There are plenty of road races for runners during the summer and among them a special few that hold the potential for leaving a lasting impression on those who participate.
That was just the type of a race I found myself in last week as I headed down South Pier Road with a crowd of middle-of-the-packers. The weather was warm, a bit sticky, but not too unbearable even with the late afternoon sun shining upon us.
Around me, the mix of runners included veteran racers like Coventry's Fred Zuleger III, a frequent winner of his 70-and-over-age-group, and some younger folk like the girl coming up on us from the back of the pack. A man looked down at her and politely asked her age and she responded matter-of-factly that she was 10.
The group around her gave a collective nod of praise and the young runner went on with her running.
The race course ran along Ocean Road for a bit before turning away from the scenic water views and heading into a tree-canopied residential area. The young runner hung on to our group as we approached the first water stop and I could hear her sneakers keeping a rhythmic popping on the pavement nearby even when I could not see her.
Our crowd of runners and walkers 438 strong had traveled to Narragansett's Pier School for the fourth annual Bobby Doyle Summer Classic 5 Mile Road Race and the order of the day was to remember the late Bobby Doyle, Rhode Island's legendary marathon racer and high school running coach. The race raises money for Doyle's scholarship fund but also serves as an annual gathering point for many of the people who knew Doyle and his extended family, or ran under his guidance.
Members of Doyle's Woonsocket High School running team were out in the field once again this year and one, Corey Brunelle, now a runner for Providence College, was running with the lead pack, and Woonsocket’s Tiffney Spearman, another of Doyle’s former team members, was among the leading women.
Doyle's son Brian, a former Bishop Hendricken runner for Doyle's brother, Coach Jim Doyle, was also in the lead pack and not far behind him, his younger brother, Connor Doyle, was also keeping pace with the top competitors.
The family nature of this memorial event was also apparent as Jim Doyle served as master of ceremonies as the runners gathered on the school's playing field and was assisted by his brother's older sons, Patrick and Brendan, in getting the crowd off to the starting line.
Doyle told the gathering of runners and friends that the race was not only in memory of his brother but this year would also honor Shawn M. Nassaney. Jim Doyle had coached Nassaney while he headed the St. Raphael Academy running program in Pawtucket. Nassaney, who went on to run for Bryant University, and his girlfriend, Lynn C. Goodchild, died in the Sept.11 attack on New York City after their airplane was hijacked by the terrorists.
Doyle noted this September will mark the 10th anniversary of the attack and asked the crowd for a moment of silence to remember Nassaney and Goodchild, as well as all the others lost on Sept. 11 and in the fight against terrorism. Bryant College has its own race in memory of Nassaney on the cross country course he ran at his school and that event will be held on Sept.10 this year.
The fact a race can help a family cope with the loss of a loved such as Doyle, taken by a heart attack at the age of 58, or that of Nassaney, taken by a violent act, makes them all the more worth running.
They are still fun, too. The talk of the day at such an event is always light-hearted, mixed with jokes about the past, and filled with promise for the future. Runners eat pizza and other snacks after the race, sip sports drinks and water, and even listen to music. At the Doyle Classic, the focus is on raising money to help young runners through the Bobby Doyle Scholarships awarded to R.I. high school runners each year and the Bobby Doyle Youth Running Fund. The 2011 race also helped the 100 Club of Rhode Island with its scholarship program.
While there were plenty of recreational runners in the field, the race remains a highlight summer competition for high school and college runners as they seek to set ever faster course records. Members of the Rhode Island Track Coaches Association are on hand to organize the race and help out around the course and Ray Dwyer, who started many of Bobby Doyle's past races, was there to fire the starting gun once again this year.
Before he set out on the course, Zuleger told me how he had been in a number of races that had been won by Doyle in the 1970s and 1980s, include some I also ran in Woonsocket, and how he still uses the training techniques the former University of Texas at El Paso and Johnson & Wales Athletic Club standout had taught him. Doyle had started out his career running for Hope High School, went on to run for Bryant College and won the 1967 New England AAU Junior Cross-Country Championship with a 5K time of 15 minutes, 42 seconds. He followed that performance two weeks later with a win at the New England AAU Men's Senior Cross-Country Championship with a 10K time of 31:48. The winning runs in New England helped earn him a place on the University of Texas El Paso team.
Doyle gained his greatest fame as a runner by winning the Ocean State Marathon seven times and also placing in the top of the field in the Boston Marathon with the likes of Bill Rodgers, the four-time Boston champion who showed up to talk with high school runners at the inaugural Bobby Doyle Classic.
In his later years, Doyle was able to impart his love of running to the members of his Villa Novan running team and show them those tried-and-true techniques for getting the best angles on the course or breaking out early against the competition. They are skills still being taught to other young runners by his brother James, and used by his family in their own running successes.
Out on the course, my group of mid-pack runners made a turn and began a long uphill climb on Windemere Road past the Point Judith Country Club. The course then turned onto a portion of the route used by the Narragansett Lions' Blessing of the Fleet 10-mile Road Race a few weeks earlier and entered the fourth mile near Gibson Avenue before reaching the final stretch back on South Pier Road. The field had stretched out into a near single-file column by that late stage and the faster runners could be seen coming out from the direction of the finish on their cool down runs.
Endale Abiyot of the Bronx, N.Y., would set a new course record in winning the 2011 Bobby Doyle race with a time of 23:39. Former Providence College racer and New Zealand native Kim Smith won the woman's title with her overall 5th place finish with a time of 26:19, and Doyle's son, Brian Doyle of Swansea, a runner for Northeastern University and past Doyle race winner in his age group, placed second overall with a time of 24:56. Corey Brunelle also put in a great showing for his former coach by taking 10th with time of 27:23, and Spearman, now living in Boston, took second place for the women with a time of 31:54. Zuleger won his age group with a time of 44:52, a regular feat for the popular Rhode Island senior athlete.
I also heard our 10-year-old competitor in the middle of the pack finishing the race as the race announcer called out names at the Pier School. She was, and this should come as no surprise, Mackenzie Doyle, Bobby's daughter. The race is also likely the last time we will see her in that part of the field if family history is any clue.