Every racecourse has its own “Heartbreak Hill,” that particularly difficult stretch of the route meant to test limits, push endurance, and demand full strength and concentration both mental and physical.
Rarely, though, does an entire course put a runner in that position. UConn’s Bonemill Loop is one of them.
“Bonemill is a test in some way,” says coach Rich Miller, UConn’s associate director of cross country and track and field. “You can always mark and measure your physical condition based on how well you run that run. Were you able to manage it and run it the way you wanted? Or did it get you, did it control you?”
Bonemill, which starts at the Greer Field House and goes out to North Eagleville Road, onto Bonemill Road, then turns onto Birch Road and Hunting Lodge Road, where it leaves pavement to take the Celeron Trail to Discovery Drive and back to campus, has become a legacy run for generations of men’s track team members.
Even before Miller ’95 (CAHNR) came to UConn in 1991, the team used that run as a benchmark, he says. Difficult enough with an up and down rollercoaster of hills and different surfaces of asphalt, stone, and path, Bonemill has become a unifier for – if not a way to compare – members from long ago and today.
For Kyle Milliken ’02 (CLAS), Bonemill was a defining challenge, Miller says. He ran it as a member of the men’s track team and as training before entering the military to become a Navy SEAL.
“I heard stories from his teammates on the SEAL team that he would talk about how Bonemill was very special to him,” Miller says of Milliken, who walked onto the track team in 1998. “Nobody worked harder than Kyle. No obstacle would stop him from trying to be the best he could be or achieve a goal he had set in front of him.”
As a 400- and 800-meter runner – a quarter and a half-mile – Milliken trained to be a long sprinter, yet he, like everyone on the team, still faced the 5-mile Bonemill.
When Milliken was killed in action in Somalia in 2017, UConn Athletics, Veterans Affairs, and Recreation began yet another tradition centered on Bonemill. The Kyle Milliken Memorial Run, held annually around Veterans Day, brought runners through the loop to honor its namesake.
This year, that run has expanded as part of the Husky Run & Ruck: Salute to Service, with the organizational might of the Hartford Marathon Foundation (HMF) to bolster the event to include 10K, 5K, and one-mile runs, along with a host of fellowship activities.
Through the Road Dogs, a race is born
This year marks the 10th anniversary of UConn’s Road Dogs running group, formed in 2013 through Recreation to challenge students to do something new by training for a long-distance race, says UConn Recreation Associate Director of Programming Michael Dalfonso ’00 (CAHNR), ’02 MA.
Every Saturday morning, Road Dogs – students, faculty, staff, alums, and community members, some who were athletes in high school or college, others who picked up running in adulthood, many who never laced up a pair of sneakers – meet on campus to run in a pack, teammates at heart.
They push each other, cheer for each other, and commiserate with each other.
In week 1, the running route is short, a mile or two, Dalfonso explains, and each week, it gets a little longer, incrementally increasing by a half mile to a mile. By week 10, the full group can run a healthy distance.
For many years, he says, the culminating event was the HMF Middletown Half Marathon, which is held in the spring and has now become a 10K/5K event. Many Road Dogs would run the race, and those who opted out often volunteered to run water stations, staff the finish line, hold a mile marker sign, or cheer from the crowd, knowing the importance of support. Some 100 people from UConn would participate on race day.
This year, though, the group flipped its schedule, starting off in the fall during WOW weekend and trading the 13.1-mile training schedule for one that accomplishes 6.2 miles – the 10K distance in the Husky Run & Ruck and the Bonemill Loop.
“Bonemill is difficult,” Dalfonso, himself a seasoned runner, says. “It’s a fitting way to honor our military veterans and lends itself well to the spirit of the day.”
Recreation has always played a part in the Kyle Milliken run and continues to do so with the Husky Run & Ruck, he notes, partnering with Veterans Affairs and Athletics on organization and execution. But growing it to attract runners from around the state and beyond would require the know-how of an organization like HMF.
With a relationship developed through the Road Dogs at the Middletown race, asking and getting a yes wasn’t hard.
“We have a great opportunity to make this a premiere Veterans Day event, something special that honors Kyle Milliken and highlights the Bonemill course,” Dalfonso says. “We also wanted to add a little spin and challenge folks to take their run to the next level.”
Rucking: ‘A basic combat load’
Dalfonso and Recreation Director Jay Frain ran the HMF Eversource Hartford Half Marathon last month wearing 10-pound vests to weigh them down, something the military calls rucking. Their goal was two-fold: first, to actually do it, and second to advertise the ruck part of Husky Run & Ruck.
“People in the military, especially in the Army and Marine Corps, have ruck marches incorporated into a lot of their training,” says Alyssa Kelleher, director of UConn’s Veterans Affairs and Military Programs. “Military rucks are definitely a bit heavier than athletic rucks. In the Army, it’s usually a percentage of your body weight or a minimum of 30 to 35 pounds.”
Military members ruck in uniform – most times BDUs, or battle dress uniforms, camouflage fatigues consisting of a button-down jacket and pants, along with boots – whereas civilians wear sneakers and athletic clothing, probably something that’s soft, moisture wicking, and stretchy.
Military members also walk at a brisk pace or march, while civilians might run.
“Rucks are designed to make sure you can carry what would be considered a basic combat load for whatever you’re training for,” Kelleher says. “If someone is training for Ranger School, it’s going to be heavier than 30 or 35 pounds because you want to simulate the load you would be carrying into a real-world situation and make sure you can do that under different conditions.”
A Navy SEAL might carry 80 to 100 pounds depending on the training or mission, according to various websites.
During the Husky Run & Ruck, the ruck part is optional, organizers say, and the 10-pound load is on the honor system. It’s also the first time HMF has offered a ruck division, although sometimes race participants at any event might wear a uniform or carry a load, like a firefighter running in full gear.
Kelleher says that by holding the run Sunday, Nov. 12 – the day after Veterans Day and two days after UConn holds its annual Veterans Day ceremony on campus – the whole event becomes that much more special for the military members, families, and veterans who will participate.
“It’s important to our office and to our community that we continue to remember Kyle as an alum who made the ultimate sacrifice in Somalia,” she adds. “We need to keep his memory alive for future generations of military students.”
It’s also an opportunity for UConn to showcase how it supports its military students, Kelleher says, as the event is expected to draw hundreds of people not just from UConn, but also the area community, the running community, and the statewide military community.
The Connecticut Army National Guard is expected to land a Blackhawk on the Founders Green near the Ultimate Sacrifice Memorial, by which all race participants will run, and the UConn Fire Department is expected to raise a U.S. flag on a ladder truck along a common part of all the race routes.
Running boosts mind, body, and mood
“We expect there will be between 500 and 800 participants,” HMF President Josh Miller ’10 (CAHNR) says. “With the 10K and 5K runs, along with the one-mile walk and the opportunity to register to do the races virtually, we’ve designed this event so everyone will be encouraged to take part in some way.”
Dalfonso says exercise in general is good for the body not only because it builds muscle and works the cardiovascular system, but also because it benefits the mind by helping with focus and managing stress.
Being outside in nature also improves mood, he says, and exercising in a group, socializing before, after, and along the way, builds community and relationships, which is also good for the body.
“At Rec, we’re always trying to push students to move. Our motto this year is, Move, Play, Achieve. So, get moving, do something that’s fun, work toward a goal, work toward something new,” Dalfonso says. “Running does that. There’s always a distance that’s right for you. If you’ve never run before, try a mile. It’s not about competing and winning. It’s about achieving your personal best.”
And before long, a new runner will have accomplished the heartbreak hill of Dog Lane or Horsebarn Hill, maybe even Bonemill, a run those in pique condition – Division 1 track athletes and Navy SEALs – use to test themselves.
“To tell the Kyle Milliken story, in some ways, is to lean into life’s challenges and running challenges. In designing this course, we didn’t want to shy away from that,” HMF’s Miller says.
Husky Run & Ruck: Salute to Service will be held Sunday, Nov. 12. Packet pickup starts at 7 a.m. and races begin at 8:30 a.m. To register, visit the Hartford Marathon Foundation’s website.
UConn’s annual Veterans Day ceremony will be held Friday, Nov. 10, at 11 a.m. at the Ultimate Sacrifice Memorial on Founders Green, across from the Wilbur Cross Building. In the case of inclement weather, it will move to the Wilbur Cross North Reading Room.