LENOX — The Josh Billings RunAground is a fixture in the Berkshire County community. In its 40 years of operations, thousands of competitors have participated in the triathlon, fostering lifelong friendships and memories. For one group of athletes, they've been part of The Josh since the beginning and their involvement with the races now spans generations.
Bill Farrell, Steve Blazejewski, Paul Dyka and Mark Sisson won the first ever Josh in 1977 as the Berkshire Outfitters team. The Berkshire Outfitters earned three more first-place finishes in 1978 and '79, and again in 1982. They did not place outside of the top five in the first 10 years of the race. The original team members have since dispersed to different teams and other parts of the country, but Farrell and Blazejewski crossed paths in their respective canoes on Sunday.
Farrell, now a member of the Retro Rockets, did not take it easy on his old teammate as they jostled for position in the water.
"I looked over and I thought 'No, no, no, he's coming,'" he said. "I looked at Jeff [Neumann] and I said, 'We can't let him [pass us].' We tagged him, we went sideways with him, we pushed him out on a buoy, we did everything we could.
"About a second was the difference. He just edged by us. A little competitive blood, but it is really fun to have him and his son [Mike] come up from behind."
The elder Blazejewski was always the ace in the canoe, dating back to his days with the original Berkshire Outfitters team. Farrell started competing as a cyclist but transitioned to the canoe, as Blazejewski helped set him up with his first canoe from his Berkshire Outfitters store in Adams years back.
Canoeing has always been a huge part of the outdoor equipment sellers' life, and Sunday's race brought things full circle for the family. Steve, sons Mike and Sam, and his daughter Hannah competed together as the Blazejewski Family Tree for the first time. Hannah crossed the finish line in 3 hours, 23 minutes and 18 seconds as the team's runner. Ironically, the first time Hannah reached the finish line at the Josh was as an infant in the arms of her father as he celebrated his fourth first-place finish.
"As a family we canoe together all the time. It's a special part of our lives, so to do this as a family is fun and cool," Hannah said.
After the race, Farrell stood with a long wooden paddle, the trophy they received for winning The Josh in '78. He's accumulated trophies throughout his life, but he said the trophies from The Josh remain dear to him. He added that it's The Josh's longevity that makes him most proud when looking back on his time competing.
"Things don't last 40 years now," he said. "Half of the people here weren't born for the first one. It's amazing to have it perpetuate. The ambulances, the services, the volunteers, all of the stuff that has to go into putting this on. And somebody like Patty Spector continues to put this on with passion and she participates in it. That's important."
Years after the original Berkshire Outfitters team competed, both Blazejewski and Farrell said people still ask them about the early days of the race. After competing, taking years off and returning to the race, Blazejewski said it's always fun to return to The Josh.
"It develops a sense of place in the Berkshires," he said. "You see so many familiar faces. These faces you've known maybe as a customer 20 years ago and competed against them 30 years ago. But you come here to The Josh and you get to say hello. You get to talk about your family and how they're doing, and talk about their families and how they're doing. ... It's really a lot of fun."
Even when looking back on past races with fondness, Farrell said it's important to keep coming back to celebrate what they're continuing to do.
"Although we're not elite anymore, we still have the age groups to compete in," he said. "To me it's meaningful to come back here, not so much to relive the memories, but as a celebration. I'm 67 and I'm still in some ways in the game, and I feel good about it."
Contact Akeem Glaspie at 413-496-6252