Ron Marinucci - May, 2023 Column: Bygone Races of Michigan

Ron Marinucci - May, 2023 Column: Bygone Races of Michigan

I try to live in the present, while keeping a close eye on the future. While I don’t live in the past, it is important, especially to a history guy like me. It can be instructive and bring enjoyment, sparking fond memories and lively discussions.

Perhaps it’s been the recent barrage of e-mails I have received promoting spring running events, but I started thinking about bygone races, those that enjoyed their moments and have since disappeared.

There are more than one would think. I had an initial list of more than three dozen just in Southeast Michigan alone. Some races postponed during Covid and still haven’t returned. How many races do you remember that are no more?

The first race I ever ran no longer exists. It was the old West Bloomfield Half Marathon. Wait a minute! “First race?” “Half marathon?” Yep, what did I know? If I recall correctly, it was a full marathon in its early years. Then it evolved into the half.

The West Bloomfield Half began and ended at the high school, actually right across Orchard Lake Road. As is typical with springtime Michigan weather, race day conditions could be fickle. There were days of snow, yet some with unseasonably high temperatures in the 70s.

Its course was serpentine and pretty hilly—I guess. At least that’s what some Detroit runners thought. In the locker room after one of the WB races, they remarked about “how many hills” there were. I remember hills, but nothing particularly out of the ordinary. I guess Detroit is flatter than where I was training at the time.

That was 1986 and I ran my second race a few weeks later—an 18-miler at the Chai Run, also in West Bloomfield, at the Jewish Community Center. I know, I know second race, 18-miler? It was there I met Bob Littky, a great guy and good ambassador for the sport and health in general. Bob was later featured in a book, Death Defiers. It recounted the story of Bob’s miraculous returns from the dead, not once, but twice, while on operating tables, to return to complete more marathons and other races. I ran the Chai again a few times, but, alas, it didn’t last much longer.

Come to think of it, the third race I ever ran, Back to Birmingham, doesn’t exist anymore either. Looking back, I wonder why race directors back then let me enter their events! It was a nice race, one I talked Karen and some friends into running, too. Race officials even provided day care, making sure our kids were watched while we ran.

The recent spate of warm weather, 85° in mid-April, reminded me of the Huron Valley Hospital Run. It last ten years and I ran all of them. It was one of my favorites because my whole family, Karen, Mike and Matt, and even my father, often participated. There were always unique awards; instead of medals or plaques, age-group winners received hats, towels, key chains, and even casserole trivets.

The first of these Huron Valley runs were held in the spring, until 1995, when race day temperatures sent the thermometer to more than 100°! After that, the last races were held in October and renamed The Fall Fitness Frenzy. One of those years, I beat Doug Kurtis in the 10K. Well, candor requires an explanation. Doug was running at the request of a cousin who helped with the race. At the finish, he pulled off of the course and I slipped past him.

Run the Reuther was a one-time 5K, a stroke of genius from Ed Kozloff in 1989, I believe. The course was fashioned from a section of the soon-to-be opened Walter Reuther Expressway (I-696) in Oakland/Macomb counties. So many race-day registrants caused the start to be delayed 40 minutes or so. Boxes of Prince elbow macaroni were distributed! And, I still have that tee shirt.

Two races in Novi bring fond memories. The first, A Midsummer Night’s Run, coincided with that city’s ‘50s festival. My son Mike ran his first 5K there. At the finish, a woman came to me telling about how Mike helped her finish the race with his encouragement! The Run for the Health of It was a nice 8K in late spring. It was son Matt’s first serious race with me—and he almost beat the old man! But I could only hold off the then 12-year old a couple more weeks, though, as he whupped me pretty good at the Great Pizza Challenge in Flint. I guess pizza is a good incentive!

I only ran the Williamston Half Marathon once, two weeks after finishing my first marathon, the Free Press in ’86. I recall two things. There were endless miles of corn fields and there was soup for us at the end.

Before Super Bowl XL, Detroit hosted a Super Bowl in 1982. Blowing, heavy snow and temperatures that dipped into the single digits caused havoc with the Super Bowl Run held near the Silverdome. My running buddy Bob Drapal frequently recalls that there “were two starts, one for those there on time and one for those who couldn’t get there until later.” Neither of us remembers who won the Super Bowl that year.

A couple in the Ann Arbor area that are now defunct were the Festival of Lights at Domino Farms, a festive Christmas 5K. On the other side of town, at the mall, were the Briarwood Runs, with 5K, 10K, and 20K races. Weather there, too, could be unpredictable. One year, a nice morning quickly turned to a cold rain, with sleet-filled, very cold finish.

The Scotty Hanton Marathon was run in and outside of Port Huron. At the end of August, you can imagine the weather—hot and humid. I remember several things about it, despite when it was held. For many runners, it was their first marathon. Likewise, it was the first time they qualified for Boston (me included).

My buddy Gus La Ruffa recalls it both humorously and perhaps not so fondly. “Yeah, the Scotty Hanton Marathon. I remember being out there about 20 miles, all by myself on a country road. A small kid on a porch yells out, ‘Hey, mister, whatcha doin’?’ ‘Running a marathon.’ ‘Oh, what’s that?’” He laughs now, but “Same race, the sign at the turn back to Fort Gratiot Middle School blew over. Fortunately, another runner’s relative picked up the sign. If he hadn’t done that, I would have been on my way down to Toledo.”

I recall Scotty Hanton with mixed emotions. I beat my previous marathon best by more than ten minutes and qualified for Boston. But I also remember the heat and close proximity of the cars and the long, lonely stretches on the country roads. It has been the only marathon where I really “hit the wall” and I hit it very hard. A guy I was running with up to mile 21 or so finished about 25 minutes ahead of me! I swore—both the good and bad kind—that this was my last marathon, but, fortunately, as usual, Karen straightened me out. Time heals many wounds.

There was the Heart of the Hills races in Bloomfield Hills, start and finish at the old Andover High School track. The 10K course was very challenging, a nice run through back neighborhoods not usually associated with Bloomfield, but also very hilly. Held in late July, the weather was almost always very hot and very humid. One year, clouds literally formed under the canopies of trees on the course.

Mike Middleton directed the Fenton 20-Mile in part as fund-raising for the high school cross country team. It also served as a good final long run/tune-up for the Boston Marathon. For whatever reason I remember one of the race sponsors was the local Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet. One spring, race morning had been hit with nine inches of overnight snow. The twenty miles were quite a slog, perhaps more strenuous than the Boston a couple of weeks later. A county deputy, blocking non-existent traffic, said as some of us ran by, “You guys are crazy!”

Other defunct races I recall are the Harvest Run in Dearborn, near my old stomping grounds as a kid, skirting Greenfield Village and the Ford Motor Company proving grounds; the Mad Anthony Wayne 10K (great name, historical and everything!) on the campus of Wayne State University; Run the Rouge in Redford, a 5K and 5 mile started so runners could run both races; the High Five in Highland, where Dave Armstrong cleverly had separate races for men, women, and masters; Waterford’s Rainbow Run with lots of kids; the Ultimate Pontiac with Randy Bulla’s unique 12K distance; and, alas, many more.

So, how about you? What defunct races do you remember? What memories return? Do you look upon them fondly or maybe not quite so happily? Would you welcome their revival? Regardless, sometimes memory lane teaches us some things and provides an enjoyable look backward.