Army veteran Bill Tribou, one of Connecticut’s running legends, turns 100
By LORI RILEY | Hartford Courant | Published: December 18, 2020
HARTFORD, Conn. (Tribune News Service) — Even at age 90, Bill Tribou was still competitive.
On New Year’s Day in 2012, we were running in the Chilly Chili 5K, a road race in Orange that celebrates 90-year-old runners. Tribou was by far the fastest of the group.
Still, he was worried. He kept asking me to look behind us in case anyone in his age group was gaining on him during the race (he didn’t want to look because it would slow his momentum).
I rolled my eyes and dutifully glanced back. Of course, there wasn’t anybody in sight.
Wearing a pair of shorts and a T-shirt in 43-degree weather, Tribou won his age group handily, turning in a 37-minute, 31-second performance and beating 50 other runners of all ages (including the rest of the 90-year-olds) in the process.
Tribou, a longtime Granby resident, turns 100 on Friday. He is UConn’s oldest All-American; he and his longtime friend and teammate, the late Charley Robbins of Middletown, both earned the honor in cross country in 1941.
In 1995, he told The Courant, “I expect to be running until I cross the great finish line in the sky.”
He was 74 at the time, just coming off Achilles surgery. He had a hard time finding a doctor who would operate on somebody his age just so he could run, but he did and he went on to run another 20 years.
Tribou dominated his age group in his 70s, 80s and 90s. He still holds age group records at the Manchester Road Race (80-84, 85-89, 90-up). He won national Senior Games titles. He is a member of the New England 65-Plus Runners Club Hall of Fame. He was the USA Track & Field national runner of year for the 90-94 age group from 2012-2014.
He had to stop running about five years ago because of health issues, and he was sad. These days, he walks on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana, where he has been staying with his son Tony and his family during the pandemic.
“Yesterday he did 300 yards or so,” said Tony, who graduated from Simsbury High School in 1972, where he and his brother Bill III ran track and cross country, earlier in the week.
“I said, ‘How do you feel, Pop?’ He said, ‘Ah, that last part I got a little tired.’ I said, ‘Pop, most people your age, if their heels hit the floor in the morning, they’re happy. You’re doing pretty good.’”
He can’t hear too well, but I talked to him briefly this week and congratulated him on his upcoming milestone.
“Yeah, 100, 101, 102, something like that,” he said. “I know it’s coming up.”
Tony said his father was planning to see some of his family, individually, and spend part of the day watching UConn women’s basketball, one of his favorite things to do.
Bill was born Dec. 18, 1920, at the tail end of the first worldwide pandemic on a farm in Maine, where his family raised corn and potatoes (and now he hates potatoes). His family eventually moved to Wethersfield, where his father was a judge. Bill ran for the Wethersfield High track team, then went to UConn, where he would go on to run the mile in 4:14, which, at the time, was the 11th fastest time in the world. He was also part of the fastest mass finish in the mile (five runners under 4:15) in the world at the IC4As, the amateur track and field championships.
After college, Tribou joined the Army. Following World War II, he was stationed in Europe and ran in a race with Sydney Wooderson, one of the top milers in the world, and Arne Andersson, the world record holder, in front of 55,000 people at White City Stadium in London. Roger Bannister, who would go on to become the first man to break the 4-minute mile barrier, was 15 years old and watched from the stands. Tribou finished seventh of eight runners, but it was a thrill for him to be in the race.
Very few adults ran after college back then, so Tribou came home and went to work for Travelers. He started back running in the late 1960s, urged by his friend Robbins.
“In the ’60s, doctors told you, ‘Don’t exert yourself if you’re over 50. If you’re running in your 40s, you’re crazy. You’ll have a heart attack,’” Tribou recalled once. “There was nobody else running back then except kids in their 20s. In 1968, I won a trophy in Springfield for being the oldest runner in a race — I was 47. Back then, 47 was ancient.”
Tribou was the Hartford Track Club’s second president from 1972-74. He ran the club’s newsletter for many years and wrote a column called “Veterans on the Road.”
He was a natural storyteller and had dozens of stories from his years of road racing and running.
He once told a story of a 5-mile race in Farmington in the early \u203280s in which the leaders came upon an unmarked rotary in Unionville. Amby Burfoot, the leader, and about 30 others went the wrong way and took a 10-mile detour along the Farmington River to Collinsville.
Tribou went the right way and finished 11th, about 30 places better than he should have.
“Amby and John [Vitale] and the rest of the boys took off, all hell-bent for leather,” Tribou recalled in one of his columns. “We all finished and ate their food and got their prizes, then they showed up. They were pretty mad.”
Another time, he told of circumventing the long porta-potty lines before the start of the New Haven Road Race by finding a bathroom in a nearby church — except that when he was done, he discovered that the door lock had jammed and he was locked in.
He yelled and yelled and finally someone broke the door down and rescued him in time for him to sprint to the start of the 5K.
“He had to get the sexton of the church to break the lock on the door so he could get to the race on time,” said Bob Davidson of Canton, a longtime friend and fellow runner who is 91. “A few days later, someone called him up. ‘Are you the fellow that got caught in the bathroom just before the race?’ He says, ‘Yes.’”
The person went on to ask for a contribution to fix the door. Tribou said he send him $50.
“The guy said, ‘You’re a cheapskate, Bill,’” Davidson said, laughing. “It was one of his running buddies.”
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