Sunday, July 19, 2009

When it comes to throwing an after-race party, Utica’s Boilermaker is second to none.

Some 40,000 runners and spectators cram the expansive parking lot behind the local F.X. Matt Brewery, known for its famous Saranac and Utica Club beers, and celebrate one of America’s legendary distance runs, the Boilermaker 15K.

Situated just off the New York State Thruway between Albany and Buffalo, the Boilermaker is not really a destination race. Downtown Utica is a run-down former mill town decades past its peak.

Fortunately, the 9.3-mile race spares its runners any exposure to downtown. Rather, it is run through pretty, tree-lined neighborhoods, a gorgeous but hilly golf course and a quaint section of town heading to the finish at the brewery.

The people of Utica have tremendous pride in this race, with last week featuring its 32nd running. You can feel their pride while you run. A lot of local volunteers spend nearly all year working on this race, and it is the one day of the year when the city shines.

The course runs through four sections of town - East Utica, New Hartford/Yorkville, South Utica and West Utica - and these sections compete for the block party competition, with West Utica winning much of the recent notoriety. Boisterous crowds five, six, seven deep line much of the course.

The media guide lists 38 bands/DJs along the course, and as my running partner and Utica veteran Kevin Leach noted, just as the tunes from one band fade away, you can hear the next one up ahead.

The enormous support on the course extends to the water stops, too, with 21 locations sponsored by local companies and nonprofit organizations.

Live coverage of the race can be heard on several radio stations and seen on a couple of local television stations, not some 60-second sound bite but from an hour before the 8 a.m. start time until 10 or 11.

Like most of the nation’s legendary races, the Boilermaker has steadily grown through the years, with its humble beginnings in 1978 with 876 entrants and 782 finishers to last week’s 12,000-plus registrants and 10,582 finishers, along with a “shadow” race in Iraq run simultaneously.

The race also attracts world-class athletes with its prize purse of $47,200 this year and its status on the Professional Road Running Organization tour. African men took eight of the top 10 spots, and African women swept all 10. The last American to win this race was Ed Eyestone in 1991.

But with all those registrants, you might expect a more impressive runner’s expo, but that is not the case. Maybe it has something to do with the lack of running stores and other running-related entities from which major-city races can draw.

A final thought on Utica, home of the National Distance Running Hall of Fame since 1998: Utica is no Cooperstown. The Hall of Fame is located underneath a highway off-ramp in a seedy section of downtown. The story is that the building in which it resides was donated, but it is time to relocate the national shrine to a destination such as Boston, New York or even the District with its burgeoning National Marathon.

Raabe to New York - The District’s Christopher Raabe committed to running the New York City Marathon this fall instead of Chicago “based on the convenience of travel and extra month of training I’ll be able to get in,” he said.

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