by Lesley Cotten
Every April area runners head to the Ward Pound Ridge Reservation to test their mettle in the grueling Leatherman’s Loop. The race officially starts and ends in the center of a grassy field. But what happens between these points is what makes this race a true adventure as runners travel over more than six miles of formidable trails. They sprint through a dense pine forest, stumble across a swampy meadow, claw their way up a wall of sand and gravel, and wade across two rivers, struggling to stay upright against the swift current. And just to make things a little more interesting, every step of the way they encounter rocks, roots, fallen trees, and mud so deep it can suck the shoes right off their feet explaining why race veterans duct-tape their sneakers.
Runners sprint through a dense pine forest, stumble across a swampy meadow, and claw their way up a wall of sand and gravel. Who thinks that’s fun? Hundreds and hundreds of people do. Now in its twentieth year, the Leatherman has become a springtime tradition for a growing crowd of enthusiasts, making it one of the most popular cross-country events in the Northeast. There are plenty of serious jocks in the group, but the majority are weekend runners in it for the adventure. Dave Dunham holds the course record for running the 10-kilometer race in 36:51 minutes in 1993. For most of the folks, however, it is more about finishing in one piece than finishing in first place, with plenty staggering in well after an hour, covered with mud and flush with pride. “I’ve run a few marathons, but I found it really tough. I liked it though once I finished,” says Mary Ellen Loncto of Ridgefield, whose prize for winning the 60-65 age group was a raspberry pie. “The tastiest prize I’ve ever won,” she adds.
The Leatherman’s Loop is the handiwork of Tony Godino (of Bedford), David Cope (Ridgefield), Ken Littlefield (Greenwich), and Peter Thompson (Stamford). In 1987 the four invited friends and family to share their love of cross-country running through a demanding race over the reservation’s trails. Ninety-eight men and women showed up that first year. By 2005 the founders were hosting more than 750 runners.
The exacting course is part of the attraction, but returning runners also talk about the unconventional feel of the event. Without corporate sponsors, the Leatherman has maintained an offbeat quality. Last year is a great example. A retired priest started the day by blessing the runners with a Navajo chant. Then, in lieu of the traditional bullhorn, runners took their cue from former Mets pitcher Craig Swan, who threw out a starting pitch. While plans for this year’s competition are still underway, there are rumors of a mariachi band and perhaps a yodeler performing somewhere along the route.
Even the race name is unique. “Leatherman” refers to the colorful centerpiece of a local legend. As the story goes, each year for 30 years a Civil War veteran walked a 300-mile loop passing through this area. The man hiked ten miles a day, regardless of weather. He dressed in a patched leather suit, working for food, and sleeping wherever he could, including a cave in Ward Pound Ridge Reservation. Runners can still catch sight of the Leatherman today in the form of Stan Telega, a good-natured volunteer whose presence is a valuable reminder that it’s not about where you start or finish, it’s about the journey.
The race’s rugged terrain can take a toll on runners. Twisted knees, sprained ankles, cuts and bruises are all possibilities. But, a memorable good time is pretty much a guarantee. The 20th running of the Leatherman’s Loop (leathermansloop.org) is scheduled for Sunday, April 23. Start time is 9:00 a.m.
Wear your old sneakers. And don’t forget the duct tape.