Sunday, August 13, 2006

Charlie “Doc” Robbins: 1921-2006, RIP

I first met Charlie Robbins on a chilly, fall afternoon in September, 1964, as Jeff Galloway and I were warming up for cross-country practice. A short, lithe figure came jogging across the practice football field toward us. Although he moved efficiently, like a well-honed runner, he was dressed more strangely than any I’d ever seen: barefoot, and wearing torn cotton khaki pants over a dark blue woolen Navy CPO jacket. Beneath the jacket: green hospital scrubs. This was “Doc,” as we all called him, one of the greatest U.S. road runners I’ve ever known, and definitely the most unique.

Robbins died last Thursday in Middletown CT, where he lived with his daughter Barrie. He was 85. There will be no replacing him.

A longtime psychiatrist at Connecticut Valley Hospital, Robbins was best known for his barefoot ways, and his 50 straight finishes in the Manchester CT Thanksgiving Day Road Race. The race probably owes its survival, and its current fields of 12,000+ runners, to the fact that Robbins, a local star from Manchester High, kept returning to the race through its lean post-WW II years. He won it in 1945 and 1946, and would eventually have run 57 consecutively except for the year, 1951, when he was virtually penniless in medical school in Cinncinati, and couldn’t afford the train fare home.

In his heyday, Robbins showed his speed throughout New York and New England. He was a regular on the road-racing circuit, regularly running 10 miles, 20K, and similar distances at just over 5 minutes per mile. He won a total of 11 national championships from 20K to the marathon, though the marathon was longer than his best distance. In many attempts at the Boston Marathon, Robbins’s best finish was his third place in 1944, when he ran 2:38:31.

While his other doctor friends played golf on their Wednesday afternoons off, Robbins always showed up for a running workout at Wesleyan University, high on a hill overlooking Middletown. Everyone who ran there, from Spike Paranya to me and Jeff, to Bill Rodgers and Dan Moynihan, to the hundreds since, looked forward to our regular visit from Doc. We would scan the horizon for his unmistakeable figure—all 5’ 7” and 115 pounds of it—and welcome him to “tag along” (his words) on our workouts. Afterwards, he’d hang and chat for a few minutes, easy going, all smiles. A neurotic guy like me would have dozens of questions: Am I doing this right? How long should I taper? Do you think I did too many 400s this week? He had a stock answer. “Don’t worry. It’ll all work out fine.” And it almost always did.

Aside from the countless runs, I have one other indelible Doc Robbins image in my head. During the winter, we ran indoors on an asphyxiating 10-lap cinder track in the “cage,” where the baseball and lacrosse teams also practiced. In a corner of the cage, a long, thick climbing rope dangled down from the girders high above. It got little use, as failure was almost guaranteed. I probably tried it once or twice, and managed about two hand-over-hand tugs upward before surrendering. But Doc could scoot to the top, no problem. I still don’t get that.

As he got older, Doc slowed down like the rest of us, only not as much. It seemed that every time he entered a new age-group at Manchester, he set an age-group course record. When he turned 80, he broke the record by 7 minutes, knowing full well that his friend Bill Tribou would run even faster the next year when he turned 80. Which Tribou did.

But Tribou cheated, after a manner. He actually trained for his races. Doc didn’t do that in his later years. He just lived actively, and let the races come. For many years he lived in a shack in the woods, and spent hours chopping wood for his wood stove, breaking rock for his gravel driveway. He rarely ran more than 2 miles at a time, and when he did, he always risked getting picked up by the State Police, which actually happened on a couple of occasions. The radio report must have sounded something like this: “Could you check the records for a guy who says his name is Charlie Robbins? I just picked him up while he was running on the side of the road in torn shorts and no shirt or shoes. We got a call from someone in town who said there was a crazy man on the loose.” That was Doc, and you didn’t have to go into a Connecticut criminal database for a positive ID. You could just ask any road runner in eastern Connecticut.

Doc didn’t wear shoes, because he found them unnecessary, like so many other modern conveniences. He loved the steamy summer races when the ashphalt turned soft and cushiony. Below 50 degrees, he might don a pair of old wool socks. In desperate times, when the temperature Thanksgiving morning in Manchester dipped below freezing, he’d show up in a pair of those rubbery aquasocks. He didn’t need anything more.

I last saw Doc after the 2001 Manchester race, his 50th in a row. He looked much the same as he had on our first meeting, in 1964. At the time, I remember thinking that he would almost surely outlive me just as he had out climbed me in the Wesleyan cage. He was a legend in his own time, and a legend we all cherished and wanted to see again.

[Statistical note: Doc’s verified 50 straight Manchester finishes isn’t the record for consective-year finishes in a road race. The remarkable Dipsea Demon, Jack Kirk, completed Dipsea 68 years in a row, a record which will be tough for anyone to beat. I never met Kirk, but his life, particularly the hermit-in-the-woods part, seems to have many parallels to Robbins’s. Makes me wish someone could have gotten these two together.]

We all have our limited number of days before we shuffle off this mortal coil, and Doc had no illusions about his time or place. A few years ago, he told a New York Times reporter: “I used to think a fair amount of brains were involved in living longer. Now I think it’s 99 percent luck, and 1 percent anything else.”

So, live simply, and enjoy today. It’s as good a life lesson as any of us will ever receive.

Top photo: Courtesy Kid's Running


At 6:50 PM, Blogger Lawrence said...

Great story for what sounds like a wonderful man. Thanks for sharing it.

At 7:04 PM, Blogger Garyn said...

He must have been a great help to better efforts.

At 12:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You always knew it was Thanksgiving when you ran into Doc with Barrie, both barefoot or close to it, before or after the race. Sometimes he would show up at the local Middletown races back in the day and man the awards ceremony afterwords; once he told me I had a chance at this running thing after the tough half marathon they used to put on when I was in high school. I always had to go train barefoot some afterwords, hoping I could get his feet one day, but usually ending up bloody.

Doc will be in all our thoughts when we line up in Manchester this year as always.

At 6:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Barrie and all Charlie's family hope his friends will come and share a good story. No moping!


Friends and family will gather to remember Charles A. “Doc” Robbins, Jr., M.D., who passed away on August 10, 2006. We will gather to share our memories and to heed Charlie’s last wishes regarding his arrangements to,” Be cheerful!” Please, join us on Monday, August 28, from 5:00 pm to 7:00 pm at Tommy’s Restaurant, 825 Saybrook Road, Middletown, CT 06457. Tel: 860.346.8686.

Philanthropic remembrance, in lieu of flowers, to honor C. A .Robbins, Jr. to:
Wesleyan University Track and Cross Country, 164 Mount Vernon Street, Middletown, CT 06459

At 10:23 PM, Blogger Lloyd said...

Thank you for remembering Doc. I'd never heard about him before this moment, but you gave me a good feel for his stature in the community. I imagine he's the role model type that I'd want for myself and our children.

Thanks for posting.


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