On the occasion of Pat Mills’ 60th birthday party this past weekend, the partygoers carefully selected their attire for the evening.
Pat was in a red shift dress with a little jacket trimmed in black. Others sported such finery as a full-length, tafetta bridesmaid dress with spaghetti straps; a negligee; a fur-trimmed cape and Mardi Gras mask; and a low-cut gown exposing its wearer’s hairy chest. All red. All paired with running shoes.
Pat celebrated his birthday with a Red Dress Run, where everyone — men and women — don red dresses and ... run. And drink.
Pat and his wife, Julie, happened to be in New Orleans in 2009 when they came upon thousands of people in the French Quarter in red dresses, both men and women.
“That’s just a normal day in New Orleans,” Julie said. “But when they all have running shoes on, you know something’s up.”
It was the city’s annual Red Dress Run, and the Mills’ reaction was disappointment they weren’t running as well. “We should have checked the race calendar,” Pat said. (Their children, however, were extremely relieved they wouldn’t have to see their parents running through the Big Easy in dresses.)
That’s when Julie began thinking about organizing an informal Champaign-Urbana Red Dress Run. She decided it would be a fitting celebration for her husband’s birthday, as both are longtime runners and former New Orleans residents (and began running in that city).
First, a history of the Red Dress Run.
It originated with a Hash House Harrier group in San Diego, according to Wikipedia. The Harrier groups around the world are known as “drinking clubs with a running problem,” and they originated with British officers and expats in Malaysia in the 1930s. The Hashers organize runs in which the runners follow symbols marked on the ground that often lead to dead-ends, false trails or multiple paths to be explored to determine which is the true trail. Beer is a prominent part of the runs.
The Red Dress Runs spread from San Diego to Harrier clubs elsewhere, including an event in Peru in which the participants ran up a mountainside in their dresses. The largest Red Dress Run is in New Orleans. The 2010 event drew an estimated 10,000 people, not all of them officially registered for the run. The New Orleans run raises money for charity. It’s preceded by several hours of drinking and live music at a preparty, and it’s not what you’d call a family-friendly event. You’ve got to be 21 to participate.
Downtown Champaign is not New Orleans, and we didn’t want anyone to get arrested. Instead of an X-rated run, we were more PG-13.
This past weekend’s 4 1/2-mile run started at the Mills’ house and headed to downtown Champaign and passed through the Downtown Festival of the Arts — a route designed to maximize the display of our fine red plumage. It included drinks at the Esquire Lounge, Huber’s and Cafe Luna.
Spectators applauded, honked and high-fived runners. A few looked confused, but no one seemed to mind our weird sense of fashion or having part of the bar temporarily taken over by three dozen sweaty runners in dresses.
Part of the fun was shopping for the dresses. Pat suspects the Salvation Army and Goodwill stores have been inundated with men and women buying up all their red dresses in the past few weeks. I found my dress — think disco — at a downtown resale shop. (Lesson No. 1: Polyester dresses are hot.)
The event would not have been complete without the participation of the Buffalo, a group of local trail runners who know how to have a good time. Some of them have been known to don a dress occasionally for a race or as volunteers manning a water stop at a race.
“If anybody is willing to do this, the Buffalo are,” said Pat, who often runs with the group.
One of the Buffalo runners ran in a red dress he bought on the advice of a former resident and Buffalo. She’d run with a Hash House Harrier group in the past, and she told her friend to buy a red dress, saying, “Trust me. One day you’ll need this.”
Pat would like to see the run turned into an official event.
“We’re testing the waters,” he said.
Julie said the 60th birthday run was an example that runners who are getting older are still putting in the miles and having fun.
“You can still be a total nut,” she said. “And we all look damn fine in our red dresses.”
Photo by Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette
From left, Michael Shapira, Pat Mills, Sue Anderson, Jodi Heckel, Julie Mills, Rory Mills, Jeff Arrigo and Lania Knight during a 'dress rehearsal' Thursday on Lynn Street in Champaign. The actual 'red dress run' was Saturday night.