Fred Bucchieri, a loyal heartbeat of Meriden summer

MERIDEN — He is there at the beginning and he is there at the end.

Beyond the end, actually, because after every race there is cool-down and camaraderie.

He measures the finishing times with a stopwatch in one hand and, with the other, marks the results on a sheet affixed to a clipboard. Later, at home, he’ll organize them into the race archives.

Ask Meriden Fun Run race director Fred Bucchieri for course records and closest races, dates and names, and chances are he can recall them off the top of his head.

But, just to be sure, Fred says, “I’ll have to take a look at my records.”

It’s not like you have to wait for those. They’re in a collated volume packed neatly with the supplies Bucchieri totes to every race in a clear plastic storage case. Every result from every Meriden Fun Run dating back to 2003, when Bucchieri succeeded Bob Parker as race director.

No one who attends the Fun Run can recall Bucchieri ever missing a race. That’s because he hasn’t. Since 2003, Bucchieri has been at Platt High School every Wednesday night in the summer to run the city’s annual nine-week running series.

Fred is probably too modest to do the math on this, so we will: 19 years equals 171 races. We’re seven races into 2022. That’s 178. By August 17, the season finale, it will be 180.

And counting.

Who would dispute Fred Bucchieri is the Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripken of race directors?

And who would dispute Fred Bucchieri, who has also done extensive volunteer work with the old Jack Barry Little League, is one of those community volunteers who makes a community go?

Not the Meriden Parks and Recreation Department.

“Fred is the Fun Run program,” Parks and Rec Director Chris Bourdon said. “Without him, most likely, there wouldn’t even be a program.”

The runners know, too.

“He’s irreplaceable when it comes to doing this,” said Maloney cross country coach Derek Destefano, a Fun Run regular since his Platt undergrad days. “We’re very grateful as a community to have him do this. It helps our running community so much.”

Bucchieri first came to the Fun Run as a racer, back around the turn of the century when Parker was still director. Fred and his two oldest boys, Steven and Vincent, who were on the cross country team at Maloney at the time, would run together.

Fred and Gina, his wife of 36 years, have a third son, Gianni. The boys are all grown and Fred, now 68, is retired from a career as an engineering manager with several cable, phone and Internet firms.

Bucchieri still runs, just not at the Fun Run. He logs three miles a day for three straight days, then takes at least one rest day before running three straight days.

He moves crisply and efficiently, and talks that way, too. Nothing wasted. He’s trim and has that jaunty stride lifelong athletes seem to possess.

Green eyes look out behind spectacles. You could say Bucchieri is both student and athlete. While involved with Jack Barry Little League for some 20 years, umpiring and coaching the Senior League All-Star team that won three straight District 5 titles from 2008-2010 and the Big League All-Star Team that reached the Eastern Regionals in 2011, Bucchieri served as league historian and webmaster.

He did Meriden-based research for Jack Smiles’ 2008 book on Ed Walsh, the Hall of Fame spitballer from Pennsylvania who married a Silver City girl and lived here after he retired from baseball.

“A lot of the information I was able to collect from the articles that I researched through the history of the Jack Barry Little League,” Bucchieri said. “That was a fun exercise to do. I really enjoyed that.”

Bucchieri relates this on a recent Fun Run night at Platt High School. It quickly becomes apparent that pre-race is not a time for interviews Bucchieri greets every runner as they arrive at the track.

Bill Liebler ambles in. He’s one of a number of regulars.

“Hey, Fred.”

“Hi, Bill.”

“Just me, today.”

Does he usually have company?

“Yeah, usually his wife Felicia and his son Bill Junior, who actually did very well last week. Came in second place. They’re from Southington. Bill Junior’s on the Southington cross country team.”

Bucchieri’s efficiency and his familiarity with the runners underpins the success of the Fun Run. The event has not merely endured on Bucchieri’s watch, it’s grown. The series draws an average of 275-300 runners a summer, with an all-time high of 300-plus in 2020, when the onset of the pandemic made the Fun Run one of the few regular races around.

“To get the level of participation we get is a direct reflection on the effort and professionalism he puts into each and every race,” Bourdon said. “The runners can sense that. If this guy cares that much about the race, it’s worth showing up and trying my best.”

“You know, it’s a nice thing,” said Bucchieri. “It’s a couple hours out of my week. I enjoy doing it; I enjoy meeting people. The social aspect of it is always great. Always a great field, great runners and — hey, how you doing? Rich, right?

There’s another element to Bucchieri’s touch and that’s a great interplay with kids. Parents who show up for the three-mile Fun Run typically bring their children along for the ¾-mile kids race Bucchieri stages around the Platt sports fields once the adult race is over.

That’s how Mike Perkowski’s daughters Lauren and Amanda got their start in the sport. That was some time ago. Both went on to run cross country and track at Southington High School.

Amanda is about to finish up college. Lauren is living and working in Boston, and still running. She’s got her 5K time down to about 17:15.

“If you’ve never seen him with the kids, he’s a built-in coach, a father figure giving them the right information rather than letting them just pound themselves silly logging a lot of miles,” said Perkowski, who’s still coming over from Southington for Meriden Fun Runs on Wednesday nights. “He gives them the support. You get emotional thinking about it, actually.”

Each kid who runs gets a prize, by the way, some little toy or trinket. Bucchieri buys them.

“You get these over at the party story or Wal-Marts,” he says. “There’s an assortment of stuff — yo-yos, sunglasses, cars, hacky sacks.”

Bucchieri gets paid a $500 vendor’s stipend by Parks and Rec, though as Bourdon just said on Friday, “That’s something most likely we’ll be looking to increase next year; he’s worth a lot more than that.”

Bourdon still marvels at his good fortune when Bucchieri approached him about taking over as race director when Parker stepped down.

“A lot of good things that happen to you happen by dumb luck. This is one of those things. I didn’t go out and recruit him; I didn’t specifically target him. He kind of fell into our lap and, boy, we have been lucky he’s been willing to do it.”

Bucchieri is also a longstanding umpire. He’s been doing Little League, Senior League, travel teams, adult leagues and some high school games for about 20 years. Pre-COVID, he had a few years in a row in which he did 100 games.

This spring, he took a break.

“We’ll see,” Fred said. “Maybe next year, I’ll get back to it.”

While he hasn’t missed a Fun Run since 2003, Bucchieri does manage to get away in the summer.

“When I do, I always go around my Wednesdays. Thursdays to Tuesdays!”

Bucchieri has seen some great races in his time. The closest was last summer, when Liz Fengler edged Tristyn Barnes by one second to break the girls course record and become the first-ever female to finish first overall.

“It was one of the best absolutely,” Bucchieri said. “It’s hard to pick the best. In 2020, there were over 50 runners here (a week) and there were a lot of runners who were close. A couple of the men’s races I had…”

Fred consults his volume of all-time winners.

“This one here was only two seconds apart, 15:41 and 15:43. It’s always good to see good competition and runners coming in in packs, close together.”

Along with all those fantastic finishes, there are other Fun Run nights that won’t fade from memory.

“Coming here and running with my sons is always one of my most enjoyable times. We used to come together, the three of us,” Bucchieri said. “My wife did the timing and scoring for me and I was able to run with both of them. I thought that was very nice. I enjoyed those moments.”

And then there are the moments that continue to build Wednesday after Wednesday.

“I like seeing the big crowds. I like seeing the same people coming back every year, race after race. It builds that camaraderie.”

This past Wednesday, on a night as perfect for summer running as it gets — cloudless, no chance of rain, little humidity — Bucchieri gathers the assembled runners at 6:30 and leads them down the track to the starting line just outside the Platt baseball field.

He goes over the course layout, points out potential hazards.

“He does this every week. It doesn’t matter how many runners come out, he’s going to get you here to have a good time,” Destefano noted. “He’s just so good at it. He describes the course to everybody. It doesn’t matter if there are 50 new runners. He’ll do it 50 times.”

On this night, everybody knows the way: across the field, through the fence onto Oregon Road, down to Coe, down the Linear Trail to the second obelisk and back. Three miles on the nose. Fred laid it out.

“All right!” Bucchieri exclaims. “Everyone has a good run.”

“Thank you, Fred!”

“Runners set.” Bucchieri readies his stopwatch. Season 20, Race 7. Race 178.

“Go!”

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