The Run 169 Towns Society
FAIRFIELD -- It was the T-shirts that first caught Mary Paglialunga’s eye.
The shirt was blue, with a yellow outline of the state of Connecticut in the middle with some runners making their way along a winding road. The words on the shirt read: Run 169 Towns Society.
“I had run into a couple of guys at the Christmas Village (race) in Trumbull and I asked them about their shirts,” Paglialunga said. “Turns out they were two of the original founders and I thought about it for like, a month and I said, ‘I’m going to do that,’ it sounded really cool and it’s been nothing but a wonderful experience.”
It was March of 2012 when the first meeting of www.debitconn.org - Do Every Blessed Town in Connecticut - took place. Since its formation some six years ago, thousands of runners have joined the club, looking to run a road race in every one of the state’s 169 towns and villages.
“I was turning 50 that year and I wanted something new and different,” Paglialunga said. “Besides the fact of just getting out of Fairfield County, there’s a whole another world out there in the state of Connecticut that many people have no idea about.”
It was one of those original founders, Adam Osmond, that was wearing the shirt that day in Trumbull.
As of July 6, 2018, there are 2,843 members of debitconn, with more joining the club just about every day.
“The way it started was, eight of us got together and decided to organize a (running) club and set up basic rules,” Osmond said. “So, we sat down and figured out what would count as an ‘official’ race. It had to be at least one mile, it had to be timed, and if a race went through more than one town, the town where the race started would count as the start point.
“We got everything together, I created a website and Facebook and twitter page and all of a sudden, the idea just took off. The runners all got caught up with it the idea of running a race in every town. It got really big really fast.”
There are currently 21 ‘kings’ - men who have completed all 169 races and 14 ‘queens’ who have done the same.
“When we started we had no idea what this would become,” Osmond said. “I thought if we got 100 people to sign up, that would be great.”
But as it turns out, runners like goals.
“Runners like to have something to accomplish, to look forward to,” Osmond said. “I’ve lived in Connecticut for over 30 years and I didn’t know that some of these towns existed. Now, not only do I know but I’ve run in most of them. Before this, a lot of runners would just run in their local area.
“(Creating this club) helped a lot of the small races, that might get just 100 people or so. We have everything on our website and our members know about these races. It’s a win-win for everyone. We have a very fun group.”
Right now, Paglialunga, 53, has 165 races notched on her belt. No. 162 took place last November with a race in Hampton. Next came No. 163 Griswold in February, followed by No. 164 in April in Salem and No. 165 in New Hartford. Still to come are Marlboro, Willington, Durham and last but not least, No. 169 in West Haven.
“I remember meeting Mary in Trumbull and she was so excited about it and now, here she is, she only has a few more races to go,” said Osmond.
Not bad for someone that only started this adventure in January of 2014.
“I was the 149th member to join. They allow people to enter previous races prior to their joining date but I didn’t have too many of them,” Paglialunga said. “I had the Mad Dash in Stratford, I did that Trumbull Christmas Village race, which is where I met the guys that got me hooked on this. Then I did the Bunny Boogie in Darien … and the rest is history.”
Most of the road races throughout Connecticut of the 5K variety, although there are some 10K events, according to Paglialunga. What she truly enjoys about running these races are seeing the people that run.
“There are families, husbands and wives, it absolutely boggles my mind,” she said. “You see everyone wearing the shirts. It’s free to join, you just enter your race and you’re off. It’s great, you’re running but you’re also out exploring Connecticut.
“There are farms out there and there are wineries and there’s wonderful people everywhere,” Paglialunga said. “There are lakes and rivers and fantastic races all over the state. The people I’ve met in the 169 group have just been tremendous. We have families doing it, that’s a cool thing. Its been an absolutely amazing experience and I’m so, so happy that I did this and I’m even happier that I’m almost done.”
The running has not come without its price, however. In November of 2015, Paglialunga had knee surgery, not too long before a race in Morris.
“Morris is considered an ‘elusive’ town,” Paglialunga said. “They only have one race a year and it’s in January. I did the four-mile race on crutches. I didn’t want to wait around for a year to do the race, so in a driving rain and freezing cold, I ran it. It took me forever, but I did it. It was brutal.
“One of the 169ers ran it with me. They held the clocks for me. In order for it to count as a race, you have to be registered, you have to have a bib and the results have to be posted. I got in just under the wire, they held the clock for me, which was great. It took me 1:17. It was all arms, I couldn’t put any weight on my leg. I think that was my most challenging race.”
While Morris might have been the most challenging, there are others that standout for different reasons.
“One of my favorites is the Chester race,” Paglialunga said. “It’s called the ‘4 on the Fourth.’ You run four miles on July 4 and then they have a wonderful party downtown after the race. That’s been my most favorite town so far in the whole state. It’s just an absolutely charming little town. After a lot of these races, there’s always food and beer and that’s always a good time.”
Another was the overnight race in Montville.
“That’s when the clocks go back,” she said. “You start the race at midnight and your time is going to be a negative time because they set the clocks back. It’s called ‘The Flashback 5K,’ you’re running it in the middle of the night, it’s cold usually but that was very fun.”
According to the debitconn website, there are 26 runners from Fairfield that are members of the 169 Towns group, including Chris Ahlberg (136 races), Kevin Ross (89), Monica Roche (79) and Vae Champagne (43).
“I met Monica Roche a while back, she’s in her 70’s I believe,” Paglialunga said. “I saw her at the Great Pumpkin Classic in Trumbull on October 22 and she’s still going. I still see her plugging along. What an inspiration. Amazing. It’s unbelievable.”
Osmond has 157 races to his credit, but has run over twice that amount so far,
“I have 12 towns to go but I’ve done over 350 races because I do a lot of repeats,” he said. “I probably could have finished a long time ago but I keep repeating races in a lot of towns.”
Paglialunga’s Fairfield race was the Colony Grill Hot Oil race back in 2013 before she joined the 169 group. And when she finally gets to 169? What next?
“I am not going to start over,” she said. “I am going to continue to do the races that I enjoy and I will try to do one a month.”
What Paglialunga does plan to do is help with a group called Achilles International - a group of disabled runners that work together with able-bodied runners
“It’s really cool,” she said. “Whether you’re assisting a blind person or tethered to a wheelchair person or helping a child that might have one leg, and when you to a race and see these people, you look on their face when they’ve finished, it brings tears to your eyes. I saw it and I said I have to do this. It’s so rewarding.”