Past Times

Remembering Raleigh’s early road races

Runners start off in the 1980 Governor’s Run for Fun and Health.
Runners start off in the 1980 Governor’s Run for Fun and Health. NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

The jogging craze that began in the 1970s saw the beginning of local road races. One was the Great Raleigh Road Race that started in 1978.

They were young and old, men and women, athletes and wheelchair-bound. They were running to Dorton Arena at the State Fairgrounds about 6.2 miles away in the inaugural Great Raleigh Road Race.

Between 30 and 90 minutes later, depending on the participant, most had finished. Fatigued but apparently happy, each received a Raleigh Road Race T-shirt and each contemplated the knowledge that the agony-ecstasy of running was over.…

By the end of the ordeal, bright T-shirts had been marked with perspiration. The hundreds of cheerful, smiling faces of the starting line had been transformed to grimaces.

But for most of the runners, it seemed it had been a worthwhile effort.…

Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., dressed in a red T-shirt and baggy Bermuda shorts, was one of the spectators near the finish line. Hunt, who sometimes jogs through downtown Raleigh, said he didn’t enter the race this year but “I’m going to run in the next one.” The N&O June 5, 1978

Gov. Hunt went on to establish the Governor’s Run for Fun and Health, a 1.5-mile fun run that was held later that year. In 1982, N&O writer Dennis Rogers described his experiences with the run.

I don’t like to lie on official governmental documents, but I told a lie the other day, a bald-faced lie.

I didn’t know it was a lie then. I thought that at most I was slightly embellishing the facts, but it turned out to be a real first-class fib.

What I did was sign a statement that I was in good physical condition.

You had to sign it to participate in the Fifth Annual Governor’s Run for Fun and Health.…

I ran in the first of these events five years ago. I did not do too well. I was passed by children. I was passed by a man wearing a gray gabardine suit and black wingtips. I was passed by a man in a wheelchair.

I swore that would never happen again.

So I went into training.

I figured that since I was exhausted at the end of the first run, the thing to do was rest up for the second one.

So I rested.

For five years I have rested. I have not run at all, saving my strength for my triumphant return to competition. The only running I did at all during those five long years of serious training was while playing softball, and since I didn’t get too many hits, I didn’t have to run a lot.…

I figured I had saved up a lot of strength in five years, surely enough to get me through Oakwood with respectable dash, flash and class.

I was serious about this thing. I had made tactical errors my first time, errors I swore not to repeat.

For example, this time I had promised myself I would not stop and have a cigarette at the half-way point. My plan this time was to smoke several before the contest began and then tough it out.

This time, remembering the fellow in the gray suit and black shoes, I decided not to dress in runner’s garb. I showed up in jeans, a dress shirt, a sweater, black socks and sneakers.

But I had a secret weapon. I had my Willie Nelson headband. I had noticed the other people who seemed to do well wore headbands. Some of them had headbands with the word “Head” emblazoned on them. I figured it was unnecessary to label my head, since I thought most people would recognize it as a head, what with the ears and a nose. They are difficult to mistake.

Besides, I did not want to be taken to the hospital in shorts and a smelly T-shirt. I like to be properly dressed at all times.

I was a finely honed machine when I got to the starting line. People around me were stretching and jogging in place. I had stretched that morning when I got out of bed and more seemed redundant.

I followed my game plan. I sat down and smoked a cigarette. Then, just to make sure, I smoked another one.

Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. made a few remarks that no one heard because he was at the back of the pack with a Mister Microphone. He made the runners wait until he got to the front of the pack, a cheap move that bears investigating. I thought that was cheating and plan to file a complaint.

We athletes watch for things like that.

Then came the echo of a gunshot and everybody hauled off down the hill.

Lord have mercy, I was almost trampled by 2,000 thundering feet. Naked legs flashed by me in a blur.

I put out my final cigarette and took off, so confident I may have even appeared cocky to the cheering bystanders.

I ran with ease for a long time. Wow, I had it made, this would be my final revenge.

I began to tire after awhile and looked up to see how close I was to the finish line.

I wasn’t all that close to the finish line.

In fact, I hadn’t quite reached the starting line.

But on I struggled, a gallant athlete giving it his all, running not for fame and riches but for the glory of sport. I’m sure that the bystanders went away inspired by my effort.…

I looked behind me to see whether I had a chance to beat anybody – I didn’t care who it was – but the only person behind me was Deborah Pope and she was five months pregnant and she was gaining on me with every step.

So I did what any red-blooded American would do when faced with such a crisis.

I cheated.

I took a short cut.…

I was not last. I did beat Deborah Pope and her unborn baby by several yards.

And I didn’t have to trip her to do it.

But I was fully prepared to, if necessary. The N&O Oct. 19, 1982

Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/past-times.

Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

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