ELLSWORTH — One of Louie Luchini’s favorite moments in his running career, which has included two appearances at Olympic trials, illustrates why cross-country really is a team sport.
It was the NCAA Men’s Division I Cross-Country Championship meet in 2003, held in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Luchini was a senior on the Stanford team and not only did the Cardinal runners win the title, they did so by one of the largest margins of victory ever, finishing with 24 points.
“It was such a team race,” Luchini said. “Our top guy was this guy Ryan Hall, who went on to huge things. He could have won the race if he cared only about his race.” Instead, Hall finished second individually and also “set the exact pace we wanted” to help the team achieve their best possible collective performance.
“There’s way more strategy than people realize in running, to make the race work for your whole team,” he said. “Basically, every guy on our team was a state champion,” but everyone learned to “put the egos aside and do what’s best for the team. We had a team with over 30 guys of varying abilities, and I think it just made us stronger.”
The state senator and Ellsworth High School head coach was recently named to the 2020 class of the Maine Running Hall of Fame, though the formal induction banquet is being postponed until next year.
Luchini began running competitively in middle school, which is when he first crossed the radar of longtime former Ellsworth American sports editor Hugh Bowden.
“I already was following the high school running career of his brother Joey, who also was a superb runner,” Bowden said. “But the two of them were as different on a race course as night and day. Joey had considerably shorter legs and always reminded me of ‘the little engine that could’… and he did. But Louie’s legs were longer, and he ran with such grace that it almost seemed poetic.”
Luchini enjoyed getting to know Bowden, too. After high school meets, he said, it was sometimes a toss-up whether to go hug your coach or to go hug the sportswriter. “You just couldn’t wait to go talk to Hugh Bowden,” he said.
Jim Newett was in his first years as principal of Ellsworth Middle School when Luchini was a student there. He wasn’t officially a coach anymore, “but as a runner myself, I had a natural connection to the kids who ran cross-country and track,” he said.
And seeing their principal run his own races was an inspiration to the kids, Luchini said.
“We always wanted to be as tough as Jim Newett. He’s such a humble, nice guy, but man, he can dig down deep when he’s running,” Luchini said. “I wish I could run that hard.”
With the Ellsworth High School team that he now coaches, Luchini carries on many of the traditions from Andy Beardsley, who he was coached by and then joined as an assistant coach.
Beardsley would stress with his students, “You get out of it what you put into it; the harder you work and the smarter you work,” Luchini said. But also, “all my coaches have always kept it really fun.”
The Ellsworth cross-country team still does a mud run, getting super dirty and then running through town. Being in some of the team’s training spots in the woods, decorated with runners’ names including his own, is sometimes “like going back in time,” he said.
Luchini’s runner-up finish in the Foot Locker National Cross-Country Championship in December 1998, as a high school senior, is an all-time proud moment for the school and the community. The banner still hangs in the gym.
When Luchini signed with Stanford University, where he studied human biology, his one condition was that the team make at least one trip to a race in Maine. He wanted to run against his brother Joey again, and also in front of Maine fans.
So, the Stanford men competed in the Murray Keating Invitational at UMaine. Normally the team would swoop in before a race and leave directly afterward, Luchini said, but for this one they managed an extra day in Maine. He took the whole team to Acadia National Park to run on the carriage roads. And they enjoyed sweets from the former Larry’s Pastry (Larry’s owners Launa and Ron Picard also used to send him care packages to California).
After college, he hired a sports agent and signed as a pro just before the 2004 Olympic trials in Sacramento. It worked out that Frank Gagliano, who had coached at Georgetown and was the reason Georgetown was on Luchini’s short list when choosing a college and a college team, had just taken a pro coaching job in Palo Alto.
Gagliano, sometimes called “the Godfather of Track and Field,” is a legend, Luchini said. “He’s an amazing guy and still a close friend to this day.”
While on the pro contract with Nike, he competed in Olympic trials in 2004 and 2008. He battled injury in between, and that experience gave him insight he now uses to help the runners he coaches stay safe.
“Runners naturally want to push through everything,” he said. It can be hard to tell whether “something you’re feeling is an ache or something that’s gonna develop into an injury.
“I’m very injury-prone,” he continued. “When I do a lot of racing is when I get hurt.” So now, “I sit my athletes out a lot of races,” to help ensure they can get to championship season healthy.
“The great thing with running is that you really compete against yourself,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter where you finish in the race, you get to compete against yourself week in, week out.”
Luchini was elected to the Maine House of Representatives in 2010 and served there until 2018, when he was elected to the state Senate. He’s part of a line of local runner-legislators that included the late Bill “Flattop” Pinkham.
After his high school national championship meet, Luchini said, Pinkham and Eddie Povich brought him down to the State House and presented him with an award.
That was extra meaningful, he said, because “I’d talked to Bill and he’d given me running advice since I was a little kid.”
Robin Emery of Lamoine, “Maine’s First Lady of Road Racing” and a fellow Hall of Famer, organizes the annual Flattop 5K in honor of Pinkham.
“Bill was the guy that did it for the people,” she said. “I think Louie is sort of the same way.” And, she added with a grin that was detectable even over the phone, “We always vote for him because he’s a runner.”
In the local running world, state Rep. Brian Hubbell said Luchini “has always been, remarkably, somehow both royalty and everybody’s best friend.” Hubbell and Luchini were seatmates in the House before Luchini moved to the Senate.
“He is as brilliantly effective at moving policy as he is at winning races,” Hubbell said, “and I think he is largely successful because, unlike most politicians, he doesn’t depend on the spotlight for his political juice. I assume that weathering the attention of national competition and the pressures of the Olympic trials cures that disposition.
“He is more than smart enough to understand that, to be successful, you must understand the landscape and field of competition, engage the discipline of months of preparation and possess the instinctive confidence of knowing precisely when to make the necessary move that terminally drops any opposition in such a way that competitors want only to shake your hand afterward, wryly believing that, in some way they don’t yet fully understand, they just participated in something excellent.”