COLUMBIA, SC — At the first Governors Cup road race in 1973, the running community in Columbia still resembled the bar in the Cheers television show everyone knew each others names.
I recognized nearly every runner in Columbia back then, said Steve Blair, a professor in the exercise science department at USC and one of the regions pioneer distance runners. Now I go to a race and I hardly recognize anybody.
The running world has changed remarkably between 1973 and the 40th running of the Governors Cup on Saturday. The people behind that 1973 race were excited that 176 people finished the 15-mile or 5-mile events. This year, the Cooper River Bridge Run in Charleston will cap entries at 40,000 people for its 2013 race.
Along the way, the Governors Cup lost some of its luster. Once a signature event in the state, it has long since been passed in stature by the Bridge Run, the Kiawah Island Half Marathon and the Myrtle Beach Marathon. Even the new Columbia Marathon (1,528 finishers at marathon, half marathon and 10K distances) and Palmetto Half Marathon (1,336 finishers, half marathon and 5K) had more participants in 2012 than the 2011 Governors Cup (1,306 at 13.1 miles and 8K).
The Carolina Marathon Association, which has managed the Governors Cup since 2000, has no designs on the race being the Bridge Run of the Midlands. But it has taken steps in recent years to remain a major player in the local running scene.
Race publicity has been on the rise since Lexington Medical Center joined as a major sponsor four years ago. Two years ago, organizers brought in marathon legend Bill Rodgers to drum up interest in the race. Last year, Joan Benoit Samuelson came to town for the race. A running expo has been added during the race weekend.
Expectations around the experience have changed, said Russ Pate, the USC exercise researcher whose connections in the distance running world helped draw Rodgers and Samuelson. Runners used to want just a good, safe, well-marked course. Now they want a festive atmosphere.
Race organizers have recruited neighborhood associations, high school bands and cheerleaders to encourage runners along the route. Veteran runners like the direction the Governors Cup is heading.
The Governors Cup has always been a great race, but the explosive growth of other running events across the state (and nearby states) has cut into the participation numbers, said Rick Gibbons, former president of the Columbia Running Club. Many newer runners were looking for an event to participate in rather than a race, and the Governors Cup lost runners to events that were providing more amenities to their runners: finishing medals, entertainment on the course and big post-race parties.
The Governors Cup has addressed these issues in the last few years, and their numbers have rebounded.
Race participation numbers, which peaked around 2,000 in the late 1980s, dropped to 767 in 2007 before heading back up again.
Cedric Jaggers, editor of South Carolina Runners Gazette, thinks a couple of other things led to the drop. The race finish line, once at the end of a downhill near the Sol Blatt P.E. Center at USC, was switched to the end of a tough climb near USCs Horseshoe. Theres no joy in suffering a long uphill finish, he said.
He also liked that the governor used to present medals to the top finishers. Starting in front of the State House, then getting congratulations from a governor used to make the race special.
Participation from governors, rare in recent years, actually has been spotty since the race began under the auspices of Gov. John Wests fitness council, Pate said
In those early years, the race succeeded because it had the support of the core running community. Larry Hamilton, who has written about running for The State for years, volunteered to do the race timing in the early years, long before computer chip technology made the process relatively easy.
I got help from my nimble-fingered friends at the Legislative Audit Council, who were confident that they could type all the finishers race numbers and finish times as they crossed the finish line using their fancy calculators and thus capture an accurate order of finish, Hamilton said. What a nightmare that turned out to be! After the first few top finishers zipped across and their race numbers and finish times were smoothly and accurately recorded, the middle of the pack approached and suddenly it was like Niagara Falls had been unleashed and a line quickly formed of aggravated runners waiting to cross the finish line.
But runners came back every year because the race was a Columbia tradition, said Catherine Lempesis, girls cross country coach at Lexington High School and a four-time age-group winner at the Governors Cup. Because of conflicts with the high school cross country schedule, Lempesis hasnt run in the race in the past decade.
It was always highly competitive, and you wanted to do well because you were on your home turf. It was a huge family affair for me, Lempesis said. People knew your name and cheered for you. The whole running community would come out. That was THE race in Columbia.
Its not just the longtime residents who appreciate the Governors Cup. William Schmitz started running locally in 2008 and is a regular in the event.
This was my first (half marathon) I ever did and I loved it and will make an effort to never miss it again, Schmitz said. Even last year when the Rock-n-Roll series put their race on the same day in Savannah I could not pull myself away from Columbia and Governors Cup to do that event.
Thats the sentiment Pate wants to hear. Drawing new fans is the only way the race will make it another 40 years.
The fall schedule is a busy one. Its a beautiful time of year to run in Columbia, Pate said. Anybody that is committed to running and is going to run several events a year is going to have several events penciled in. We want the Governors Cup to be one that gets penciled in.