The biggest crowds always positioned themselves on the downtown end of the Southside Bridge. It was a great vantage point for checking out the 1,500 runners in the annual Charleston Distance Run — some hurrying along, others plodding along, some barely moving — on the 15-mile competitive trek through the city.
The runners, a mix of locals and visitors from far-flung locales, wore colorful singlets, many emblazoned with quaint names like Schuylkill Striders and Stony Brook. It was America’s only 15-mile race and, for the more advanced runners, served as preparation for the upcoming fall marathons throughout the country.
As the runners completed the 6-mile stretch through the South Hills residential neighborhood and arrived on the bridge, the spectators applauded, cheered and offered encouragement. Maybe they were there to see a family member or friend. Maybe they enjoyed the spectacle and the competition. Maybe they simply admired the runners’ resolve, especially on those sweltering Saturday mornings on Labor Day Weekend.
Or maybe they were out-of-towners who had come to town to see the Beach Boys or Ray Charles or Willie Nelson or other performers at the annual Sternwheel Regatta and, having learned of the Distance Run, decided to investigate.
“You would come off the bridge and turn onto Virginia,’’ recalled veteran runner W.K. Munsey, “and on that turn, the people were six or seven deep.’’
“Gosh,’’ said Jo Burka, who first ran the race in 1980, “it used to energize you because the people were lined up on both sides as you took that turn onto Virginia Street. Everybody was cheering you on, and the crowds were so big. And it got you ready for the next part of the race, which for me was the hardest.’’
Occasionally, an impersonator would spice things up. Dr. Shawn Chillag of Charleston, an avid runner, would go the 15 miles dressed as Elvis or Uncle Sam or the Statue of Liberty. One year he ran as Monica Lewinsky, complete with black wig, blue dress and sunglasses. A cohort ran alongside wearing a Bill Clinton mask.
The grueling up-and-down South Hills stretch earned a fitting nickname, Capital Punishment. The ill-advised runners who attacked those hills too aggressively paid a nasty price — cinder-block legs.
The final nine miles, beginning on Virginia Street at the bridge, were monotonously flat and covered the East End, West Side and back to the East End for the Laidley Field finish, where hundreds of additional spectators — and a public-address announcer calling out each runner’s name — awaited the runners’ arrival.
All along the way, the oppressive air kept filling up the Kanawha Valley, challenging the runners’ cardio fitness and their guts. “It’s like putting a blanket on a radiator,’’ said Steve Taylor of St. Marys after winning the 1989 race. “It traps all the heat inside.’’
The race began in 1973 as the brainchild of Charleston optometrist Don Cohen, who pitched the idea to city officials and Gazette sportswriter Danny Wells as an addition to the Sternwheel Regatta, which started in 1971. Only 213 runners completed that first race, in which Olympic icon Jesse Owens served as grand marshal and which ended at the Civic Center.
But the event grew, hitting its heyday 15 years later when about 1,800 runners started the race (and 1,571 finished). The race continues but, for innumerable reasons, has lost much of its allure and its numbers.
Running in the race once carried considerable prestige.
“It was a bucket-list item,’’ said Gary Smith, who’s run every year except 1973 and is the race’s unofficial historian. “It almost felt like it was a rite of passage in Charleston. People felt like they had to do it at least once. And there was plenty of people who only did it one time. They were kind of out of their depths when they did it, but they managed to finish. But for whatever reason, it’s lost that cachet. It may be partly because the Regatta is gone.’’
The spectators were everywhere, watching from their porches, lawns and downtown buildings, and offered more than just cheers and applause.
A resident on Kanawha Boulevard near downtown moved a stereo onto the lawn and played kick-ass music like the Rocky theme and “Eye of the Tiger,’’ cranking up the amplifier so high the music was audible to the runners descending Loudon Heights Road across the wide Kanawha River.
A Kanawha County music icon, trial lawyer George Daugherty, stood at various locations on the course and, playing his ukulele and accompanied by another musician, sang to the runners as they passed by. He was better known, of course, as the Earl of Elkview, and perhaps sang his famous composition: “It Takes a Snuff-Dippin’ Woman for a ‘Bacca-Chewin’ Man.’’
With garden hoses, residents sometimes sprayed the runners or made water available to them. “It was kind of a social thing for the neighborhood to set up the tables and pass out the water.’’ said Mimi Davis, a Distance Run participant who grew up watching the runners pass by her home on Delaware Avenue on the West Side. “People would come out and cheer on the runners.’’
At the corner of Virginia Street and Ruffner Avenue, four blocks from the Southside Bridge, residents annually spread a banner across Virginia that read “Last Stop for Cigarettes and Beer.’’
And, indeed, smokes and brews, as well as the residents’ bonhomie, were available for the taking. “When you passed by there,’’ Burka recalled, “you could smell the cigarettes and beer.’’
The more ambitious runners kept moving.
At the far end of Kanawha Boulevard, past the Capitol near the Kanawha City Bridge, race day was always a big deal for Joanna Tabit and her family. Her mother, grandmother and aunt would offer doughnuts to the neighbors, and they’d all sit around and watch the runners, including her cousin Lynn Fish, make the turn from Washington Street onto the Boulevard.
The Tabit family made water and orange juice available to the runners and cheered them on, often calling out their names, which surely surprised the out-of-towners. “We would cheer them by name,’’ said Tabit, “using their bib numbers and identifying them from the roster in the paper.’’
On Delaware Avenue and Lee Street, bubble gum was handed out, courtesy of Hoppy Shores, a longtime Kanawha County commissioner and West Side football legend. It was a tasty treat and generated much-needed saliva.
At the hill near George Washington High School, an especially vocal woman annually delivered encouragement to each runner. “You would see the same lady,’’ Burka remembered, “out there screaming at you, yelling at you, ‘Get up that hill! You can do it!’’’
At the corner of the Boulevard and Elizabeth Street, a sprinkler system spraying water from an assortment of metal pipes beckoned to the hot, sweaty runners.
On Loudon Heights Road, a group of about 20 spectators sat in lawn chairs, drinking coffee, chatting and offering encouragement.
At the top of Loudon Heights Road, a man stood there, counting the runners and informed each of them of his or her numerical position in the race. “He was counting every runner who went by,’’ said Munsey. “The runners were spread out by the time they got to him.’’
At the bottom of Loudon Heights Road was another gathering. They were standing around drinking mimosas. “They were yelling, too,’’ Munsey recalled. “They’d say, ‘You’re looking good.’ That was really cool. And we were running downhill, so we probably did look good.’’
High school and junior high bands delivered inspirational music along the course. Musicians, for example, always seemed to play at Green’s Feed and Seed on Piedmont Road, helping runners negotiate a nearby hill. And beginning in the 1990s, Capital High band director Bob Scott divided his band members into combos, thus spreading out the inspiration.
The townspeople were always eager to help. Hundreds of folks volunteered to man water stations, stuff packets and handle other duties.
To the runners who ran the race every year, familiar faces seemed to pop up in the same places. “The funny thing I remember about it,’’ said Burka, “is that you saw the same people in the same spot every year. And so, you would look for them. I think what was cool about our race is that the community got involved in it. It was a big deal, especially in the early years.’’
And in a town of Charleston’s modest size, it’s likely that all those spectators could pick out familiar faces. “It seemed like so many people knew somebody who was running,’’ said Burka. “And even if they didn’t, they were out there cheering you on. It was always a feel-good race.’’
“Back when there were 1,500 or 1,600 people running,’’ said Smith, “there were more spectators, and I think a lot of that was due to the fact every runner might have two or three family members out on the course at some point.’’
In the Charleston Daily Mail on race-day afternoon, a giant photograph and story graced the front page. For the race’s first two decades, it was broadcast on radio, play-by-play style. One year it was televised.
The 1,571 finishers in 1988 set a Distance Run record, but the numbers began dwindling. In 1995, only 935 finished, and in 2000 the number was down to 623. In the pre-pandemic race of 2019, the total was only 346. In 2021, just 258 completed the 15-miler, a number undoubtedly affected by Covid concerns.
What happened? The novelty, of course, slowly wore off, the Sternwheel Regatta died, the West Virginia Mountaineers began playing their season-opening football games at noon and 1 p.m. on race day and the introduction of other regional races attracted runners who otherwise might have run in Charleston. And the Kanawha Valley’s population continued to decline.
The regatta’s demise after the 2008 event was especially tough. At its height, it attracted tens of thousands of out-of-town visitors, eager to see Reba McIntyre, Gloria Estefan, the Miami Sound Machine, the Van Dells, the Four Tops, as well as the Beach Boys, Ray Charles and Willie Nelson, and participate in other Regatta activities.
Back then, Regatta-goers would drink their way through a thousand kegs of beer nightly, leading inevitably to rowdy behavior and leaving vomit on the downtown streets. In 1996, Mayor Kemp Melton decided to ban regatta beer sales.
The mayor’s ban caused the major breweries to withdraw their financial support of the event. And although beer sales returned, the breweries did not resume their financial help, delivering another nail to the Regatta coffin. When it was finally discontinued, it ended the allure that brought all those out-of-town folks into the city as either runners or spectators.
The start of Mountaineer football season, meanwhile, prompted hundreds of early-morning departures to Morgantown, detracting from runner participation and crowd sizes. Longtime race director John Palmer remembers. “I know any number of people who didn’t run ... because that was the opening game for the Mountaineers,’’ he said.
In 2001, the Virginia Beach (Va.) Half Marathon made its debut, attracting runners from throughout the East, South and Midwest. Other half-marathons began popping up.
In 1999, the race committee added a far-less challenging 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) race that coincided with the 15-miler and attracted less serious runners. It later added a three-runner team competition. The new additions brought more runners and spectators to the streets but far fewer than in the race’s glory years.
“There are still people who turn out,’’ said Palmer, “but it’s not the same intensity that it was 30 years ago or so.’’
A Charleston runner, who was attending the University of North Carolina, in 1986 hit upon an idea he considered wonderfully romantic. He decided he would run the race and that, at about the four-mile mark, would propose marriage to his girlfriend.
After all, the Charleston Distance Run back then was an iconic event that lent itself to such glorious occasions.
He knew that his girlfriend, a North Carolina native and a student at N.C. State, would be watching at the intersection of Bridge Road and Loudon Heights Road and that his father would be there watching, too.
When the runner arrived at the intersection, he stopped on the pretense of saying a brief hello. But his father, who played a key role in the plot, surreptitiously handed him the ring. He then presented it to his girlfriend. She said yes.
He continued running and finished in a respectable two hours, six minutes, nine seconds.
The important thing, of course, was the originality of his wedding proposal. He wanted it to be different; he wanted it to be memorable. “I didn’t want to do it,’’ he said, “in a French restaurant over candlelight.’’