science. I’m interested in problems of climate and the burning of fossil fuels. In about 50 years, our world will be too hot to handle. Being fit serves me well for those efforts.”

Rosemary Clough, 76, a former Island resident who operates a yoga center and dance training business in Hollis, N.H., has made time to volunteer in and run the Chilmark Road Race every year since its inception. She was literally the Chilmark Road Race poster girl for 25 years. Beginning in 1987, her picture graced the promotional posters advertising the event.

“When my friend Sandy Broyard and I came home with new sneakers in 1978, my now former husband told me I couldn’t run, and I’ll tell you, when I crossed the finish line there was a little bit of, Oh yes I can.

“I believe our organs and our bodies are not happy if they are not being used. My sister (Susan Holmssen) and I love to move, to use our bodies. We’re kinesthetic, I guess. It runs in the family. My dad went upstairs two steps at a time in his 90s. My mother lived to 102. She and Rose Treat [Island artist and raconteur] were great friends at 101 and 102 years old. My mother had a saying: ‘It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.’ I think of that a lot.

“This is the only race I do, but I teach yoga and dance so I’m in pretty good shape. I am busy in my business, but I always come to help with registration and to run. The race has grown and hats off to Hughie Weisman and his family for that. We had about 325 runners the first year and now registration is cut off on August 1. So I’ll be there wearing the original 1978 race tee-shirt. One other guy has one and we enjoy seeing each other on race day. You know, the Vineyard is a second home. My heart and soul really live here. The race is part of the connection here that I don’t feel anywhere else. I’m grateful I can come here.”

Susan Holmssen, 74, a former teacher and an advertising professional, of Chilmark finished second in the 2012 race, a second or so behind the winner. The Chilmark resident runs with her sister, Rosemary Clough.

“I started 14 years ago, run the race maybe eight times. I’m not a real runner, neither is my sister. She runs a yoga and dance center so she’s in great shape. I do tennis and yoga and I started earlier for the race this year, at seven weeks, had to stop for 10 days because of foot issues, but got them treated, so I’m back in the race.

“To me running three miles seemed a lot, but I ran six to seven miles in training. I guess I’m competitive. I want to do as well as a can if I’m going to do it. It’s a very exhilarating experience, seeing friends along the way, throwing water on you and cheering friends. Younger people sometimes say, you’re my idol, and I think that pushes me to go a little harder.

“Susan Young, now in her 80s, set the record for 70-year-olds, and then pushed for the 80-plus category. It’s exciting for me to think I can still do this when I’m 80. Hughie Weisman has been wonderful. He’s made it so special for the Island with lobsters for kids who win. Chilmark Chocolates is involved. The race is a happening, a close community event.”

Phyllis Kugler, 67, is a personal trainer and fitness director at the Vineyard Workout and Tennis Center. A native of Pittsburgh, Ms. Kugler worked in the fitness business in New York before moving to the Island 12 years ago. Though she did not believe the news that she finished third in her age group and in the top third of the overall field in 2012, she is clear that the Chilmark Road Race is a big part of her family’s decision to move here.

“I’ve run the Chilmark Road Race 10 or 15 times. I do other races on Island, but Chilmark was the first race I ever ran. It began my connection to the Island. I would plan vacations around it. We moved here right after 9/11, but we had already made the decision and had sold the house.

“Am I competitive? No, not at all. How could I be competitive when I started running in my age category? The joy is seeing a lot of people every year that you don’t run into during the course of the year. It’s a comforting experience and that creates a lot of exuberance around the day and the race.”