Pacific Road Runners

Although this is not quite ‘news’ to me, it has just become public. The Pacific Road Runners  “First Half” Half Marathon has become part of the RunVan stable of running events. It is no longer a club owned/operated event as it had been from the very first race, back in 1989 and up until the 2018 race. I hope and trust that RunVan will operate it with some consideration of First Half traditions, but once such a decision is taken, the old guard must step away and let what was, rest in peace. As good an event as the First Half WAS, who knows, it may be even better with a larger professionally managed format. There will be advantages and options not available to a club.

In the early days, there were PANCAKES!

I have known for a while that this change was being considered. As has been my custom since about 2004, I was again involved in the staging of the event in 2018. When I saw the complete list of the race team, it was a bit shocking to see that almost all the names were the same as when I was Race Director (2006 – 2010). PRR, like many running clubs, is made up of members who just run and organize as a hobby. Everyone has a job and other responsibilities. Staging races in a major city becomes more and more complicated every year. For a range of reasons, supporters become shorter term partners and then move on. The event still needs the support, so there is often a new crisis in finding the new/replacement partner. The energy required to keep this going is more than most will understand and apparently reached the point where a modestly sized running club could no longer muster what was needed.

We wrote a 20 year history while I was RD, but naturally, there is now almost another 10 years worth to add to that. I hope you will pardon me, while I dig out some of those memories. Some of the biggest names in Vancouver and Canadian running are part of the history of the race. I mentioned sponsors, or as it is more common to say these days – partners. There have been many, and generous partners over the years. That said, there was ONE partner who was with the First Half from the first race to the last: Forerunners. The founders of Forerunners are Peter and Karen Butler. Peter, just coming to the end of his elite running career in 1989, was the first winner of the first First Half.

Rachel Cliff for the WIN and new Record 2018)

Beginning with Peter, you can add an illustrious string of names over the years, women and men, who competed in and won the First Half. Numbered among them are Olympians, world level competitors and record holders; in summary, Canada’s best. There have been multi-year winners and the event records have been somewhat astounding when you realize the race has always been held around mid-February. Although the name of the race has nothing to do with it being the first half marathon of the year, in fact it pretty much is.

Of course, records are made to be broken, so it only makes sense to cite the current records, but it should not be lost on anyone that a number of the winners were also record breakers/holders at the time. The current men’s record is 1:o4:21, set in 2012 by, Dylan Wykes. The current women’s record is 1:12:21 set just a couple of months ago in 2018 by Rachel Cliff, breaking the 16 year record of Tina Connelly of 1:12:47.

Here are the winning women over the years. They are in chronological order (1989 to 2018) and any given individual is only listed once, but if she won more than once, the number is shown in brackets after the name. Check these amazing runners out:

Isabelle Dittberner (2), Carolyn Hubbard, Sylviane Puntous, Jackie Zwertailo, Lisa Weidenbach, Lucy Smith (2), Tina Connelly (3), Meghan O’Brian, Erin Heffring, Lisa Harvey (4), Janine Mofett, Leah Pells, Kirsty Smith, Cheryl Murphy, Ellie Greenwood, Natasha Wodak (2), Catrin Jones, Dayna Pidhoresky (2), Rachel Cliff.

On the men’s side, the list is also long and illustrious:

Peter Butler, Ashley Dustow, Art Boileau (3), Bruce Deacon (3), Phil Ellis (2), Carey Nelson, Norm Tinkham (2), Neil Holm, Jeremy Deer, Steve Osaduik, Ryan Hayden (2), Richard Mosley, Dylan Wykes (3), Rob Watson (3), Eric Gillis.

Art Boileau 3X winner, is still going in 2018!

There are probably a few asterisks to go with these lists. The biggest is that most of these winners, ran many more times than the winner lists suggest. As an example, Art Boileau won three times, but he was also second  and has run the race many other times, including in 2018. The same can be said of so many of these fine athletes. The Puntous twins were very well known in their time and famous for being right on each other’s heels. When Sylviane won in 1991, Patricia was in second, just 5 seconds back. In 1989, they were second and third (same order) with just one second between.

A little road clearing was needed before we could run in 2007

In 1992 Bruce Deacon set an event record (1:04:45) that stood until 2007 when Ryan Hayden posted a 1:04:44 on a very different course. Not only different, but ‘alternate’. 2007 was the year of the great wind storm that closed the Seawall for almost a year and forced the route to go up and over Prospect Point (on the road) rather than around the Seawall. It was my first year as RD. There was some furious conferencing as to whether or not we would recognize the new event record. The First Half has had a stable route for some time, but followed various routes over the years, so the record has always been an ‘event’ record. Notwithstanding the chaos and turmoil of that race, we knew we had the alternate route measured. (Everyone was also pretty sure it was a LOT more difficult than the normal route.) Calm and wisdom prevailed and the record was recognized and Bruce’s fifteen year reign was done.

If anyone decides to go check for themselves at the PRR race web site (while it is still there), they may notice that in 1989 Peter Butler recorded an event time of 1:04:23 and Isabelle Dittberner had a time of 1:10:45. You would have to ask yourself why those were not the records to be broken. It would be a good question. The answer was a slip-up either in the actual measuring or perhaps in course layout on race day. It was determined that somehow 21.1km had morphed into 20.3km. It was 800m short. Here is the story from Peter, himself:

“………the 1989 Pacific Road Runners “First Half” Half Marathon was effectively my 2nd last competitive run (the last being a 30KM event at UBC several weeks later) where I ran 1:33. The “First Half” race itself was between me and Kiwi, Ashley Dustow, with Ashley setting the pace at approximately 5:00 minutes per mile for the first 10 miles or so. I stayed with him most of the way, finally surging away with 5K remaining. The result (1:04:23) seemed too fast at the time and sure enough, it was discovered afterwards to be 2:30 or about 800 metres short. My personal best for the half, is a 1:03:30 (1985) but that was a few years earlier when I was in 2:10:56 marathon shape. I remember the 1989 race starting at the entrance to Granville Island and doing several loops in the False Creek area before finishing on Granville Island………………..”

I am told by Maurice Wilson (BC Athletics and long-time PRR club member), a fine runner in his own right back at the time of the first First Half, that rather than lead cyclists or police motorcycle escort, there was a lead runner team. I believe there were two runners (Maurice being one) who could go fast enough for up to about 10K, to stay ahead of the lead racer and warn pedestrians that the race was coming. At half way, they switched off. I don’t know how long this method was followed, but you surely don’t see it today!

It isn’t all about the elites! Mid-pack runners enjoying the day on the Seawall.

All of this said, the First Half has long been a race for a wide range of runners. The participation of anyone able to cover 21.1km in under three hours was welcomed and celebrated. As an insider, I can tell you that it has always been a challenge to keep people around post-race for the results and awards, because none of that part of the event was going to start until the last competitor crossed the finish line! Ways were found to speed up the process once awards ceremonies began, but that part of the program never happened until the race was truly over. Every runner was considered to be the same as every other competitor.

My first time assisting with the Variety cheque presentation, in 2007.

On a very personal note, my association with the First Half and the honour of serving as Race Director for a period of time stand out as highlights of my career in running. A big reason for that is the TEAM aspect of staging the event. One of the outstanding aspects of the volunteer team was the continuing presence of former RDs. On race weekend, almost all former race directors could be found doing one job or another (or maybe several). The only exceptions were two of the earliest who no longer lived in BC. PRR has been a group of people second to none that I’ve ever been associated with, where it comes to stepping up and serving. Former club members (people who have either stopped running or live too far away to actively participate in the club) come back each year to volunteer for the First Half. From the smallest to the largest job, there was always someone ready to step up. Sadly, I guess I have to add, until now.

Setting up at the Roundhouse and getting Course gear ready for Sunday morning. The part few see.

As I understand it, collectively, the club had just run out of energy to keep the race going to the current standard, and improving. Make no mistake, one of the hallmarks of the First Half is that it did constantly improve and innovate all through its almost 30 year history. I’m pretty sure the ‘easy’ decision would just have been to continue. I mean, after all these years and so much experience, it is not that difficult to turn the crank one more time. Not difficult, but with each turn, maybe just a little less special. I know the decision to ‘sell’ the race to RunVan and the Vancouver International Marathon Society was not taken easily. It remains to be seen over the longer term if it was the right decision. And, I must say that this is not a comment about RunVan that operates the BMO Vancouver Marathon, the Granville Island Turkey Trot 10K and Fall Classic  (and now the First Half), it’s about the decision itself and the other options that were necessarily rejected in the process. One thing I DO know is that when such a decision is taken, there should be no looking back. The King is dead! Long live the King!  That sort of thing.

The good news is that management has changed, but the race goes on! It will be quite exciting to see what the ‘All New First Half” looks like come February. Naturally, one hopes that the new owner will take the best of the best from the event, and augment with newer better ideas, maybe ones that a modest running club could not entertain. Anyway, that is MY hope. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about the ‘new and improved’ event, but right now (and just this one time) please join me in a nostalgic look back at the “First Half”.

Back in the times when the race was inaugurated, most races were club organized affairs. The Vancouver Marathon was the baby of Lions Gate Road Runners and the Vancouver International Marathon Society. Running clubs indulged in friendly rivalry, but there was also plenty of support and cooperation among the clubs. Basically, if a club was prepared to put on a race for the rest of the community, that community needed to be supportive of the other guy’s race and vice versa. Although I do know some of the people who WERE there, I don’t know precisely what went on behind closed doors. As I understand it, there was agreement that it would be good to have a half marathon prep race leading up to the Vancouver Marathon (run in early May). I believe there was even talk that there should be two half marathons staged prior to the marathon. What emerged was the “First Half” Half Marathon. At least in some people’s minds (and maybe until it was learned how challenging it would be to stage two) there was supposed to be a “Second Half” Half Marathon. Eventually, the First Half became a major and prestigious event in its own right and very much under the management of PRR. However, there always was interaction between PRR and LGRR where it came to staging the First Half and the Vancouver Marathon. Gear was loaned and volunteer teams were swapped over many years.

2009 Lead Pack at 1 Mile on a cool and sunny morning.

For a race run in February, the First Half has had an amazing record of good weather. Even the storm that took down all those trees in Stanley Park (as a special treat and introduction to me as a new RD in 2007), was not on race day and gave us time to organize an alternate route and stage the race. The great snow storm of 2017 resulted in the only weather cancelation in the history of the First Half.

The sun is not guaranteed

There was one other cancelation in 2010 when David Lam Park was ‘ground zero’ for the in town celebration site for the 2010 Winter Olympics. The Roundhouse was the Italian HQ and celebration centre. We tried and tried to find a date and location that was not a direct conflict. Unfortunately, for certainty of venues etc., there was a rather large window around the actual dates of the Olympics and Para-Olympics, and while it was even admitted that our race could likely have been accommodated, a policy of NO events was adopted, no exceptions. Rather than push out and impinge on other local races, we eventually gave in and decided to cancel. That was my last year as RD (it was going to be anyway) and I think I may have worked harder NOT putting on that race, than I did as RD of the three we did stage!

Plaza of Nations, 1996.

You can’t write about the First Half and ignore the association with Variety – The Children’s Charity. There has always been a charity component to the race, but the affiliation with and support of Variety commenced in 1995. Arrangements had been made to stage the race out of the newly refurbished Roundhouse Community Centre. Too bad it wasn’t finished. What to do? In those days, Variety was using the Plaza of Nations area (and what became the casino) for its annual Show of Hearts Telethon. Arrangements were quickly made to use the Plaza of Nations and make a donation to Variety in return. From that time on, even though by the next year the Roundhouse was available, the First Half supported Variety with a charitable donation. In the most recent years, that donation has risen to an annual contribution of $50,000. From the very beginning and up to the 2018 First Half, the total donation to Variety has reached $790,000. Because of the generous support of partners, runners and careful management by PRR, not to mention huge volunteer hours, this money is realized directly from the race revenues. Runners were always encouraged to personally support Variety, but the race never took pledges or tried to keep track of such donations. And, while doing all of this, the registration costs were kept reasonable for a half marathon of its size and quality.

Rushing to the computers to register. Oh, no, start crowd 2018.

A big feature of the First Half was the rapid sell-out for races after about 2005 or 2006. Interestingly, the inaugural race in 1989 saw just 380 entrants. It was a different time though and half marathon races or longer were a good deal more ‘hard core’ than today. Still, registration numbers grew steadily until 2001 when they just tipped over 2000 (the permitted limit). For some years, the race sold out, but around 2005, the time involved became about one month after opening registration, then it became a week, a few days, a DAY and then hours. The last year I was RD (2009) for a race that actually happened, we sold out in 3:26 (hours and minutes). Your first challenge, if you wanted to run the First Half, had become getting to your computer and getting registered. For some time the actual hour of opening of registration was kept secret. The first time a decision was taken to reveal the time when registration would go live, the registrar’s computers were swamped!

I could go on (and on). As I have searched for the background photos and info, I have come across so many memories. But, you must stop somewhere. I guess this is it. As one of those who has had the privilege of being the Race Director, I believe I should thank all PRR members who made this race what it became. I want to acknowledge both club members and community volunteers without whom race weekend could not happen. If I have my count right there have been eight RDs who aren’t me. I want to particularly make mention of three. Marco Iucolino (RD for eight years) who preceded me and taught me everything I know about the race, and was singularly responsible for getting the whole thing wrangled into chewable pieces, with an operating manual for each sector. I want to recognize Nicki Decloux who took over from me and gave me the best advice I got as we struggled over the 2010 Olympic impasse: step away from the phone/computer/race, you’ve done all that can be done! Finally, I must recognize the last RD, Terry Bushnell, who probably had the most difficult job of all of us. He was the one who had to be responsible for turning off the lights. I’m glad it wasn’t my job. I’m not sure I could have done it.

To RunVan: we may be gone, but we won’t forget. We wish you all the best with the new RunVan First Half and I’m pretty sure that if you need any help, you won’t have a hard time finding someone.



sorry, comments are closed