Over 45 Years, Hills & Hebert True to the Task

The 5th Decade of the Ron Hebert 8M


by John Stifler


You don‰Ûªt need
another long-sleeved high-tech T-shirt with three-color illustrations. You
don‰Ûªt need a pre-race pasta party, live music, a post-race raffle, or a
souvenir bag full of carb-replacement samples and coupons. Possibly you would
prefer not to have to register online five months in advance to be sure of
getting in, or put another $50 entry fee on your credit card, or raise $1000 in
pledges. And you certainly don‰Ûªt need another 5K.

(Photo: Race runner-up Ivan Cordero of the
Western Mass Distance Project heads downhill on North Farm Road as the Holyoke
Range rises in the distance.)

Photos by John


If you recognize
yourself in that paragraph, consider running the Ron Hebert Road Race. Held in
Florence, Mass. (not as hard to find as it sounds; it‰Ûªs part of Northampton),
in either early spring or late winter depending on what the weather does that
day, the 8-mile Hebert race is as low-frills as they come. And it‰Ûªs tough.


Entry: $15.
Beverages at the finish: water. Food at the finish: oranges and bananas.
Souvenirs: a pair of socks‰ÛÓbut only after you cross the finish line. As the
race‰Ûªs founder and namesake has remarked, ‰ÛÏAnyone can sign up for a road race.
It takes talent and effort to finish.‰Û


In 1968, Ron
Hebert was the running and wrestling coach at Northampton High School. Wanting
a long workout for his cross-country team, he took the lads‰ÛÓno girls team
yet‰ÛÓout to the back roads of Florence and neighboring Haydenville (part of
Williamsburg) to run the course he and his father-in-law used for their own
long runs. It loops from John F. Kennedy Middle School west along a stretch of
Route 9, then onto secondary roads past farms and woods, and back to Florence.
With plenty of hills.


‰ÛÏIt was a long
run,‰Û said Carl Matuszek, a member of Hebert‰Ûªs 1968 team and now a semi-retired
engineer in Austerlitz, NY. ‰ÛÏYou felt as though you had accomplished something.‰Û

Two years later,
Hebert and his father-in-law, Norman Cote, decided the Connecticut River Valley
needed a third road race to go with the Granby Charter Day 6-miler and the
Holyoke Marathon.


They got in
touch with Walter Childs, the local AAU commissioner, because in those days if
you wanted to put on a road race, you needed AAU sanctioning. They measured the
course by driving it in Walter‰Ûªs car, the usual method for races in Western
Massachusetts then.


Later, a
measuring wheel confirmed it to be eight miles, but when Hebert moved the start
from the local recreation field to the middle school (so runners could use the
school‰Ûªs showers afterward) the new course turned out to be 7.7 miles. Never
mind; if you ran this little beast, it felt like at least eight. (Thanks to a
re-measurement and another adjustment of the finish line, it is exactly eight
miles again.)


Talent is
relative; hills are hills. The Hebert Race includes a steep uphill on Route 9
in the second mile, a rolling third mile, then a long-uphill/sharp-downhill
combination to halfway. The fifth mile is another upward grind, and by this
time the modest field‰ÛÓ111 runners this year, with185 the record high in
1977‰ÛÓhas stretched out enough so that you‰Ûªre all alone. Spectators? This year
there were three.


When you cross
the town line from Williamsburg back into Northampton on North Farms Road, you
get the big downhill and the great view: Stone walls, old barn, and in the
distance the Holyoke Range, the mountain ridge that crosses the Valley.

After  two more nasty little uphills the
course flattens out, and for the last mile you get whacked in the face by a


‰ÛÏGood course for
a hard run,‰Û said Brian Nelson, a construction worker from Vernon, Conn.
and  this year‰Ûªs winner.


‰ÛÏYou run this
race because you like to run, not because you want the shirt and stuff,‰Û said
Donna Utakis of Amherst after finishing. Utakis, an ultramarathoner, is a
former president of the Sugarloaf Mountain Athletic Club, which helps Hebert
put on the event. (The race‰Ûªs original name was the Florence Road Race. In 1974
the Northampton Jaycees, its sponsors then, suggested renaming it for its


Who likes to
run? The first year‰Ûªs winner was Ed Walkwitz of Springfield College, who
repeated in 1971 and later won the U.S. National 50-Mile championship. Third
was UMass freshman Tom Derderian. John Babington, future coach of Olympic
medalist Lynn Jennings, placed 28th. The first high school finisher was
Hebert‰Ûªs ace, Glenn Stone, who returned to win in 1973. The oldest finisher was
Sig Podlozny, 63, probably one of the oldest runners anywhere then. Three
places behind Sig was Fred Brown. The
Fred Brown.


Don Grant, a
Northampton artist who had recently discovered running and was now in his first
actual race, placed 55th. In 1970 the AAU did not allow women to race, but
Lynne Derderian showed up with her brother and discreetly placed last in the
field of 83 finishers.


Since then the
race has featured some other well-known names. Randy Thomas was runner-up here in
1976, two years before his fifth-place finish in the Boston Marathon. Local
favorite Nancy Conz, who won the 1981 Avon International Marathon for women,
ran Ron‰Ûªs race in 1995 and set a course record. Super-veteran Bill Dixon of
Vermont won the race in 1997.


This year
Nelson, a construction worker sporting a beard worthy of Herman Melville,
pounded through the course in 43:22, well ahead of runner-up Ivan Cordero of
Springfield. The women‰Ûªs winner was Apryl Sabadosa, a 29-year-old single mother
who discovered running a year ago, decided the healthy way to run is barefoot,
and in her first year of running has completed five marathons, qualifying for
Boston with a 3:27 at the marvelously named Self-Transcendence Marathon hosted
by Sri Chinmoy Buddhists in New York State.


Eight of this
year‰Ûªs finishers are older than Sig Polodzny was in 1970. Allan Bates, 64, of
Pittsfield, won the Veteran‰Ûªs age group in 54:31, four seconds ahead of Carl
Matuszek. Now 61, Matuszek had come back to run the course for the first time
since those workouts under Hebert‰Ûªs direction in 1968. Once again Don Grant
ran; still an artist, still living in Northampton, and now the men‰Ûªs 70-plus


‰ÛÏThere are so
few races that aren‰Ûªt 5K‰Ûªs.‰Û Grant said. ‰ÛÏThis one is long enough so I get to
catch some people who can‰Ûªt hack the longer distances.‰Û


As for the man
who has hacked the longest distance in terms of effort and enthusiasm, Ron
Hebert is doing well at 72, although no longer running himself. Twenty years
ago, after leaving his high school job, Hebert was working as a house painter
when he fell from a roof and shattered several bones. Ensuing hospital visits
and operations resulted in complications, infections, and, for a while, serious
doubt about whether he would be able to get around at all.


For four years,
fellow Sugarloaf members took over the race‰Ûªs direction, but in 1996 Hebert
felt strong enough to resume his place with the socks at the finish line, and
this year he was as much in charge as ever.


In 2005, Hebert
wrote what he thought would be his definitive history of the race. ‰ÛÏWhen I
started this race in 1970, it was because more local races were needed,‰Û he
wrote. ‰ÛÏI never dreamed I‰Ûªd still be doing it 35 years later.‰Û Make that 45, at least.







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