“King of the Roads”
Bob Hillgrove was one of the great legends in road racing from the
1960s-1970s in Maine. Hillgrove ran over 700 races and won about 490,
making him one of the most prolific road race winners in recorded
state history. Hillgrove was known among his peers as "King of
the Roads of the 1960s," although he actually ran his fastest
times during the late 1970s. At one point in his career, he won 49
straight road races. It is doubtful that any male will ever equal
his 8 wins in the Portland Boys Club 5-miler or 7 wins in the Bangor
Labor Day 5-miler, his favorite race.
Born on February 18, 1945, Hillgrove got interested in running during
grade school when he found he could out sprint other kids in school.
In the summer of 1957, his father organized a 1.5 mile road race for
the Boy Scouts. Hillgrove won it. During high school, he excelled
in track and cross country at Rockland High School. He won the KVAC
Cross Country Championships at Hinckley in his junior and senior years,
and he placed second one year and fourth another year in the state
meet. He won the state championship 2-mile track championships in
1962 and 1963, setting a record in 1962.
Don Sanborn, who ran against Hillgrove as Thomaston's Number Two cross
country runner, remembers: "When we raced against him in his
freshman year, he dropped out of that one, but when he came into his
sophomore year he just started taking right off. He liked to go fast
in high school. He had a lot of speed so it didn't bother him. In
his junior year, that's when Bob really started getting fast. He was
setting records all over.”
That spring in track, Hillgrove set a state record of 10:05 in the
2-mile. It was also the year when Hillgrove beat Dave Farley to win
his first Bangor Labor Day Race, and he also won a cross-country meet
against UMaine freshmen. Hillgrove ran in the New England's in his
junior and senior years, placing 18th as a junior and finishing just
behind Maine standout Fred Judkins. “I know he ran well,”
said Sanborn. "I know they had some fast boys that year and it
was also run in real wet conditions; he wasn't an especially good
mud runner." The biggest change from Hillgrove junior and senior
years was that the competition started to get better with runners
like Sam Burgess, Paul Petre, and Joe Dahl.
Hillgrove's first road race was the 1962 Portland Boys Club 5-miler,
the state’s oldest continuous road race, which began in the
early 1930s and is also regarded as one of the country’s oldest
continuous races. He won in 1962, when he was only 17 years old. Over
the years he won the Portland 5-miler 8 times, the most of any runner
in history. After his win in 1962, he won six straight times from
1964 through 1969. His last win was in 1974 when he was 29. He placed
third in 1976.
Hillgrove had great leg speed; he said that he purposely developed
a short, efficient stride – accompanied by a low arm carriage
– that appeared to be almost a shuffle. Fred Judkins and Deke
Talbot were two others to run a similar technique. Sanborn, with more
than 40 years of experience running, said: "Bob had a very efficient
stride. It was shorter. Your style is your style and you develop it
as a result of training. As you get more efficient your body is going
to go to its best form, whatever it is." Sanborn said that because
Hillgrove had such good leg speed, "he didn't need to lengthen
his stride too much." Sanborn noted that Hillgrove's brother
once timed Bob in the quarter mile in 53.6 seconds. He also said Hillgrove
was once timed in 10.4 seconds for 100 yards. “That 100 speed
is what made him so tough to deal with…. If he could stay in
it, he could be right at the limit of how fast he was, but he always
had that cake if he was in shape. He won so many races that way,"
Hillgrove was very successful on both the roads and on the track.
He won AAU titles in the mile, 3-mile, and 6-mile. His career bests
spanned from: 4:18 in the mile (1977), to 30:26 for the 10K (1977),
to 2:29:21 in the marathon in 1991 at age 46. For many of his years
of running, especially in the 1960s, he was virtually unbeatable on
the roads, setting course records wherever he went. But Hillgrove
pointed out that in the 1960s he could win races on 45 miles a week;
in the ‘70s it took between 90 and 140 miles a week of training,
much of it a very quick pace, to win the same races he'd won a decade
before. Such was the case in 1977 when he trained no less than 90
miles a week and sometimes up to 140. That year, when he was chosen
Maine Runner of the Year, he was unbeatable at just about any distance,
including a 16-mile race in Brewer, the Hampden 8.5 miler, and, again,
at the Bangor Labor Day 5-miler. "I was really drawn out that
year -- eat, sleep, run," said Hillgrove in 1979 interview. His
favorite training run was 9 or 10 miles at a killer pace.
He was a rare individual in that, as good as he was, he never got
caught up in marathoning, and only took a stab at it late in his running
career at age 46. He still believes that too many runners get into
the marathon long before they build up proper strength from years
of hard training.
As the years passed, Hillgrove continued his relentless quest for
fast performances as a master's runner. He moved to Colorado in 1984,
and sometimes trained with some of the best runners in the world,
among them Steve Cram and marathon great Rob de Castella. At age 48,
he won the Old-Fashioned Days 3-Miler on the track in Chicago in 14:57.2.
He was named Masters Runner of the Year in Colorado in 1992 and moved
back to Maine in 1995.