The Charleston Distance Run, known as America’s 15-Miler and a staple in the capital city since 1973, was canceled Tuesday by the event’s organizing committee due to COVID-19.
The race, traditionally held on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, was scheduled for Sept. 5 this year. A total of 151 runners had already registered for the event, which would have been in its 48th year. Of that number, 121 had signed up for the 15-mile event and 30 for the adjoining 5-kilometer walk and run.
“It’s very unfortunate,’’ race director John Palmer said, “but so many other races had to cancel going into the fall. We were holding out hope that the coronavirus pandemic would calm down, and maybe dissipate, but that’s not looking like it’s happening. We have to make sure we protect the health and safety of all our participants and all our volunteers who work with us, so we made the decision to cancel.’’
Palmer didn’t think the cancellation of this year’s race would affect future plans to hold the event. The 2021 CDR is scheduled for Sept. 4.
“I don’t think so,’’ he said. “We’ve managed to have 47 Distance Runs so far, and the 48th will just have to wait an extra year before we can have it. We look forward to it, and I’m sure it will be a great event. Hopefully, the coronavirus will be just a distant memory next September.’’
The Distance Run was the brainchild of Don Cohen, a Charleston eye doctor who started the event in 1973 to capitalize on the running craze that was starting to sweep the country.
Cohen wanted to create a race that coincided with the city’s annual Sternwheel Regatta, so he teamed up with city leaders and police to find a route. The race ended up getting its trademark 15-mile distance quite by accident, as Cohen’s main focus was to move the race around some of Charleston’s most famous landmarks, such as the state Capitol, the banks of the Kanawha River, the East End, West Side and South Hills. It is considered America’s only 15-mile distance run.
There were very few road races held in West Virginia at that time, so Cohen and other race organizers didn’t know how many runners to expect. They invited some well-known runners to Charleston to speak or run at the inaugural event.
Four-time Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens, Olympic gold medalist Dave Wottle and other nationally known runners, such as Steve Prefontaine, Jeff Galloway and Franci Larrieu, all came to Charleston in 1973. The following year, Olympians Jim Ryun and Rafer Johnson spoke at the awards banquet.
The first race, with 213 competitors in the field, started and ended at what was then the Charleston Civic Center, but for many years it began on Virginia Street, near Interstate 64, and finished at University of Charleston Stadium at Laidley Field.
In recent years, the race has begun in front of the West Virginia Capitol on Kanawha Boulevard. The course of the race has varied through the years, but one of its calling cards has been the “Capital Hill Punishment,’’ a nearly 2-mile uphill stretch along Corridor G.
Jeff Galloway, of the Florida Track Club, won the inaugural event in a time of 1 hour, 16 minutes, 29 seconds. Several of the world’s top runners have competed in the event, including Olympian and four-time Boston Marathon champion Bill Rodgers. Rodgers placed third in the 1974 CDR, second in 1986 and third in 1988.
The course record of 1:12:24 was established in 1996 by Gideon Mutisya, a Kenyan and longtime resident of Hartford, Connecticut. Mutisya, a local fan favorite, wound up as a six-time CDR champion, with his last victory coming in 2008.
Last year’s race champions were Daniel Jaskowak of Blacksburg, Virginia (male) and Marian Pyles of Elkins.