August 2020 Issue 433

The Latest in Road Running for Race Directors and Industry Professionals


A Race Director for the Ages

Laddie Lawrence, Longest Serving Race Director in the U.S., Talks About His 55-Year Commitment to the Westport CT Roadrunners Summer Series

By Claudia Piepenburg

The night before their wedding, Laddie Lawrence’s wife-to-be Katie warned him that he’d better not be late to the ceremony because if he was, she wouldn’t be waiting at the altar when he finally arrived. Lawrence made it to the church on time—he and Katie just celebrated wedding anniversary number forty-five—but at 7:00 a.m. on his wedding  morning he wasn’t enjoying a pre-ceremony breakfast to calm his nerves—instead he was at the beach nailing up course mile markers for the second race in the Westport Roadrunners Summer Race Series.

“I’m pretty fanatical about my commitment,” Lawrence said, a statement that would surely prompt a bemused “no kidding” reaction from most non-runners, but for folks in Westport, his dedication wasn’t out-of-the-ordinary. By that time Lawrence had been directing the series for ten years; he knew that he’d be able to put up the course markers, start the race promptly at 8:00 a.m., time the one hundred-fifty or so runners and get to the church for the noon ceremony, shaved showered and dressed in something other than running shorts and a T-shirt. “Everyone at the race knew that I was getting married. They weren’t surprised.”

The series has been a labor of love for Lawrence since its inception in 1962, although the first few years he wasn’t the race director; instead he ran in the series of ten races held over ten weeks as a high school student. “The new football coach at the high school wanted to get people fit. So he and a local policeman and the director of the YMCA decided to start a ten-week road race series, from two miles building up to ten.”

However, except for the final ten-mile race, which has been the Connecticut state ten-mile championship for the past couple of years, none of the other races are exact distances. The three mile run is 3.8 miles, the five 5.85, the six measures out to almost seven at 6.85 miles. “The reason for the oddball distances is because all of the courses were measured using the police car’s odometer,” Lawrence explained. “Except for the ten-miler, we never accurately measured the other courses because people want to be able to compare their times over the years, over the same distance.”

Lawrence was co-director for two years while he was in college. He graduated with a degree in physical education, started teaching at the high school (he retired seven years ago but still coaches track and field and cross-country) and took on the job of race director as something to do in the summer. Although he’s seen many changes in the running world over the past five decades, particularly regarding technology, he’s adamant in his dedication to maintaining the series’ uniqueness—a throwback to simpler times.

“We do try to make changes that keep up with technology,” Lawrence said, but followed that up by explaining that he hasn’t switched to computerized timing (except for the ten mile race) because “the runners want the socialization that goes along with turning in their tongue depressor, hanging around after the race to see if they won anything in the raffle.” Yes, except for the final race, all the other races are timed via a stopwatch and numbered tongue depressors, which Lawrence says he carefully disinfects and puts back in order after each event. “It isn’t just me alone at the finish line anymore though, calling out the times. There are six people now for the ten-mile race, and we do have a display clock.

The social aspect of what happens once they’ve crossed the finish line is one of the things that brings runners back year after year. “Everyone loves the camaraderie of the raffle after they’ve raced. We’ve raffled off lots of interesting things over the years. Vintage T-shirts are quite popular. One year a woman in town decided that all of the runners should get flowers. A guy gave us Yankee tickets once but they were the only donation we couldn’t get rid of. No one wanted them.”

Like most of his peers who’ve been in the business for a long time, Lawrence has seen participation in the events decline a little over the years as other races have emerged on the scene. “At one time there were no other races within a fifty-mile radius. Now runners have lots of races to choose from every weekend.” Despite the competition, each race manages to draw over 100 runners, with the most participants in the ten-miler.

Demographics in the Westport Series tend to mirror those around the country, with most participants being in the 30-50 year age groups, although the trend toward more women competing, which has been the norm in most if not the majority of races over the past decade, doesn’t hold true in Westport. As far as age groups go, Lawrence explained that if a runner’s upcoming birthday means he or she will be aging up to a new group, they will often wait to register for the entire series until after their birthday. Runners are scored on their finishing times via Grand Prix scoring, a good reason to hold off on registering if there’s a birthday coming up mid-series.


In fifty-five years, Lawrence has missed only two races: one the day his daughter got married and one that never happened. “Several years ago we had to cancel a race because of thunderstorms. We tried to wait them out but eventually we realized that it would be too dangerous to hold the race.”

There was one other race that might have been cancelled, but Mother Nature cooperated. “We call it the Great Hurricane race,” said Lawrence with a chuckle. “It happened fifty years ago. A hurricane blew in on Friday. Lots and lots of heavy rain and many trees came down. I woke up at 4:00 a.m and it was still windy and rainy. But when I got up at 7:00 the sun was out and there was no more wind, so I went down to the beach to mark out the 6.85-mile course. There were downed power lines and trees all around, so we had to take detours, but the race went on just like always.”

Over the years many well-known people in the running world have come to Westport to run, among them Jim Fixx, Amby Burfoot, Peter Gambaccini, and Creigh Kelley. “We get runners from all fifty states and from all over the world,” Lawrence said. “We’ve had runners come from as far away as China, Singapore and Norway. A runner from Germany who held the record for the four by one-mile indoor relay ran here. There’s always a lot of really good local high school and collegiate racers who show up during the summer. You never know who you’re going to get.”

Lawrence has cancelled only one race in fifty-five years, and he isn’t about to let COVID-19 destroy that remarkable achievement. “We’ve had to go virtual,” he explained. “It has hurt our numbers; so far we’ve had only about one-third of the registrants we’d normally have.” (Note: registrations fees are $40 for the entire virtual race series, and $10 per race.) “I’ve gone out and marked the start and finish lines of the first couple of races, and small groups have been gathering at what would be the race start time and they’re racing each other.” Runners have from Monday through Saturday to run the race distance for that week, and then submit their time to the website. Like all virtual races, runners run the equivalent distance no matter where they might be. “The series is going on like usual, but no records will be set this summer.”

At the end of the interview Lawrence said that he wants everyone to know that he just inherited the race series. “I want you to tell people about the guys who put it all together,” he said, as his voice cracked and Katie could be heard in the background murmuring, “You’re tearing up now.” 

There was a brief silence and then Lawrence said: “The guys who started it were Chuck Smith, he was the assistant football coach, and the policeman’s name was Howard Burling, and Matt Johnson was the YMCA director. Those guys deserve all the credit.”

Lawrence possesses all the qualities of the ideal race director: love of the sport, dedication and commitment, plus a big dose of humility—easy to see why he’s been at it for five decades. 

Claudia Piepenburg qualified for the 1988 Olympic Team Trials, was the 20th women finisher in the 1987 Boston Marathon, and the winner of the 1986 Virginia Beach Marathon. She is a freelance writer for running and non-running related publications and has written one novel and eight short stories.

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