Faxon Law New Haven Road Race

Making a Run

The Faxon Law New Haven Road Race, which commences at 8:30 a.m. this coming Monday, is unusual among New Haven events insofar as the event comes to many of its spectators. As runners gradually burn through 20 kilometers of New Haven roads, they pass a lot of houses along the way—about 1,300, according to John Bysiewicz, the race director for 30 years.

If your home is one of them, then the number that matters most is the number of runners—five to six thousand of them passing by in as few as 10 minutes or as many as two hours (depending on where you are along the route). Even when you know it’s coming (and residents will get a flyer if they haven’t already), the transformation can be as strange as opening your door to three feet of virgin snow. There is first the total absence of traffic on your street—all of it diverted elsewhere by police—then the solitary, wraith-like appearance of the elite runners, then another eerie calm, followed finally by the onslaught—wave after wave of sweating, iron-willed bodies.

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For their part, the runners are busy experiencing a mixture of concentration and exertion. They’re not exactly sight-seeing, but they’re still feeling the benefit of a coastal city with lots of green space. According to Bysiewicz, who designed the course with the input of the 40-member board and the city itself, “The race runs through some of the best sections of the city. You start and finish at the Green. You run by Wooster Square. There’s a lot of shade coming down Chapel Street. Also it passes through a number of parks, including East Rock Park, College Woods Park, the one on Whitney.” Here, we momentarily strain to remember the name of Edgerton Park, which then lexographically reminds us that the course also passes twice through Edgewood Park. The map is planned that way in order to give runners some much-needed tree shade. The course is also flat, as most of New Haven’s dips and rises are pushed out to the city’s edges. Finally, for a route that narrows in the middle like a bowtie, it has relatively few turns. Mostly ruler-straight Chapel Street takes up a quarter of the run. Whitney and Temple—the finishing stretch—together take up more than an eighth. All those factors are not to be underestimated. National records have been set and re-set at the 20K in New Haven. It’s as long as any 20 kilometers you’ll ever travel, but nevertheless, Bysiewicz says, “it’s a fast course.”

Some of the universal requirements of a long-distance course are also what make it a citywide course. Races always have to begin and end in the same place, Bysiewicz notes, thus freeing the starting line spectators from also having to run to the finish line. (In fact, there are multiple starting lines around the Green, because, while the 20K runners are west of the Green, the 5K runners are northbound, running up and back down Whitney before the 20K runners are due to get there.) You also can’t design a route that loops more than once over the same roads. “The bigger the race,” says Bysiewicz, “the harder it is to do multiple loops without people getting lapped or some confusion with the fast runners and the slow runners.” So a single, big loop is prescribed—in this case, one that’s big enough to take runners up into Beaver Hills and into the hearts of both Westville and Fair Haven.

That loop has retained its current shape, give or take, for over 15 years. Prior to that, it was rounder. The 2001 New Haven Road Race route followed the Ella T. Grasso Boulevard all the way to Long Island Sound, as it had done since the inaugural race in 1978. According to Bysiewicz, city construction projects compel alterations to the course every few years or so, which can be more complicated than a simple detour. If you shorten something here, you have to lengthen something there in order to achieve the same distance. But there were enough city projects on the route in 2002 to draw the attention of Bysiewicz and the board to other deficits on the map. “The route was changed,” Bysiewicz says, “because there was some construction going on, but also because we were in essence closing the Boulevard for well over an hour. It was a big inconvenience on folks.” While the runners were completing the first half of the 20K, Westville was entirely cut off from downtown, and travelers who needed Grasso to get to the highway were out of luck. “It was also an inconvenience when the race ran along Long Wharf. It impacted the highway on and off ramps, which is not a safe thing.”

Nevertheless, you can see on the 2001 Road Race map what the original planners were going for. The runners experienced New Haven by running around it, much the way a race track encircles a field. But the current map runs them through it. The start and finish lines have always been at the Green, but runners now pass the Green en route. “If your family is watching you run, they can watch you at the start, then watch you in the middle of the race, then watch you at the finish and never leave,” Bysiewicz notes. For the spectators on the Green, the runners are never quite gone. For the runners, the spectators are never quite gone either.

Bysiewicz says there are also 15 water stations along the route, where runners are cheered on while they hastily rehydrate. For the neighbors who run some of them, these stations have become annual events in their own right. The one on East Rock Road at Everit Street dates back to the very first New Haven Road Race. It was started by Everit Street residents Julie and Bill Moore and organized by them every year for the next 40-plus years. Involvement from the neighborhood became a fact of life. Maria Casanovas, who moved into the house at water station corner in 2015, remembers being approached by welcoming neighbors. “One of the first things they told us, ‘Are you willing to provide water for the Road Race?’ And we were like, ‘What are you talking about?’” Casanovas and her family would become station regulars, and when the Moores recently announced their retirement from the event, Casanovas stepped forward. “This year I offered to do the coordination,” she says, “because I think this water station is a great neighborhood tradition and I didn’t want it to get lost.” According to Bysiewicz, there are such neighborhood water stations—supplied and regulated by Road Race organizers, but run by residents—in Fair Haven and Westville too.

The route is a busy place. There are also bands and DJs (no doubt stationed far enough apart to avoid sounding like a Charles Ives symphony). And past the finish line on the Green, Bysiewicz says, “we also have inflatables for kids. There’s a moon bounce. A giant slide. An obstacle course race. There’s 50 kegs of Harpoon beer. We have clowns… There’s 10,000 bars of frozen yogurt in addition to 3,000 hot dogs.”

Keeping the party going takes nearly 1,000 volunteers, according to Bysiewicz. Most of the 40 board members—some of whom, not coincidentally, also work for the city—are already at work on the race. “We have people who work with transportation to get elite athletes to New Haven. We have people who course tours with the elite athletes. We have some in charge of making sure the tents are set up… We have one person in charge of the water stations. A couple people in charge of the volunteers. We have people on our board who make sure that the potholes are fixed on any parts the race route.” The board members are also coordinating with the New Haven Police Department, which will be out in force to close every intersection along the route. Ambulances, medical spotters and EMTs on bicycles will be stationed throughout—just in case.

According to Bysiewicz, almost every city department will be involved in some capacity on Monday, scrambling in coordination to ensure that the Faxon Law New Haven Road Race is an event in all the right ways and uneventful in the rest.

2019 Faxon Law New Haven Road Race
Start Time & Location (20K, Half Marathon, 5K): 8:30am, Mon 9/2, on the New Haven Green

Written by David Zukowski. Images provided courtesy of the Faxon Law New Haven Road Race.

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