At 6:15 Tuesday evening, the rays of the late day sun painted the runners outside Stonington Borough’s Dog Watch Café in golden hues. The waterfront nearby cooled the air at the start line; the weather was about as ideal as it was going to get for a 5K fun-run in August.
Not so a week earlier, when an ominous train of dark clouds rolled in from the west, delivering a torrential downpour and cracks of thunder.
That day, race organizer Heather Bessette told attendees that they would only be doing one loop—half the course, which winds its way through the Borough. Shortly after everyone had finished, the first fat drops of rain came flying down the wind.
Dripping runners pooled onto the Dogwatch deck and into the restaurant where they were pressed up against diners and bar patrons. Cautious waiters wove through the morass with food and drink balanced precariously on trays.
Heather Bessettes’s siblings Clay Burkhalter and Wendy Eck co-own the Dogwatch with Wendy’s husband Dave. The restaurant rewards finishers who bring in their popsicle sticks from the race with a free beverage.
Bessette and her husband Stephen started the 5K fun-run in the borough three years ago as a way of getting people in the community interested in running.
“It’s my way of giving back,” Bessette said.
Her own journey through fitness began when she ran a 5K fun-run in St. Petersburg Florida. She was 26.
By the time she was 32, Bessette had crossed the line as the first woman finisher at the 1996 Hartford Marathon, closing the 26.2 miles in a time of 2:47.
That year, she went on to compete in the Olympic trials in Atlanta, GA. Though she did not qualify for the Olympics, she was inspired when she saw a sign that read, “I am an American.” The last four letters of the sentence were capitalized.
Now, Bessette and her mother Elizabeth McCracken run ICAN fitness, a Stonington workout studio that offers personal training and spin classes. McCracken, who took silver at the Senior Olympics in tennis and continues to compete nationally, might have passed down some competitiveness to the daughter. Similarly, Bessette’s brother, Clay Burkholter took 12th in a transatlantic sailing race from France to Brazil.
Bessette remains active in local competition. In 2009 she took first woman overall at the Tarzan Brown race in Mystic and in 2010 she took first in her division at the Manchester Road Race.
Now, she is active in selling her “No Expiration” line of clothing, a series of shirts that features an expiration date as it might appear on a food product, but has blanks in the place of numbers. The message is that there is no age limit on accomplishing goals.
Though normally Bessette competes in the fun-runs, she skipped the most recent so that she could get to a tennis club meeting later.
Still, she took the time to get the runners started, describing the course and a couple of ground rules for dealing with vehicles.
“We’re going to have fun but we’re also going to be safe,” she told the crowd.
She reminded everyone that the Battle of Stonington 5K would be held at 6 p.m., Aug. 23. The race, which is organized by her husband, follows the same loop as the fun-run but leaves from the Borough library. Bessette encouraged people to consider volunteering.
She also directed runners at the intersection near the bridge, keeping them to the side of the road out of the path of traffic.
Runners at the start-line represented a range of ages and abilities. The Stonington cross-country team was making the event their practice for the day.
“It’s gotten very competitive with the young crowd,” Bessette said.
Indeed, the winning time for the night was a new course record a 15:48, set by Sam Alexander, a senior at Central Connecticut State University.
Stephen Bessette, who has run a 2:41 marathon, also ran the fun run, placing third.
For plenty of others, the run was a chance to get some exercise at their own pace and to enjoy socializing with fellow joggers.
As the crowd of runners went by, Bessette said that the run was a good way to get people started because they could always begin with one loop around the course.
Maybe some of those first timers and beginners on the course would discover a love for the sport as Bessette did after her fun run in Florida.
Fun-runs at the Borough start from the front of the Dogwatch Cafe at 6:15. The series goes from Memorial Day to Labor Day, though there may be one run after Labor Day this year.