Running: Cutchogue runners enjoy home-course advantage

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Shawn Fitzgerald of Cutchogue was the first to reach the finish line in 17 minutes 15.01 seconds.
KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Shawn Fitzgerald of Cutchogue was the first to reach the finish line in 17 minutes 15.01 seconds.


Now Cutchogue has a road race it can call its own.

And, fittingly enough, two Cutchogue residents can claim ownership of the male and female titles of the first Fleets Neck Property Owners Association 5K Run/Walk.

Cutchogue was the site of the inaugural race on Saturday morning, as well as the most common residence among the runners in the event, according to the race director, John Gardner. (Interestingly enough, Brooklyn was second, he said.)

If race organizers were looking for an event with a decidedly local flavor, mission accomplished. Eight of the top 17 finishers, male and female, were from Cutchogue, including the two winners, Shawn Fitzgerald and Melanie Pfennig.

Fitzgerald, 39, flew to the finish line in 17 minutes 15.01 seconds. His nearest challenger was his training partner and work colleague, Marty Viera of Baiting Hollow, with a time of 18:20.22.

“I put out my best effort, so it was a solid time, I feel, for me,” said Fitzgerald, who won the Mighty North Fork Sprint Triathlon last month in Southold.

Fitzgerald trains for triathlons along with Viera and knows what Viera can do, so he kept watching for him after taking the lead in the first mile.

“I looked back a few times and it didn’t seem like there would be too much, but I knew Marty was going to be coming on strong,” Fitzgerald said. “I knew I had to keep an eye out for him.”

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Melanie Pfennig of Cutchogue, the top female finisher, was on the heels of Rex Spielman of Cutchogue near the finish line. Spielman was eighth in the men's race.
KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Melanie Pfennig of Cutchogue, the top female finisher, was on the heels of Rex Spielman of Cutchogue near the finish line. Spielman was eighth in the men’s race.

At the same, Viera knows what Fitzgerald’s capable of doing on a race course. Afterward, he joked that his goal was to hold the lead for the first 15 seconds of the race before Fitzgerald moved in front.

“He’s just another level,” Viera said. “I knew he was coming today, and I was shooting for second.”

Mother Nature smiled down on the race, providing close to ideal weather conditions for the runners. Heat and humidity weren’t issues.

“It was beautiful,” Fitzgerald said. “This is like a September, October day almost. You can’t ask for better weather than this.”

The course itself is a relatively flat one with rolling hills that rest in the shade of tree-lined streets that roughly form the property owners association’s boundary, offering the occasional scenic view of Peconic Bay. The race started near Pequash Park and concluded in front of the park.

Viera, like everyone else, spent a good deal of the race chasing Fitzgerald.

“At one point I saw him in the distance and I knew he was at least a minute ahead, and he didn’t look like he was slowing down, but I felt good that I was actually in sight of him,” said Viera.

Events prompted Fitzgerald to move in front possibly earlier than he would have done otherwise. “Some of the younger kids were going out pretty fast, and I didn’t want to get too far [behind], so I just started picking it up a little bit,” he said. “And then once I got to them, I said, ‘Well, let’s see if I can keep this going.’ I just kind of maintained it for a while.”

All the way to the finish line.

A number of his neighbors soon joined him. Chris Berglin of Hampton Bays was third in 18:31.34. Brendan Browne of South Orange, N.J., (18:41.91), Matt Sirico of Cutchogue (19:08.56), Matt Heffernan of Cutchogue (19:37.59) and Ken Poliwoda of Southold (19:45.97) broke 20 minutes.

Rex Spielman of Cutchogue (20:01.66), Michael Frederick of New York City (20:13.75) and Graham Rainsby of Brooklyn (20:29.90) also cracked the top 10 male finishers.

“The thing that I love about this — the size of this — is that we knew half of the people who crossed the finish line,” said Gardner.

Familiarity helps. Fitzgerald does many of his training runs in the area.

Pfennig, 14, is familiar with these streets as well. A member of the Mattituck High School girls cross-country and track and field teams who will soon enter her freshman year, Pfennig was the first female to the line in 20:02.00. She used a burst of energy to take the lead over the last half-mile.

Pfennig said she has been training this summer to prepare for the upcoming cross-country season.

“You have to self-motivate yourself to do your best,” she said. “I was hoping to do good and get a start on the cross-country season so I can really bump up my game a little bit.”

Her cross-country teammate, Mia Vasile-Cozzo of Cutchogue, finished sixth in 23:22.30. Between the two Tuckers were Molly Bennett of East Quogue (20:17.49), Suzanne Heffernan of Cutchogue (20:50.50), Zoe Browne of Stevens Point, Wis., (21:01.71) and Indira Schwarting of Southold (22:55.05).

Heather Quinlan of Rocky Point (24:17.83) was seventh, with Tara Doyle of Port Chester, N.Y., (24:24.67) eighth, Sharon Zuhoski of Middle Island (24:59.50) ninth and Maeve McGilkey of Mattituck (25:00.18) 10th.

A week ago, 30 runners had registered for the race, but beautiful weather and ideal running conditions apparently boosted participation. Gardner said over 170 had registered, a turnout that organizers said was good for a first-year race. One hundred and forty-nine finishers were listed in the official results.

“It went great,” Gardner said. “Lessons learned, but we’ll get better and better.”

What Fitzgerald liked best about the event, however, had nothing to do with organization and everything to do with location. He said he appreciated “the fact that I can sleep in, roll out of bed late and be here on time.”

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