MERIDEN — Now this was Fred Bucchieri’s idea of the ideal summer evening.
Mid-80s, hardly a trace of humidity and nary a cloud, let alone a thunderhead, in the sky.
Running weather, and an ideal night for the Meriden Parks and Recreation Department Fun Run, which has been a Wednesday night summer fixture at Platt High School since founded by Ray Gooding in 1970.
It has continued to thrive under Bucchieri’s stewardship since he took up the reins from Bob Parker in 2003. The event draws local loyalists who have been regulars at the annual nine-week series for decades as well as a fair share of newcomers from out of town.
Cross country runners from Notre Dame-West Haven have been directed this way by their coach, Rich Andreozzi. One, Jacob Carson of Seymour, won last week’s race in 16:24.
This Wednesday saw a return to familiar form, with Maloney cross country coach Derek Destefano winning his sixth race of the summer in 17:37.
One of Destefano’s former Maloney runners, Jack Curry, was second in 18:36. One of his current runners, Tristyn Barnes, was third in 18:40.
And, for those keeping score, yet another Maloney runner, Savannah Vasquez, was the top female and sixth overall finisher in 21:21, coming in after Quincy Handler (19:14) and Jeremy Titus (20:49).
In a way, this Maloney microcosm paints a broad picture of what the Fun Run is all about. Fun: Destefano has been running here since his high school days at Platt. Run: Work on your craft.
“As a coach, you try to get them into some sort of conditioning shape and get their minds rolling as the season is coming up,” Destefano remarked. “The more they get their running in, the better obviously they’re going to become. We use these as good time trials to see where we’re at and see what we need to do.
“I push them and encourage them to do this every week because it’s what I did growing up when I was running at Platt,” Destefano added.
Destefano started showing up for Fun Runs his sophomore year. Bucchieri’s two oldest boys, Vincent and Steven, were running at Maloney and they were showing up on Wednesdays, too.
“We would come here every week and it would be like a Platt versus Maloney Fun Run. It would just be competitive and it’s what made me better,” Destefano recalled. “And it was fun. I cherish those moments. It’s why I keep coming back.”
At the hub of the show — the “heartbeat,” as Southington runner Mike Perkowski said — is Fred Bucchieri. The race director is a one-man show. He gathers the group at the outset, goes over the course, sees them off, then times them as they cross the finish line.
He’s got the results of every race in his 20 summers, of which he’s never missed a Wednesday.
And he’s such a fixture that he knows the name of pretty much of every runner who shows up.
“David Hyde! How are you, David?”
“Wow, you’ve got it memorized.”
A young lady approached: Bridggette Vazquez of Platt High School.
“Hi! Bridggette, right?”
Then Bucchieri noticed another Platt runner, Erin Sola, was not in her company.
“Where’s Erin? She here? She’s not coming today? She always comes with you.”
Ironically, given the weather, the field for Wednesday’s race was one of the smallest of the season. This year, races have been drawing 35-40 runners. Last year, the Fun Run drew just shy of 300 for the summer.
One of the best years? The infamous COVID year of 2020. Running remained a viable activity because, by nature, it is socially distanced, and yet most road races cancelled events that year or staged them virtually.
More than 300 runners showed up at Platt in 2020, and qualilty rose with quantity. The only sub-16 minutes in Fun Run history were logged that summer.
“We were the only show,” Bucchieri recalled. “2020, we saw some runners who really pushed the pace.”
On July 29, Yankarlos Diaz (15:23) out-dueled Wallingford’s Derrick Arnold (15:49). Diaz’s time is the course record.
The next week, Matt Lecky (15:41) edged Sean Ahern (15:43) in one of the closest races in event history. Arnold came back on August 19 and ran a 15:57.
Those are the five sub-16’s. Over the 3-mile course that passes along Oregon Road, Coe Avenue, down the Linear Trail and back, they reflect a pace of 5:08 to 5:19 a mile.
A year later, in 2021, the girls stole the headlines. Maloney’s Bria Benigni broke the female course record with an 18:53 on July 7, then dropped it again with an 18:17 on July 21.
Her new mark stood for all of two weeks. Wallingford’s Liz Fengler, who was wrapping up her college running career at SCSU, blazed a 17:51.
Not only that, Fengler edged Tristyn Barnes at the line and, in doing so, became the only girl in Bucchieri’s tenure to finish first overall.
Barnes was right back in the field on Wednesday. After the race, he talked with Bucchieri for a while and readily agreed when the race director said, “You can’t start the cross country season on September 1st.”
“That is true. Pretty much right after the track season is when you’ve got to start.”
Over the summer, Barnes runs 25-30 miles a week. He uses the Fun Runs to simulate the races he’ll be competing in come September.
“Tristyn’s here every week,” Bucchieri noted. “Last year and this year, I’ve seen you almost every week.”
So is Mike Perkowski, the Southington guy who has been hitting up the Fun Runs going on 20 years. Though he also dabbles in triathlons and ultra trail runs — he’s got two 50Ks under his belt — come Wednesday nights in the summer, Perkowski wends his way to Platt.
“It’s part of the calendar every year,” he said. “Their dates are easy to remember. It starts the second school’s out and ends when it goes back,”
Another summer. They come and go.
Yet in Meriden, on Wednesday evenings, though the course has been tweaked and the conditioning has improved and the footwear, too, some of the names remain the same, and so does the core vibe of a cherished event.
“Some of these people I remember when I first did Fun Runs when I was in high school,” Destefano said. “It just speaks to how great Fred is with the commitment that he’s put into this event and the Meriden Parks and Rec continuing to support it and allowing us to do this.”