It's a beautiful late summer evening in the quaint New England town of Topsfield, MA and the runners of the GAC have already started to gather in and around "Gil's Grocery" - one of the few remaining "Mom & Pop" grocery stores left in the country. James Gilford ("Gilly") inherited the store from his Dad and now runs not only the store but also one of the most unique Athletic Clubs in the country.
As you enter the grocery store, your eyes are bombarded with pictures of club members at a zillion different races as well as racing bibs from literally all over the world. These guys and gals have raced them all ... from 5k's through a heavy dose of ultra's and triathalons. Literally every available space is taken up with pictures or numbers instead of advertisements for store products which should tell you something about Gilly!
Gilly is adamant about one thing as I start the interview ... "the story here is the CLUB ... it's not about me ... make sure you use pictures of the guys and not of me!" I tell him "Fair enough ... but let me hear the story of the GAC from you first."
A former high school wrestling standout, Gilly started running in 78 and his store quickly became a gathering point for local runners. They would use the store, with its' great parking space, as the starting and finishing point of runs of every conceivable distance whether it be on the roads, the trails or the track. Finally, after a few years, this group "formalized" into an athletic club in 1983. HOWEVER, it was a club with NO DUES ... and NO FORMAL MEMBERSHIP.
Now, every run ends with a social gathering ... usually in the basement of
the grocery store where a wonderful home style "clubhouse" greets tired runners
and what a clubhouse!!!!!
You'll need to duck your head around the beams if you're tall but there's always a cold keg in the fridge and you can either sit around in old comfortable chairs and "chill out" or workout with weights or listen to CD's or watch television. Everybody has their own private mug hanging from nails along one of the beams and the picture of the all women's bike race is ... well ... you'd have to see it to believe it!
I start talking to some of the runners who have shown up for tonight's track workout and two things become very obvious ... they really love this guy Gilly and they really enjoy each other's company! When I ask them why they joined this particular club, the answers all fall along these lines: "it's so low-key ... I love the un-officialness of it ... it allows all levels of runners to be together in a non-competitive format ... we just show and go ... everything is flexible here ... no rules, no dues ... it's just great fun and wonderful camaraderie ... the six-minute milers will run with the nine minute milers any day just to encourage them and help them ... there are no elitists in this club ..."
While I'm in the store, the oldest man in Topsfield, "BUZZY" shows up and
buys CIGARS for everybody! Gilly tells me that Buzzy has kept the club well
stocked with cigars and whiskey for the past few years ... BUZZY really is
ancient (99 years old!) but that provides AL CATALANO the perfect opening to
make fun of another GAC member ... Al yells out, "Hell ... BUZZY'S even older
than FREDDY MESSINA and everybody grins at poor old FREDDY who is actually quite
an accomplished senior runner. Another member, DAN WALSH, met his wife at the
GAC but MARTY MCMAHON tells me that that was because of the non-competitive
atmosphere ... otherwise, DAN wouldn't have stood a chance!" DICK RUSSELL and
DICK GREEN talk about the mutual support and help club members give to each
BILLY PRENTISS talked about how the club support got him through his first marathon but BRIAN MELANSON wanted to talk about "the beautiful women". As if on cue, GAIL IERADI cuts in with "fun and support ... that's what we're about!"
Sometimes, the whole group (roughly about 70 but since there is no official membership, who really knows?) will just pack up and head to the mountains for a six hour trail run ... they have also been known to run into Boston (about 25 miles away) in clown costumes and along a major highway! Fifteen GAC'S traveled to Ireland in 1993 to do the Dublin marathon and eleven of them competed in the rugged 100 mile Vermont run ... and since each runner had a three person crew, that meant that there were 40+ people involved with that race from the GAC.
Personally, I think the real story could be seen in the fact that club members who were injured or otherwise indisposed also showed up to encourage the runners in their workouts. DONNA D'AGASTINO, a very nine months pregnant, showed up to encourage and laugh as did PETE BONACCORSI, an accomplished Ironman triathelete, who was on the mend from a painful bout of plantar fasciatis.
As we move to the local high school track, some other aspects of the GAC become very clear to me. Even though these people are low key and love having a good time, there are still some very talented runners in this group. For example, KEVIN GUINEE sports a 33 minute 10K and a 2:45 marathon. Meanwhile, Gilly has written tonight's workout on a portable board: 1x440 (warm-up) followed by 4x1 mile repeats with a 440 recovery in between miles. Everyone breaks up into appropriate pace groups and off they go. They have been doing these track workouts once a week since the week after Boston ... tonight will probably be the last one as the available daylight is rapidly shrinking. This evening there are between 25-30 runners on the track with several other club members either running trails or simply watching from the sidelines. After the workout, most of them will gather back at the grocery store and move to the basement for beers, cigars and/or just plain fellowship.
While I watch the track workout, PETE says to me, "With this club, if you want to be serious, we can be serious but the bottom line is we are a support group for each other THAT GOES WAY BEYOND RUNNING. We will help each other move and we also help each other during those rough times in life ..." "That's very true" says AL, "We are kind of a safe haven ... a sanctuary for the wounded when it all gets a little too crazy out there."
And everyone is agreed that Gilly is a very special person when it comes to that area of support ... "He's an incredibly giving person ... he's helped a whole lot of people who have gone through or are going through personal hell ... I can't think of enough good things to say about him."
As I leave this wonderful group, I can't help but think that this is the heart and soul of amateur running. No matter what the egg heads do at the top level of this sport, as long as there are groups like the GAC around, our sport of running will be in good hands. And Gilly ... you're not the whole story ... but you are one very, very special person and the running community is blessed to have you in its' fold.