It started as a fun run, from bar to bar, back in the days before running a road race was even a thing. It was that simple a concept. Today, nearly 50 years later, the 7-mile Falmouth Road Race—taking place this year on August 18—is an internationally acclaimed, world-class athletic event that attracts more than 10,000 runners and more than 200,000 spectators to Falmouth each year.
As the story goes, in 1972, local legend Tommy Leonard—bartender at the iconic Brothers Four, atop what is now known as Falmouth’s “heartbreak hill” in Falmouth Heights—was enthralled with the fact that an American, Frank Shorter, had won the Olympic Marathon for the first time since 1908. Tommy had an idea—create a “Falmouth Marathon” and attract America’s gold medalist to run in Falmouth. He created a route, from the Captain Kidd in Woods Hole to the Brothers Four in the Heights, enlisted the support of Falmouth High School track coach John Carroll and Falmouth Recreation Director Rich Sherman to help organize, and on a rain-soaked Wednesday afternoon a year later, the Falmouth Road Race was born. According to the race’s website, 93 runners braved the elements that day.
To this day, the Falmouth Road Race has hosted some of the most notable runners on the planet. Tommy’s dream was fulfilled when Shorter actually ran and won the race in 1975, and continued as running legends like Bill Rodgers and Joan Benoit participated. Additionally, more than 40 years of competitive and exciting wheelchair entries, and the recent dominance of Kenyan Stephen Sambu, have established and maintained this race as one of the can’t-miss events in the worldwide running circuit.
Its global image may be that of the world’s elite crossing the finish line under a proudly flapping, larger-than-life Old Glory, but the very soul of the Falmouth Road Race lies in the thousands of stories of grit and perseverance, the individual tales of anguish and accomplishment, and the countless lives that are touched by the race’s immeasurable impact on numerous charitable efforts. Each year, the race committee grants numbers to various nonprofit organizations for runners who agree to raise money. According to board member Scott Ghelfi, owner of Ghelfi’s Candies in Falmouth and Mashpee, last year’s race raised more than $4.9 million in charitable donations, and assisted more than 100 nonprofits with missions as varied as the runners.
In 2014, Lisa Kelliher ran for Recovery Without Walls (RWW), a Falmouth-based nonprofit that provides assistance to women in early recovery from substance abuse, raising more than $5,000 for the cause. In 2015, she again raised several thousand dollars, but another daunting challenge awaited this inimitable young woman. Lisa unwittingly suffered a heart attack at the starting line, making it all the way to 20 feet from the finish line before nearly collapsing. But she recalls resolving to herself, “There’s no way I’m not finishing.” Incredibly, Lisa did finish that race with the help of some friends, her newfound faith and sense of purpose carrying her determinedly across the finish line. Her heart may have been filled with mechanical flaws that day, but it was also filled with love, hope, and devotion—and it kept beating.
Tommy Leonard died earlier this year, and those who knew Tommy smile when they realize that stories like Lisa’s are part of his enduring legacy. Simply put, to have known Tommy Leonard for even just a day was to know a friend. Two of his closest friends, brothers David and Bob Jarvis—owners of The Quarterdeck, a popular Falmouth restaurant, who adopted him into their family from previous owners Rob and Rita Pacheco—describe his life in simple but appropriate terms. “Good run,” says Dave, a wistful and grateful smile on his face. Bob nods in acknowledgment and, returning the loving smile, adds, “Good pace.” His life was a good run, lived at a good pace. Despite his love of running, Tommy didn’t rush through his days. He loved to sit back and soak in the humanity of whomever he was with and had an uncanny ability to remember the faces and the stories of those with whom he shared a slice of his long life.
Former race director Rich Sherman, who was alongside Tommy from the first Falmouth Road Race, shared a laugh and memory of Bill Rodgers receiving a blender for his first-place finish in the race’s early days; Tommy had canvassed Main Street looking for prizes and came back with the blender, an unexpected reward, but fitting considering the support from local businesses like Eastman’s Hardware. Rich also notes that Tommy was a pioneer on behalf of women, offering recognition for female winners before they were recognized in the running world. He says that the first women’s finisher in Falmouth, Jenny Tuthill, remained a friend for over 40 years.
After more than 38 years, in 2011 Rich handed the baton to Dave McGillivray of DMSE Sports to help with the planning and race-day logistics. Dave is a veteran of both running and planning races—his company manages the operations of the Boston Marathon—and he is a legendary racer and doer of good himself, having once run cross country to raise money for the Jimmy Fund. Dave’s story is now part of Falmouth Road Race lore.
Scott Ghelfi was in eighth grade when he ran his first race—in a pair of high-top Pro-Keds. Falmouth High’s cross-country coach Tom Turkington was waiting at the finish line. “I became a runner that day,” Scott says. “It is now part of my bloodstream.” As a board member, Scott now helps plan the race and assists in its philanthropic mission. In addition to helping nonprofits, the race donates all of their own proceeds back to the community.
Steve Lawrence, whose dad Bernie manned the race for years as a Falmouth Police Officer, runs the race annually with his kids Drew and Hannah, followed by a cookout at his house for fellow racers. That scene repeats itself in hundreds of backyards, from Megansett to Menauhant.
Former State Representative and now Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority guru Tom Cahir make his way through the race effortlessly and agelessly every year. Former Boston Police Commissioner Bill Evans can often be spotted in the throngs as well. And Falmouth’s artist emeritus Karen Rinaldo has captured the inspirational scenes over the years via her iconic brush strokes.
“The common guy can run with the best runners in the world,” notes 10-year board veteran and perennial runner Karen Bissonnette. “I was a sprinter and a shot-putter. If I can run it, anyone can run it,” she adds.
Thousands of stories. Millions of memories. An undeniable tradition and annual chapter in the story of Falmouth, and it all started thanks to one man’s indelible spirit.