“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,” Sanborn said.
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.