The First PotatoHampton: My Vivid Memories of All That Went Wrong on May 16, 1978

The annual Dan’s Papers Potatohampton Minithon, which will take place this year on Saturday morning, June 4, was founded by this writer 33 years ago, on May 28, 1978. I’d like to tell you about that day.

At 8 a.m. that sunny morning, my girlfriend and I and several other employees of Dan’s Papers threw some banners, folding tables, chairs, registration forms, cash and an empty cigar box into a delivery van and drove it all up to the parking lot of what is today the Kmart Shopping Center in Bridgehampton.

Our starting gun would go off at 9 a.m. (runners who had urged me to have this race said the runners were dedicated souls who would want to start early), and so I thought since there might be a hundred of them or more since we had been advertising it in Dan’s Papers so vigorously for three weeks, we ought to start it in a big parking lot nearby. That would be what is now Kmart. We’d be in and out in half an hour before they opened. They’d never know we had been there.

We didn’t have one hundred people who wanted to run in this race. We had five hundred. And by five minutes to nine, with those registered waiting in astonishment at the long lines of other runners hoping to still do so at our single registration table in the parking lot, everybody began to get angry. The $10 registration fees had been going into the cigar box. (The charity was Southampton Hospital.) We had numbers we gave out but they ended at 200, and we had run out of pins, as I stood with Marty Lang, the Southampton Town Supervisor (he would make a speech and fire the starting gun) and watched all this in alarm. Then, suddenly, one of our editors stood up by the registration table and simply took matters into his own hands, literally.[expand]

“That’s IT!!” he shouted. He grabbed the registration slips, lists, numbers and the cigar box and simply heaved them up in the air as high as he could to waft down in great fluttering pieces into the wind.

I moved toward that crowd of people. Then stopped.

certificate

“Everybody over to the starting line,” he shouted. I forget this fellow’s name, actually I have never forgotten this fellow’s name, but I am not going to tell you who he is even now.

And with that, everybody-both registered and unregistered-ran over to the starting line, which was located at the eastern entrance to the shopping center, where it spills out onto Snake Hollow Road, and made a big crowd facing north. They already knew the route. I had printed up 200 8-by-11-inch sheets of paper and folded them into four-page booklets with the map as one of the items on it, and so there it was.

And they were off. They whooped and hollered and ran north up toward Scuttlehole Road. Marty and I, quite a bit behind all these athletes and still in the parking lot, looked at one another. Marty had bought the Town Recreation Department Starter Pistol.

“Just aim it at my head,” I told him. Neither of us laughed.

Well, the more responsible members of my staff, mostly the women, were now walking around picking up the litter of the failed registration, and so that was being taken care of. And so, with that, I told Marty thank you very much and then with my girlfriend got into my car, and we went out onto Snake Hollow Road and soon caught up to the runners where that road turns into Mitchell Lane and heads for a mile or so up to Scuttlehole. They were beginning to spread out behind a leader in a long line of pumping runners in various colorful costumes, and they were kind of a blur as we went by and off to the open road ahead.

There were no signs on trees about where to turn for this race. There were no police officers at any of the turns. There were no water stops anywhere. Unaware of the protocol of running a race-this was the first public race ever held in the Hamptons-I had no idea of what I was doing, was just making it up as I went along and was now just so blissfully happy to have created this monstrosity, so much larger than what I had conceived, and so roared on.

It was my girlfriend who was driving, actually. I had my camera with me, a long-lens Canon, and I was leaning out the window taking pictures of the crowd thundering along behind.

But then, a dark thought came over me. I had discovered this big problem just a week before the race. And it might be that people could get killed.

“Pull way ahead,” I told my girlfriend. “Turn left at Hayground. We have got to get to the railroad crossing fast!”

Here is what I had done a month before the race. I had set out a route that would take runners past some of the most beautiful scenery we had. My idea at that time was-this was long before we were jammed with summer visitors and at the time we wanted MORE visitors-that if I brought the runners past the beautiful scenery on a Sunday morning right during Memorial Day Weekend, at the end of the race, they’d tell their friends and family and more people would come out to the Hamptons, meaning more $$ for the merchants and after that more advertising for us.

I had selected a route heading off north through the farm fields of Mitchell, left onto Scuttlehole past the three magnificent ponds and potato fields there, left onto Hayground past the dairy farm, across the railroad tracks and south to the Montauk Highway and then down into Sagaponack to the beautiful little bridge and the old Sagaponack General Store and two-room schoolhouse and the windmill. It would be just a dazzling display for those running in this race.

And crossing the railroad tracks would not be a problem. Everybody would go off at the starting line just a hundred yards south of the tracks when there was no train coming. They’d be in a big clump. What were there anyway, two trains a day? What could go wrong?

But then as race week approached I thought about it. Maybe I ought to check. And so it was, a week before the event that, just to be sure, I called the railroad to find out when those times would be at those crossings, at Snake Hollow going northbound and at Hayground going southbound, and what I found out was that the train would pass going eastbound full steam ahead at 9:14 a.m., just 14 minutes after the start! The runners would be crossing southbound for the second time, at Hayground, exactly when the train was coming through!

“Can you ask the train to wait?” I asked.

“No. It has to keep to a schedule.”

“What could you do?”

“We could have it slow way down and honk a lot.”

I actually wrote about the possibility of the train in the race program. The map noted the two crossings. “If you get to the second crossing at Hayground and the crossing gate comes down indicating the train is going to shortly pass through,” I wrote, “just jog in place.”

What else could I do?

We drove swiftly west down Scuttlehole and turned left onto Hayground heading south. The railroad crossing was about half a mile down. Two hundred yards beyond was the busy Montauk Highway with the police with their flashing lights ready to stop the traffic so the race could cross over and head down into Sagaponack. I saw that the railroad crossing gates were still up. I crossed my fingers that we could get across before they came down, and we did. Now we were down near the melee of the police cars and flashing lights. I tried to make a U-Turn to go back to the railroad gate, but an officer wouldn’t let me. He tried waving me on.

“Race is coming down Hayground,” he told me. “You can’t go back. Just come on through.” He was indicating the Montauk Highway.

“I’m running the race,” I said.

He nodded, motioned for me to park on the grass there, and in a flash we were out of the car and running up to the railroad gates. The leaders, three of them, were coming down Hayground toward us from far away. They were going to make it. No they weren’t.

CLANG, CLANG, CLANG, the gates sounded. The lights flashed. And there it was, the gates slowly lowered. Then I could hear the horn of the train, and then there it was, slowly just as they said it would be, coming, and coming and now about to come through. At this point the runners were now obediently running in place right on the other side of the gate. And then I couldn’t see them anymore as the train began crossing the road.

But now I couldn’t bear to face them when the gates would come back up. I had screwed up their rhythm and planning.

“Let’s run back to the highway,” I said to my girlfriend.

And so we turned around and ran off, with the train still coming slowly through just as that man had said it would, and so it was that we got back to the highway before the lead runners and I was able to take a picture of them as they came down.

I looked behind me. There at that crossing of the Montauk Highway, the police had completely stopped all the traffic on Route 27 in both directions. And then here came the leaders now, past us, the five of them (two stragglers had caught up at the gate), in a bunch and safely across the Montauk Highway with the police holding all the traffic up and down Newlight Lane and on into Sagaponack.

There was a big space after these first five. And then a few more runners came and then a few more. After three or four minutes, about 30 runners had come through, and you could see up the road that there was this endless line of runners all spread out all the way up almost to Scuttlehole.

I looked at the sergeant who was standing on the white line of the highway in charge of the shutdown, and motioned to what was up Hayground and he looked at me.

“I thought they were coming in a group all together,” he shouted at me frantically. “We can only do this a few more minutes.”

“Aaaargh,” I said.

And so, five minutes later, he did just that. Now-and I was standing there watching this in horror-it was just the cops slowing down all the motorists and the runners weaving between the cars coming through individually and in packs and I just prayed that nobody was going to get killed. I waited there watching this for only another five minutes. I couldn’t bear to watch it. And so we got in the car and left to go to the finish line. If somebody died, I just didn’t want to be there.

This was long before people sued you over the slightest thing.

Well, I will end this commentary here. I will tell you that the race was won by Marcel Phillipe, who was a member of the French Olympic track team. He commented to me as he crossed the finish line in just over 30 minutes flat, that he could not possibly have run that fast.

“Your course is too short,” he said. “It’s not 10k.”

“I drove it and measured it on my car speedometer,” I told him. “That was 10K.” He looked at me blankly.

“You need professional people,” he said.

Other people complained to me about other things, the lack of water stops, the train, blah blah blah, and I thought what a bunch of wimps. But then a whole lot of other people congratulated me and told me what a wonderful thing this was and I should just concentrate on fixing it for next year.

So that’s the story of the first Dan’s Potatohampton Minithon Race ever, back in the day, when the New York Marathon was in its infancy and us pioneers were not yet deified for what we did to start the running race industry-though I do bow down to the Boston Marathon, of course, which had been going on a long time by then.

Since then, we’ve run the race more or less smoothly. It’s no longer a 10k. It’s a 5k. In the past, we’ve had potato farmers show up at the finish line and hand out sacks of potatoes to the participants. We’ve had a psychiatrist on duty at the Sagg Bridge, which on the day of our race was in a weakened state about to be repaired and closed to car traffic and it was the psychiatrist’s job to see to it that the participants tiptoed across. (The psychiatrist came from a research division of Stony Brook Hospital, which was the beneficiary that year.) That went well. There was the time people came in costume and ran as, for example, a couple of French-fried potatoes.

And there was the time when we ran it in 100-degree heat and the leader of the race collapsed just a quarter mile before the finish line. (He lived.) And there was the time when the entire community was flooded with torrential rains and although on rain day it was sunny we had to cancel because the route was in some places something you would have to wade waist deep through.

It’s all been great fun. See you at 8:30 a.m. on the morning of June 4, in the little two-acre Militia Park on Ocean Road in Bridgehampton, just 50yards south of the Montauk Highway on the west side, where Almond Restaurant has just re-opened. One lucky runner who pre-registers will get a chance to win a $500 bike donated by Twin Forks Bicycles of Riverhead, which will be raffled off on race day.

We don’t cross the tracks anymore. Good idea that decision, too.[/expand]

 

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