- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 22, 2007

Once a year, the National Park Service closes down one of America’s most scenic and historic stretches of pavement to run the GW Parkway Classic.

That day this year is today, when for the 23rd consecutive year, runners rule the roads for a few hours in the morning.

Much has changed with the Classic over the years, although the race always has stayed true to its mission: to show off George Washington Memorial Parkway — a national park indeed — from Mount Vernon to Old Town Alexandria.

Today the long race is a 10-miler, but it originally began as a 15-kilometer (9.3 miles) footrace in 1985. Some 1,012 entrants finished on May 19 that year, 836 of them male and 176 of them female.

“They had had discussions of going to 10 miles for many years, but stayed with 15K to be unique as the Cherry Blossom 10-Miler was in the same month,” said George Banker, race historian and elite athlete coordinator. “In 2001, we actually ran the 15K in reverse, from Jones Point Park under the [Woodrow Wilson] bridge down to Mount Vernon.”

The next year, race officials were forced to make a dramatic change to the course because of bridge construction, adding nearly an extra mile to the distance to finish in Oronoco Bay Park.

The accompanying 5K race was added in 1999.

The race was founded by Nancy LaValle (then executive director of the Alexandria chapter of the United Way) and the Alexandria Volunteer Bureau as a fundraiser for United Way charities. It helped that Rep. Jim Moran, Virginia Democrat, former deputy mayor of Alexandria and eventually mayor at the time, was a running enthusiast. Running advocates Henley Gabeau and B.J. Blunt also assisted in the early years.

LaValle handed over race director responsibilities to Kathy Dalby of Pacer’s Running Stores in 2005, according to Dalby.

Dalby said this year’s 10-miler will reach capacity at 3,400.

“I’m keeping the numbers in check to keep this a unique experience for the runners,” she said, adding that the 5K registration closed at 1,200 and that between both races, 52 percent of the entrants are female.

Nearly from the start, the race has attracted an international field with its relatively small prize purse. Joseph Kipsang, a Kenyan living in Takoma Park, was champion here in 1986 and 1987 and co-champ in 1988. Star Russian Leonid Shvetsov won here in 1996.

Last year, two Kenyans set records, 19-year-old Jynocel Basweti in the open division and 40-year-old Albert Okemwa in the masters section.

The international flavor is strong again this year, with competitive athletes from Kenya (Lydia Kurgat, Onesmus Nyerere and Jacob Chamar out of Chapel Hill, N.C., and Joseph Mbinda Mutisya), Russia (Tatiana Maslova), and Ethiopia (Mohamed Awol and Beruk Deberework).

One constant has been Martha Merz, who as a 22-year-old topped the field in the inaugural run and has come back several times, including in 2005 when she set the masters record at age 42. She is registered again this year as is legally blind runner Susan Graham-Gray of Greencastle, Pa., for her third straight year.

Dick Beardsley also is entered in the 10-mile race. The 2:08:54 marathon legend who lost to Alberto Salazar by two seconds at the 1982 Boston Marathon in the famous “Duel in the Sun” is in town selling his book.

In a tribute to the slayings at Virginia Tech, Dalby said race officials are selling bib numbers for athletes to wear on their back with bold letters “Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund” with proceeds to that charity.

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