Published December 22. 2012 4:00AM
Never in their wildest imaginations could the three buddies who more or less spontaneously sprinted across a beach on New Year’s Day nearly half a century (!) ago and leaped into the icy waters of Fishers Island Sound conceive that a huge mob would literally be following in their footsteps as part of one of the region’s nuttiest, long-held traditions.
The annual New Year’s run-swim – in keeping with the madcap nature of the event it has no formal name, no official organizers, is attached to no cause and has no real purpose other than for participants to proudly proclaim, “We are all idiots!” – began Jan. 1, 1969, when Amby Burfoot, then of Groton Long Point, who a year earlier had won the Boston Marathon, Lee Burbank of Mystic and Marty Valentine of Noank all decided to take a dip on Jan. 1
Contrary to what most modern-day acolytes believe, the trio did not run from Mystic to the beach that year, but drove to Esker Point in Noank, where they plunged into the water and then motored back home.
They repeated the drive-swim stunt the next year, but on Jan. 1, 1971, a handful of other runners joined the fun, and they decided to start off with a five-mile jog from the Pequot Avenue, Mystic home of Johnny Kelley, Amby’s high school cross-country coach. Johnny, who also had won the Boston Marathon and competed twice in the Olympics, joyfully introduced me to the event way back in the Nixon Administration, and over the years it has grown to a throng of several hundred colorfully clad, noisemaker-tooting celebrants.
For some four decades the run launched from Pequot Avenue and ended at Groton Long Point – with many participants also running back after the swim, extending the distance to 10 miles.
Traditions evolve, and the annual run-swim is no exception.
Last year, because of road construction at Groton Long Point, the swim moved back to Esker Point, where the town of Groton generously offered use of its beach facilities.
Johnny, my old friend and mentor to generations of runners, died Aug. 21, 2011, and four months later we sadly started the run-swim for the last time from Pequot Avenue.
This New Year’s Day we will begin from one of Johnny’s favorite stomping grounds, near the banks of the Mystic River. Runners will gather about noon near the starting line for the Tarzan Brown road race on Pearl Street, then head south, cross West Main Street and continue south on Route 215 to Brook Street, where they will turn right, run up the hill to Groton Long Point Road, and turn left for the final stretch to Esker Point.
By my calculations that will shave the distance to about 3.3 miles, but who knows, maybe in keeping with the spontaneous nature of the event the course will evolve en route, adding a loop or two to extended the tally to an even five miles.
Truth told, the distance isn’t all that important. The main idea is to have fun, reconnect with old friends, and honor the memories of those who have passed, including one of the original trio, Marty Valentine, who died years ago in Alaska, and of course, Kell. Monday, Dec. 24, would have been his 82nd birthday.
Even though the run-swim has no connection to a cause, it should serve as a reminder that none of us would be loping together on New Year’s Day and jumping in the water if it weren’t for Johnny. With his elfin sparkle, Peter Pan personality and boyish charm he was the glue that bound us together.
A bunch of friends plan to honor his memory with a life-sized statue in downtown Mystic. Check out The John Kelley Memorial Fund at johnkelley.org.
As for the run, it’s free and open to everybody. It’s not a race – more of a shuffle – and the group stops frequently to allow stragglers to keep up.
Bring a towel, or have somebody meet you at Esker Point.
Above all, have fun!