They call themselves the Selden Hills Warriors.
If you ask me, the word “warrior” gets thrown around a little too casually these days. This isn’t Sparta. We don’t wear armor or battle with swords. These are mostly corporate folks, after all, running in their spare time. Athletes, certainly. But warriors? Let’s just say I had my doubts, right up until I pulled into the parking lot that now houses a brand new Aldi’s on Middle Country Road, where runners crowded around a light pole marked with a Selden Hills sticker, their starting point for the most treacherous running course on Long Island.
Behind my sticker-less minivan, athletes decked out in matching red gear stretched their limber bodies, readying themselves to tackle the nefarious “Hills of the Seven Sisters,” the steep mounds that mark the tough terrain of this 10k course, known to these runners as “The Seven Beasts.”
“These are serious runners,” I texted my friend Mike “Chicken” Butitta, a runner whose boundless energy and enthusiasm for every single thing in the world, especially these hills, piqued my curiosity back when my running sneakers were safely in my closet, collecting dust. “I’m not getting out of my car. Let’s go to IHOP instead.”
Chicken has been a Hillbilly (as they call themselves) since October 2013. At first, he ran to take off excess weight and to get in better shape. He runs local races with his wife (and my friend) Kelli, setting achievable goals and then smashing them. But something about the Hills calls to him. Later I found out what.
Alas, that Sunday morning, Chicken didn’t have his phone with him, and would not receive my text until long after I’d finished the 6.2 mile run and was icing my sore knees on my couch at home. That turned out to be a good thing, because as delicious as Nutella pancakes are, had I turned away from the Selden Hills running group that morning, I would have missed out on a life-changing experience with some of the most incredible people living right here on Long Island.
“I love all the inspirational stories that people on the Hills have and I love that so many are just nice,” he texted me later when he had his phone. “Some of the best people I’ve met anywhere. They are so supportive at races or anywhere you run into a fellow Hillbilly.”
Lou LaFleur, director and organizer of the Selden Hills Warriors, doesn’t have a long history of running. In fact, it wasn’t until 1999 when he was 43 years old and saw a sign for the Shelter Island 5k hanging in the post office where he worked as a federal agent that he decided to try it out. It was a tough race, but he was hooked. He currently competes in approximately 50 races per year and serves on the board of directors for the Greater Long Island Running Club (GLIRC).
By 2010, LaFleur was looking to increase his times with varied training: track work, some tempo runs, long runs. He’d read in Runner’s World that running on hills provides a complete training. The only problem? We live on a flat island.
Or do we?
The “Hills of the Seven Sisters” are located in a residential area in Selden and Farmingville, along the Ronkonkoma Moraine, just west of Bald Hill. Created by glaciers 20,000 years ago, they decorate the landscape on the mountain-named streets of Berkshire and Adirondack. The highest of them reaches a mighty 334 feet in elevation–a stunning and intimidating sight, especially for a newbie runner.
LaFleur’s group is not the first to tackle the hills on foot. Looking for a hilly run to complete his training, LaFleur noticed a small write-up about the Selden Hills in the back of the GLIRC magazine, Footnotes. Mike Polansky, GLIRC president, was about to pull the listing because no one ran the course anymore. LaFleur called the phone number listed and reached Richie Hollmann, an 85-year-old retired Grumman worker who used to run the Hills regularly back in the 1980s. He asked Hollmann if he would email him the map of the 10k course.
Hollmann laughed: He doesn’t email. Instead, he invited LaFleur to his house in Ronkonkoma, where he provided a rudimentary map of the route he and his fellow Grumman workers would take every Wednesday afternoon at 4:30, before ending up at a local pizzeria. LaFleur was ready to follow in his footsteps.
On June 30, 2010, LaFleur drove to the course with his wife Nancy.
“You’re not going to do this right?” she implored him.
But that Wednesday at 4 o’clock, LaFleur set out with his running partner Maryann Harkins. It was a hot and humid afternoon, but they finished it. That year they ran the Hills together “maybe a dozen, two dozen” times, according to LaFleur. Then they got a call from a woman named Joann Styles, who saw the revised listing in Footnotes and wanted to join them. A handful of others came along in February 2011, including Rick Secor, who achieved Selden Hills legendary status by running 409 miles on the Hills in one month, after recovering from an injury so severe that his foot nearly “fell off.”
After a year or so, LaFleur began to spread the word to runners he met at local races about this amazing run he’d rediscovered. One such runner was KC Brett.
“Why don’t you come down?” LaFleur badgered him repeatedly. “You live over there.”
Brett lives in Port Jefferson Station. He’d been active on his high school track team, but like LaFleur, hadn’t laced up his running shoes in almost 30 years until the running bug bit him later in life after he’d run a 5k race with his daughter.
LaFleur accumulated a core of approximately 15 people who ran the Hills every Wednesday at 4:30. At some point in 2011 or 2012, they came up with the idea of putting together an exclusive Hillbilly-only Facebook page. From there, the group started growing exponentially. Now there are more than 900 members.
And then they made shirts.
“It started off as a joke really,” Brett says. “Hey, we run together; let’s get shirts! Let’s do this.”
Across the back, the red singlets read: “It’s just a hill. Get over it,” with an elevation chart marking the Seven Sisters. You will see them at every major race on Long Island (and in marathons across the country). Many times, they dot the podiums, collecting medals.
The Warrior Difference
Long Island has tons of enclaves where athletes flourish. Running clubs abound, as well as any other club you can imagine. If you have an interest or a hobby here, chances are there are throngs of people who share it. But something about the self-proclaimed “Selden Hills Warriors” sets them apart, a combined set of attributes that has created a comradery that goes far beyond that of a typical running club.
Recently KC Brett and Lou LaFleur sat down for an interview at Roast Coffee in Patchogue, two lean runners donning their ubiquitous red shirts and speaking with an enthusiasm and an ease that reflected their passion, not just for their sport, but for the group itself.
Brett, one of Selden Hills’ premier runners (clocking 793.6 miles on the Hills so far this year), explained how it works.
“The dues are very simple: you run the course once, you’re in,” he says. “We don’t ask anything else from anyone. No membership fees.”
“In” means that you’ve earned a coveted Selden Hills Warrior sticker for your car and will be admitted into their closed Facebook group, which you cannot join until you’ve completed the course. Facebook is where you will find Warrior of the Week posts, as well as Warrior of the Month—the runner who racks up the most miles on the Hills for the month—and then, of course, Warrior of the Year.
LaFleur chooses the Warrior of the Week, who is then instructed to post something each day of the week. It is kicked off with an introductory “Saturday Spotlight,” where runners reveal their running history, some personal details, and how they came to the Hills. Some spotlights are more personal than others, revealing trials against cancer or injury, struggles with bulimia, or abuse. Others talk about a desire to get back in shape or to rediscover a lost athleticism, to keep up with their children, or to reclaim their bodies after pregnancy. The rest of the posts, such as Memory Mondays, Wonder Wednesdays, and Fun Fact Fridays run the gamut from light-hearted and funny to celebratory, proud, and often, profound. And they all foster a unique sense of intimacy and support within the more than 900-member group.
Another characteristic that sets the Selden Hills Warriors apart is that nobody gets left behind. I completed that entire 10k course with Chicken patiently keeping pace at my side the entire way because he never got my text about going to IHOP instead and just showed up to encourage me along. I clocked in at an hour and 20 minutes, long after most of the Hills regulars had finished. Yet, as I turned the corner into the parking lot, there they were to wave me in, to applaud my accomplishment, and to take my picture. They have been known to drive the course backwards, looking for struggling or injured runners. They will not leave until every last runner is accounted for.
“That’s a trademark of us,” says LaFleur. “We don’t leave anyone behind.”
A warrior’s code, indeed.
The third difference is that although the Selden Hills Warriors are comprised of some of the most talented runners on Long Island, no one is turned away.
“What people love about this group, and what makes it so special, is that everybody is there to support one another,” says Brett. “If you’re there to walk. If you run slow. If you’re there for your health. We’re there to support everybody.”
“There are tri-athletes in the group,” LaFleur explains. “There are walkers in the group. KC’s wife Mary started a walking group. We’re an inclusive group. We don’t exclude anyone based on pace or anything. You want to come down and join us? Just be respectful.”
Respect is something that marks the members of this group. It’s important that they respect the neighborhood and participate in cleanups along the course, clearing brush and picking up trash.
They even have their own language:
Hillbilly: a Selden Hills runner
Slaughterhouse: 15k course on the Hills
Vampire: early morning runners
Turtles: slow-paced runners
Meatgrinder: 20k course on the Hills
Scream Machine: 25k Course on the Hills (or as Nancy Walker Anderson calls it, “pure hell.”)
So, one day you might see a message like this pop up on the super-secret Facebook page: “Anyone up for a slaughterhouse for Vampire Wednesday?” Which means 15k at 5 a.m. A few weeks ago, I never could have imagined there were people who existed, let alone who live on the same fair isle as me, who would respond to such an idea in the affirmative.
Oh, but there are. Lots of them.
Beyond the Hills
If you attend any Long Island race, from 5ks to the Suffolk County Marathon, you will see the iconic red shirts amply represented. You can find Selden Hills Warriors at Bayport High School most Thursdays training on the track. Together, they compete in events such as Rob’s Run, a cross country trail race in Syosset every November. They do an annual Hills race called “Run for the Hill of it!” replete with awards by age group. You will find them on the Hills for their New Year’s Eve run.
The Selden Hills Warriors just celebrated their second Family Fun Day, where children were encouraged to participate in shorter runs. They started birthday runs, where the group dons birthday hats and sashes and runs the course in celebration of those whose birthdays fall within the month. Afterwards, LaFleur sets up a table with bagels and donuts—and bananas, traditional post-run food for the health-conscious.
Select Warriors also play beach volleyball together. Many gather in Patchogue to share beers and swap stories. They follow local bands, such as Tradewinds, which features Hills runner Jeanette Velsmid. They take trips to the wineries. They celebrate the Hills, their accomplishments, their friendship and the season at their annual holiday party, where many spouses finally meet the “Family.”
“People want this,” LaFleur says, lifting his cup of coffee at Roast. “They want to be a part of something. They want to belong to something.”
Friendliness is something that characterizes runners. Especially these runners.
“We leave our stress, our problems, out anxiety on the road,” Brett says. “So we’re pretty even-tempered people.”
The Finish Line
There are some personal revelations, inside jokes, good-natured teasing, and a ton of encouragement on the private Facebook group page. You should check it out. But, like that eponymous red sticker, you’ve got to earn it, first.
The sticker will brand you a Selden Hills Warrior. I now have one myself—having run the Hills four times that first month. As for the word “warrior,” I get it now. It is a battle. It is a war. But the demons we fight are ourselves, our slowest times, our fears, our lifelong inferiorities. The Vampires fight them in the moonlight; the rest of the Hillbillies do battle in the daytime. But every time they lace up, they face them again. The Hills become their own metaphors. An obstacle to climb. A demon. A challenge. An illness. A failed relationship.
All uphill battles, conquered together.
Main Art: Selden Hills Warriors celebrate one of the many times they’ve conquered the harrowing “Hills of the Seven Sisters” aka ” The Seven Beasts.” (Photo: Selden Hills Warriors super-secret Facebook profile page)