Quadriceps pumping, breath labored with each agonizing step, the four runners — three men and a woman — made their way up the hill. Leaning forward into the steep grade, they looked like human slash marks arrayed along the margins of a page as they ground their way to the top.
After about three-tenths of a mile, they reached the summit and paused momentarily, gasping for air. The tidy ranch houses lining Rosemont Avenue were silent witnesses to their uphill battle — and their panting from the exertion was the only sound on this quiet Sunday morning
Kevin “K.C.” Brett, a 58-year-old runner and triathlete from Port Jefferson Station, gestured out to distant smudges of blue and brown on the horizon. “In the winter, you can see Fire Island from here,” he said.
As the drone flies, that’s about 12 miles from where the runners stood: But as they weren’t far from Bald Hill, one of Long Island’s highest elevations (at 331 feet), it made sense that the crown of Rosemont Avenue in Farmingville would afford such a grand southerly view.
What might not make sense is why anyone would want to go charging up to the top of this hill in the first place, not to mention a half-dozen others over a 10k (6.2-mile) course through this neighborhood that straddles Selden and Farmingville.
But that’s what runners must do to earn the coveted “I Ran the Selden Hills” sticker that adorns the bumpers of the vehicles parked in the Westfield Shopping Center on Middle Country Road — the start and finish of the course.
“Did you touch the pole?” said Lou LaFleur, the enthusiastic 62-year-old co-founder of the group known as the Selden Hills Warriors. “It’s not official until you touch the pole.”
Assured that the four runners — part of a group of about 20 that had run the course that morning — had indeed tapped the light pole in the middle of the parking lot, he smiled and handed over a sticker to a newcomer.
“Welcome to the Selden Hills Warriors,” he said, snapping a cellphone photo.
The sticker is about as close as one can get to a membership card in this group. “We don’t call it a club,” said LaFleur. “We don’t charge dues. We just show up and run.”
Hills are an important part of a distance runner’s training diet: They build leg strength, and along with longer runs for endurance and shorter fast runs to develop speed, hill training gets runners race-ready for such events as Saturday’s Great Cow Harbor 10k in Northport.
About 30 of the Selden Hills Warriors will be at that race — a visible presence in their red T-shirts — but while their runs here will no doubt help them navigate the notoriously undulating Cow Harbor course, running faster is not the only reason this group has grown from two runners to 1,276 Facebook followers — about 250 of who regularly run the course.
Nor is Cow Harbor the only local race where the group has a presence. On Sept. 23, the Selden Hills Warriors plan to field five eight-runner teams in the annual Ocean to Sound 50-Mile Relay, from Jones Beach to Oyster Bay. The biggest event of the year for the group is Rob’s Run, a 5k (3.1-mile) cross-country race in Syosset’s Stillwell Woods, on Nov. 25. In last year’s race, the Warriors fielded 188 runners — about a quarter of the total participants.
“You see them at all the races,” said Brendan Barrett, co-owner of the Sayville Running Co., an apparel store that sponsors its own running group. “They don’t like the word ‘club,’ but a social club is kind of a good way to describe them.”
No matter what it’s called, the bond is strong among the Selden Hills Warriors.
“This has become a second family for me,” said Kristen Pagano, 35, of Mount Sinai. “The people here are good-hearted, positive, supportive, happy.”
Indeed, “giddy” might be the word that comes to mind perusing their Facebook page, which crackles day and night. There are selfies taken by the finish-line pole (“Our morning crew . . . beautiful run!”); requests for information (“Running watch help please. I’m torn between the Garmin Forerunner 235 and 735xt.”), plans for postrun get-togethers (“Our annual Hilladay party is in the works! Can anyone recommend a dj?”), not to mention cryptic messages from the various subgroups that have sprung up within the Warriors (“Vampires! What is everyone in for Wed.?” . . . “Any Turtles want to do the 10k?”).
The “Vampires” are a group that meets at 5 a.m. Wednesdays to run the course. The “Turtles” are slower runners who train together on the course at various times.
In fact, one doesn’t even have to be a runner to run the Selden Hills. There are several walking groups that are part of the network.
Such inclusivity is one of the hallmarks of today’s running culture, which has transformed over the past two decades from a primarily male-driven, competitive pursuit into a more participatory activity, in which the majority of those involved are women and the emphasis is on fun and fitness.
“In the past, no one would have been brave enough to show up at a group run — and walk,” said Amby Burfoot, writer-at-large for Runner’s World magazine and the author of “Run Forever” (Center Books/Hachette). “Now people are encouraged, no matter what level they’re at.”
Burfoot, still running and racing 50 years after he won the 1968 Boston Marathon, believes that groups like Selden Hills belie the misconception that runners are a breed of loners. “Most of us are social animals to some degree,” he said, “and we would rather join up with some like-minded folks and shoot the breeze while we’re running.”
Groups like this provide that opportunity.
“Here we can talk with other moms about our daily struggles,” said Maryann Harkins of Port Jefferson Station, a 38-year-old mother of two young boys. “It’s hard to have those kinds of conversations in a gym.”
“You’re never alone here,” agreed Nancy LaFleur, Lou’s wife and herself a runner. “This has saved a few people.”
It was Harkins who, along with Lou LaFleur, helped launch one of the largest running groups of its kind on Long Island.
A retired postal inspector, LaFleur was a relatively new runner in 2010, when he decided to add hills to his training. “But on Long Island, it’s tough to find hills,” he said.
As a member of the area’s largest traditional running group, the Plainview-based Greater Long Island Running Club, LaFleur had heard of a hilly course on the roads of Farmingville and Selden that had been used in the past. He got a hand-drawn map from one of the club’s old-timers and decided to scope it out in his car.
Nancy accompanied him as they drove for six miles up the long, steep ascents on Adirondack Drive, Summit Place, Berkshire Drive and Rosemont Avenue. When they were done, Nancy recalled, “I said, `I’m going to have an ambulance waiting for you at the end.’ ”
“Don’t worry,” Lou recalled saying in response. “I’ll go slow.”
On a scorching June afternoon, LaFleur and Harkins, who had met each other at the Bay Shore Y, decided to run the course together.
“When we’d finished,” he recalled, “I said, ‘We’re never going to do that again.’ Three days later, we forgot how miserable we were. We were emailing each other: `Want to do it again?’ ”
Soon they were doing the hilly course regularly. As LaFleur’s race times began to improve, others wanted to know his secret. “After a while, the group had grown to about 25,” LaFleur recalled. “Someone said, ‘Hey, we should do a Facebook group.’ I said, ‘What’s Facebook?’ ”
Today, the Selden Hills Warriors are a social media machine, with LaFleur its genial maestro. Their events include birthday runs, after which those who were born that month are feted with cake and Champagne. There are winery trips to the North Fork and group dinners at area restaurants. On the group’s website and Facebook page, LaFleur regularly celebrates “hillaversaries” — shout-outs to runners who completed their first run on the course a year earlier.
The loop course was originally designed to hit as many hills as possible — a goal that is most definitely reached, particularly on the steep ascents of Adirondack and Berkshire, two long roads that make up more than half of the 10k route, with additional challenging inclines on Summit and Rosemont.
The group is also cognizant that their hill route is somebody else’s home: Periodically, LaFleur will organize a cleanup effort of this residential neighborhood; red-shirted Warriors will walk the course with grabbers, cleaning up the woods along the roads.
“We want the community to know that we care about the streets we run on,” he said.
The Selden Hills Warriors mirror the new running culture in many ways: They’re younger (at least a third of the active members are under 40) and about two-thirds are women. Although they enjoy participating in big races like Cow Harbor, their performance is not only measured by a stopwatch or even a sticker. Said Harkins:
“We’re just a group that loves running, supporting one another and making new friendships.”
The hills are alive because of glaciers
hink Long Island, and you generally think flat. So how is it that runners were able to discover a cluster of steep hills in the middle of Suffolk County?
Thank a glacier which, as it receded at the end of an early Ice Age some 50,000 years ago, left deposits of rock and debris known as the Ronkonkoma Moraine.
“It forms the center spine of the Island,” explained Tom Casey, vice president of the Long Island Greenbelt Trail Conference and a frequent lecturer on the Island’s ecology.
The Ronkonkoma Moraine — which runs roughly along the route of the Long Island Expressway — is one of two on Long Island. The other, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, is the Harbor Hill Moraine, which hews closely to the North Shore.
The glaciers left behind deposits that built up over time. “You could say the glaciers acted like a conveyor belt,” said Casey. “All that freeze and thaw action kept churning stuff up, and when it started to melt, it deposited it all.”
The hills of Selden and Farmingville are one of the higher points of the Ronkonkoma Moraine. While this area has more recently been embraced by the Selden Hills Warriors, individual runners have trained here for years, including Casey himself who, as a marathoner in the early 1980s, did long runs up and down Adirondack Drive, part of the Warriors course.
“Those are some wicked hills,” he said.
— John Hanc
Want to be a Warrior?
Run times, course maps and other statistics and information about the group and the course are available at the group’s website, seldenhillswarriortraining.com.