Sound To Narrows: A Gathering Of A Few Has Become A Happening
Reprinted from an article that appeared in The News Tribune on June 7, 1992 - By Dick KunkleIt was on a gray morning June 9, 1973, as a matter of fact, that a field of slightly more than 300 people gathered at the old Point Defiance Boathouse to inaugurate something called the Sound to Narrows run.
A few friends, families and curiosity seekers were there, too, and at the Vassault Playfield finish, no doubt amazed that quite that many people in various forms of dress would have the desire, let alone the ability, to run 7.6 miles. For fun.
Remember, these were the days before Nike, Adidas and Reebok became part of America's vocabulary . . . days when tenny-runners and gray sweats were vogue . . . days when running any distance more than a mile or two was considered a marathon.
So, imagine the amazement when upward of 10,000 people in a colorful array of T-shirts and designer running attire toe the starting line for the 20th annual Sound to Narrows on June 13, and in pursuit of fun.
From the very start it was advertised as a run for fun, open to anyone from 6 to 106, male or female, who thought they could make it through the near-8-mile grind.
It wasn't an original idea, but rather one patterned after the San Francisco Examiner' s Bay to Breakers race then a 60-year-old event that had become one of the world's most famous road runs. In 1973, Bay to Breakers, which draws more than 100,000 entrants now, drew 2,583 participants, an astounding field for that time.
When the idea for such an amateur foot race in the Northwest was presented to the late Bill Robinson, then president/general manager of The News Tribune, it was with that background establishing a people's race in Tacoma that would generate that same type of friendly spirit of competition and sportsmanship. The challenge came from completing the race, regardless of the time, rather than winning.
Robinson, a community-minded individual who encouraged newspaper-sponsored activities in which a large cross-section of the local populace would be involved, bought the idea of a people's foot race. So did Tom Cross and Steve Orfanos, the respective directors of the Pierce County Parks and Recreation Department and Metropolitan Park District, cosponsors of the event from the beginning. Through the support of Cross and Orfanos, the two park departments provided much of the needed people-power that enabled the race to become such an immediate success.
Nor can one overlook the contributions of several News Tribune employees, John Rouse, Din Fuhrmeister, Elsie Parker and Norm Kirkland, who toiled behind the scenes. Without their dedicated support, as well as the hundreds of volunteers from the community who help make it work each race day, the Sound to Narrows never would have survived, at least not to celebrate its 20th birthday.
Of course, if San Francisco had a Bay and the Breakers after which to name its race, then Tacoma surely could respond with a Sound and a Narrows. Finding the name was relatively easy, but determining the course was another matter.
The winding, hilly run through Point Defiance Park, regarded by many of the internationally known runners who've conquered it as the "most beautiful and toughest course in the country" was never part of the original planning. The initial proposal had the race starting at Downtown Tacoma's Fireman's Park, heading up Stadium Way, out Division and Sixth Avenues and finishing near the Narrows Bridge.
But in 1973, closing down three of Tacoma's main arterials for several hours so a few hundred hardy and not-so-hardy runners could huff and puff in the name of friendly competition and good sportsmanship, wasn't very likely. That idea, plus a second one which had the race starting near the old Top of the Ocean restaurant, out Ruston Way and finishing at Fort Nisqually, was quickly rejected by the City of Tacoma officials.
They countered with what they thought was a better idea, run the entire race inside Point Defiance Park. No traffic problems that way, you see. Eventually, there was a compromise: a course that began at the old boathouse on the Sound and finished at Vassault Playfield near the Narrows . . . with the runners circling the perimeter of the entire playfield.
After those early concerns, however, City of Tacoma officialdom became one of the event's leading boosters, providing a variety of support services from police department assistance to the water the runners drink.
It was not anticipated that the Sound to Narrows would have the early success that it did. Basically, the field doubled in each of its first five years, allowing the event to become the second largest road race in the country.
With this unexpected growth came a multitude of problems. While planning for the next race would correct the difficulties of the previous year's, a larger-than-anticipated field of runners would create a new series of problems.
To accommodate this growth, the starting area had to be moved three times in the first four years and the system of recording results at the finish was modified continually. When one has run 7.6 miles up hill and down dale, one has earned the right to cross the finish line. But this was not always the case. For three years, starting in 1975, backups of up to 15 minutes in duration occurred around the 55-minute mark as the majority of the runners finished.
Those problems, however, forced the Sound to Narrows to become a road-racing pioneer in many respects. Today's race has come a long way since 1973 when each of the 305 finishers was handed a tongue depressor with the finish place recorded on it.
The race was among the first to develop a multiple chute system to handle the dozens of runners finishing at one time and to use computers to register runners, assign numbers and record results.
While the current four wave starting system created some controversy when it was introduced in 1985, it was nothing new to the Sound to Narrows. A version of the wave start dates back to 1979 when separate wheelchair and military division starts were added to what had become the most fun run. Then a year later, a fourth wave the Super Race, which lasted until the current system evolved was introduced.
And there was the Half-A-Narrows, a 3.9-mile, experimental race in 1981, somewhat ahead of its time. Six years later, it was back as the 2.7-mile Shuffle, a race for those who would rather run, or walk, a shorter distance.
So the Sound to Narrows continued to meet the changing trends of the times . . . a time when fitness walking has become as popular as running was during the mid-70s aerobics boom.
The change that probably affected what future course the Sound to Narrows would take, however, was not really a change. When the field of finishers grew to more than 5,800 by 1978, race officials faced a dilemma. Congestion had forced many participants to slow to almost a walk along certain narrow areas of Point Defiance Park's Five Mile Drive.
Was it time to move out of the park and run the race on wider Tacoma streets so growth could continue? Or, would the field have to be limited in order to retain the picturesque park as part of the course?
Race officials went to the runners, surveying a cross-section of participants, to find the answer. It was almost unanimous. They loved the race the way it was. It was then that the change was made to limit the field in order to keep the course in Point Defiance.
When the Sound to Narrows started, it really was the leader in the Northwest, it was a large regional race with national overtones. When it was decided to limit the field, however, it became a large local race with regional overtones.
Still, the race ranks among the top 15 races of its type, nationally.
The thing about Sound to Narrows, even though it has drawn runners from every state in the union and a half-dozen or so countries around the world, is that it's mainly local people, a lot of people who know each other, people who run together at work or at their school, with friends on the weekend or at a fitness club.
Although a number of world-class runners, Don Kardong, Ron Wayne, Steve Floto, Richard Burne, Doris Brown Heritage, Vicki Flotz, Graeme Holden, Herm Atkins, to name a few, have frequented the race on their own, the Sound to Narrows never was in the business of paying appearance money to big-name runners.
Big names never were needed to attract big numbers. The numbers always have been there . . . even from the start. The 305 participants in 1973 was a big field for its time. It's a number that hundreds of races around the country today would like to attain. And the 1,265-person field two years later would be sheer paradise.
But Sound to Narrows never has been your typical road race; rather, it's a happening, an event where hundreds, now thousands, of people gather for four hours on a Saturday morning in June to have fun yes, fun in the name of fitness.
The race attracts runners of all shapes and sizes. Some run in costly Adidas shoes, others in discount store specials, in Army combat boots and in bare feet, in stream-line track suits, funny T-shirts, tennis shorts, slacks and cutoff jeans, clown costumes, business suits and dressed as centipedes, killer bees, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and carrots.
College students, lawyers, office managers, mechanics, teachers, brokers, secretaries, engineers, truck drivers, doctors, firemen and police officers, mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, three generations of one family.
Those with high hopes of a strong finish have run the race in their dreams the previous night.
But, for the majority the only real competitor is their own best self and a race against the clock. They run the course against their previous race best, or against a top time on another course.
When the mob breaks from the starting line, they are a glorious sight "as colorful as the azaleas and rhododendrons in the park as they laugh and joke and complain their way down to the park and back."
But, what would this annual happening be without the infamous Vassault Street boosters on hand every year, offering a variety of cheers, jeers, gibes and encouraging signs. And, on those unusually hot and muggy race days, when the sun puts in its scheduled appearance, they are ready, as always, providing hose sprays, water stops and other assistance to runners.
In simple terms, the Sound to Narrows, this fun run happening, is a race that has 10,000 winners each year, people who accept the challenge and conquer the course. For one, there was Kay Worth, a housewife, who accepted the challenge in 1978.
"I couldn't run a quarter of a mile last October, said Worth, after finishing that race in 101 minutes. Now, I run three or four miles a day, five days a week. It's fun, yeah, a lot of fun."
It's also a family affair. Take the Ed Zeiger family of Puyallup.
"This race keeps us all motivated," said Ed after the 1983 race when there were nine of them running, five of them blood relatives. "Most of us run some other races, too, but this is the only one we make sure and run every year."
A year ago, eight years later, five of the Zeigers were still at it.
It's a young boy, maybe 12 years old, back in 1989, walking up to Curt Corvin, after he captured the first of his three Sound to Narrows championships and asking, "Are you the guy that won?"
"Yeah, how did you do?" said Corvin, who nine years earlier as a 15-year-old had won his first division title, a list that would grow to 10 age-division or overall race titles.
The lad lowered his head and mentioned he'd only done the 4.3-kilometer shuffle instead of the 12K full race.
"Well, did you finish?" Corvin wanted to know, and the kid brightened up, nodding his head.
"Hey, that's great! Just keep it up and some day maybe you'll win, too."
And finally, one longtime runner summed it up this way:
"It used to be you'd speed up if you saw a woman trying to pass you, but that doesn't bother me anymore. The thing that got me going this time, though, was coming into the chutes, I was about to be passed by a carrot! No way I was going to let that happen."
Such is life on a Sound to Narrows weekend.
About the authorThe Sound to Narrows celebrated its 20th anniversary June 13, 1992. Dick Kunkle, the founding father of the popular running event, provided a historical look back at the early years and shared some of his views about the race that has grown into one of the nation's leading fun runs.
Kunkle, who worked for 19 years as a sports writer and Sunday Magazine editor for The News Tribune, also originated Star Track, the combined AAA-AA state high school boys and girls track and field championships and conceived the Spring Fest concept, combining all the spring boys and girls high school championships into an Olympic-style event at one site.
After leaving The News Tribune in 1987, Kunkle operated his own public relations and marketing business, serving as the media coordinator for the 1990 Goodwill Games events at the King County Aquatic Center.
He held similar positions for the Class A and AA state high school basketball tournaments and Star Track championships and was part of the media relations staff for the NCAA Women's Final Four events in the Tacoma Dome.
At the time Dick wrote this article, he was the publications production manager for the public affairs office of the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries.
Dick Kunkle passed away on November 11, 1996.