Pierson’s Next Great Runner is Shaped By a Legend

Ben McErlean, left, at last week's Bridgehampton Half Marathon. His training program was crafted by Joe Boyle, pictured at right running for Pierson in the early 1960s. Left photo by Gavin Menu, right photo courtesy of Thomas McErlean

Joe Boyle won the 1964 Suffolk County cross country championship as a senior at Pierson High School. He started running his freshman season when basketball coaches Ed Petrie and Bob Vishno suggested cross country as a way to train for basketball season.

Flash forward 55 years and another young basketball player turned runner is working toward a bright future of his own at Pierson. Ben McErlean is only 15 and is already his school’s best cross country athlete. He is also poised to abandon basketball altogether, with his sights on winter and spring track at East Hampton High School following his junior season on the Pierson cross country team.

On Saturday, McErlean took another big step and won the 15-to-19-year-old age group in the Bridgehampton Half Marathon, finishing 28th overall in 1 hour, 33 minutes and 54 seconds, which was a mile pace of 7:11. It was McErlean’s first-ever half marathon and something he’s been building toward for several months now. And he’s been doing it with the help of none other than Joe Boyle, the legendary Pierson runner from the 1960s.

“I really appreciate what he’s shown me,” McErlean said of Boyle, who now lives in Texas, works as a real estate lawyer and runs the Texas Running Center, where he trains hundreds of athletes. The two communicated by phone and by email. Going into Saturday’s race, McErlean was in the ninth week of a 10-week program planned by Boyle, and the results have been undeniable.

“It was to get me in good running shape for cross country and I’m going to start running track next year as well,” McErlean, who is finishing his sophomore year, said following Saturday’s race. “I feel like a totally different runner since Katy’s Courage. I’m a lot stronger. Now I know I can race a half marathon. It’s good to know I’m at the level that I can run this distance and run it well at my age.”

Boyle is a friend of Ben’s dad, Tom McErlean, another old-school Pierson grad. Boyle told Tom that if his son deviated from the program that Boyle had set up for his training to lose his number.

Shawn Fitzgerald, 45, of Cutchogue, a combat rescue officer with the U.S. Air Force, won the race in 1:19:01, with a mile pace of 6:02, to finish ahead of 675 other runners. Laura Heintz, 42, of New York City, was the top female finisher and was seventh overall in 1:27.06, a mile pace of 6:39.

Full results are at bridgehamptonhalf.com/race-results.

Pierson’s Ben McErlean crosses the finish line on Saturday at the Bridgehampton Half Marathon. Gavin Menu photo

McErlean is happy to take the next step in joining the elite ranks of runners who have competed on East End roads over the years, including Erik Engstrom, Ryan Fowkes and Nick Lemon, who still holds an army of course records, including the Bridgehampton Half Marathon. The sport appears to be growing locally, and the training is getting more sophisticated.

Boyle, after leaving Pierson, went onto a wildly successful amateur and professional running career. Then he turned his attention to coaching and worked at the United State Military Academy at West Point, among other schools at both the high school and collegiate level.

“I started Texas Running Center and runners from all over the world came,” Boyle said during a phone interview from his office in Arlington, Texas this week. “I don’t like to take credit for kids and their success; I just like to help them…especially if they’re from Sag Harbor.”

Boyle said McErlean has “a lot of talent” and said the 10-week program he designed was to prepare McErlean for Saturday’s race. “A kid who is talented like that is going to rise to the top, no matter who is helping him,” Boyle admitted. “He’s still so young.”

McErlean said his cross county coach, Joe Amato, was the one to teach him the fundamentals of running. “He’s been more like a mentor than a coach,” McErlean said about Amato. “I’ve been working with him since I was in eighth grade.”

With this being the last week of his training program set out by Boyle, McErlean is feeling strong for the summer road racing season ahead. He plans to run in the Shelter Island 10K, which will celebrate its 40th year on June 15, and the Joe Koziarz Memorial 5K in Westhampton Beach on July 20, among others.

“All my training has led up to this,” McErlean said on Saturday before heading home for an ice bath.