The Allerton Trail Run will celebrate its 25th anniversary this weekend. The race is Sunday at Allerton Park.
I wrote about the race recently, but at the time I hadn’t tracked down any of the founders of the race, a couple of whom now live out of state.
Since then, I’ve talked with two of the original race organizers about the run’s beginnings. Here’s what they had to say:
When David Cobb and some of his running buddies wanted to get away for a fun run, they’d head to the trails at Allerton Park near Monticello.
“We had always had this feeling, Allerton was such a great place to go and escape and have a run. We’d go out there for fun runs,” Cobb said.
Cobb, who now lives in Vermont, worked at the University of Illinois and was a Second Wind Running Club member and involved in organizing several area races. One of his running partners was Roland Kehe, a former campus architect for the University of Illinois, now living in Colorado. Kehe was familiar with the people who ran Allerton Park, Cobb said.
“We got started talking and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be a great place to have a run?’” he said.
Cobb, Kehe and two other runners — Larry Nelson of rural Newman, who works in the UI’s physics department, and Wendell Merry — organized that first race.
Cobb said he and Kehe wanted to treat the park and the race in a special way.
“We’d heard about these fancy parties Robert Allerton used to have at the house. We thought, ‘Why don’t we treat this as a fancy party?’” he said.
The two were at the finish line in tuxedos. Nelson remembered Cobb in his tuxedo, standing in the top of the gazebo at the end of the Fu Dog Garden, calling out runners’ names as they finished the race.
The post-race brunch was at the base of the gazebo, which the organizers spruced up with candelabras. And in the early years of the race, the organizers arranged for musicians to be playing along the course. The first year, a chamber ensemble set up in a tent near the mansion and played for runners as they passed by along the course.
Nelson recalled a group playing in the meadow, as runners entered it from the woods.
“As soon as they came out of the woods, we had this combo set up. People were like, ‘Wow, this is cool!’” Nelson said. “Besides having one of our own trail runs, the other idea was to make it a little classy.”
The race was a success, but after nearly a year of planning, it almost didn’t happen.
“I remember getting to the park at 5:00 in the morning to start setting things up” on race day, Cobb said. It had rained the two previous days and the park superintendent at the time said the race would have to be canceled because it was too wet and muddy along the river.
Cobb and the other race organizers were expecting 450 runners.
“We went on a walking tour with him. There were mud puddles and water and, god knows, a lot of mud. We finally convinced him to do it,” Cobb said.
“I remember that first race, the runners coming out of the woods into the Fu Dog Garden, completely covered with mud,” he continued. “As a race director, I thought it was fantastic.”
One of the runners, former Champaign Central cross country coach Dike Stirrett, lost one of his shoes in the mud along the course.
“I don’t think that shoe has surfaced yet,” Cobb said.
He is happy to see the race still going after 25 years. He said the support from Second Wind Running Club, Body n’ Sole Sports and Allerton Park were critical in getting the race going in the first few years. And so was the loyal following of runners who raced it.
“I think the runners really thought of it as a special place, and I think they treated it that way,” Cobb said.
Grear Kimmel, who was race director for the Allerton run for a couple of years in the mid-1990s, surveyed runners one year about how many had been to Allerton for the first time to do the race.
“It was a high percentage,” Kimmel said. “We really introduced Allerton to a lot of people.”
Cobb isn’t able to return for this year’s race, but he plans on being there in 2013, “to get them started on the next 25.
“It’s a special event for me, something I have really good memories about,” Cobb said.