- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 6, 2007

In its heyday, the Sallie Mae 10K used to attract some of the world’s most successful athletes. Grete Waitz of Norway, Priscilla Welch and Jill Hunter of Great Britain, Uta Pippig of Germany, Breeda Dennehy-Willis of Ireland, Steve Jones of Wales, and Tom Nyariki and Catherine Ndereba of Kenya.

That was before the race took a major philosophical change of heart in the late 1990s.

“At first, it was just a normal local race,” said Jane Sisco, race director from 1986 to 1991. “Then we started bringing in strong regional runners. Then we started giving prize money and we were getting international elite runners and setting records.”

Today’s 24th running of the Sallie Mae 10K in West Potomac Park in the District will not be laden with the sport’s marquee names, but it still attracts many of the fastest international athletes training on the East Coast as well as many of the area’s top road racers.

“Even though the [prize] money isn’t what it used to be, the competition is still there and they have some times that are respectable,” said race historian George Banker, who has been closely involved with the race for decades. “Part of it plays on that race course, the out and back flat course.”

To some 1,300 runners gathered in West Potomac Park on April 15, 1984, this race was called the Cherry Blossom Chaser and it was a fund-raiser for the American Red Cross of the National Capital Region. Sisco said the event was generating at least $100,000 for the Red Cross while she was directing.

The race began piggybacking on the success of the Cherry Blossom 10-Miler when, in 1989, Sallie Mae race officials began paying prize money, hotel and airfare. Thus Waitz took top prize that year.

Yet the competitive spirit of this event has been there from the start, and continues today.

“All of our chief executives were outstanding athletes,” Sisco said. “There were a lot of very talented athletes, which is why I think they decided to put out a lot of money to attract talented runners. They kept escalating the prize money. It became a little more stressful when we had the elite field, with the Kenyans and others running for the records.”

A total of $6,700 was awarded in 1989, $19,300 in 1993 and $28,000 in 1995, peaking at $31,300 in 1998. Over the next two years, prize money would decline to $20,000, much like what the former world-class event Gasparilla Distance Classic in Tampa did in 1997, cutting prize money to contribute more dollars to charity.

Today’s race will award just $12,900 to the top finishers. Top prize is $500 versus the $3,000 awarded the champions in 1999.

“As exciting as it is to watch elite athletes, it’s such a small population,” said current race director Laura Gemery, community outreach manager for the Sallie Mae Fund, the non-profit arm of Sallie Mae, which took over the race when the fund was created in 1999. “We thought we’d support kids to go to college.

“Sallie Mae has always wanted to give back to the community. Our mission is to try to encourage all of America’s students to go to college. Over the recent years, we’ve decided to give more to the charity — American Red Cross from 1984 to 1999 — and in 2000 to present to DC-Cap — College Access Program — closer to our mission.”

Typically an April race that conflicts with Pike’s Peek 10K in Rockville, today’s event will be run in May for just the third time in its history, with upward of 2,300 entrants expected, Gemery said. No race day registration, however.

Similar to most major road races in America dominated by foreign athletes, the last local overall winners were Chris Fox in 1995 (then of Hagerstown, Md.) and Rosalind Taylor in 1990 (then of Hyattsville).

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