NORWALK, Conn. -- Necessity is the mother of invention, which explains perfectly why Norwalk’s Jim Gerweck started the Boston Buildup running series 39 years ago.
- Who: Jim Gerweck, Norwalk
- What: Race director, Boston Buildup running series
- More info: Visit clubct.org
The opening 10-kilometer in this year’s edition of the four-race series steps off Sunday at Brien McMahon High School in Norwalk at 10 a.m. with more than 300 runners anticipated to on the starting line.
The first race in 1978 held a lot less fanfare. Gerweck and a partner, Tom Nash, published a local running tabloid at the time. With hardly any races in the winter at the time, they were desperate for content for their publication.
“We started in the summer and when we got to fall, we tried to create a calendar and there wasn’t anything,’’ Gerweck said. “We wouldn’t have anything to write about. We came up with the concept of the winter series to give us something to write about and give runners something to do in the winter.”
Gerweck capped registration at 100 runners. To hold down costs, each runner got one bib for all four races. To record results, volunteers wrote down the numbers as runners crossed the finish line.
George Hirsch, publisher of The Runner magazine, and later Runner’s World, was among the runners in the first race. “I think the course was actually too long,’’ Gerweck said. “I went out and measured it on a kid’s bike, and my knees kept hitting the handlebars.”
The race was also Gerweck’s first as a race director. He now directs 10 to 15 races each year, along with the Boston Buildup Series and the popular cross country summer series at Waveny Park in New Canaan.
The Buildup Series has become one of the most highly anticipated events for runners who are training for spring marathons. For the first 17 years, the races averaged about 100 runners, and dwindled as the courses lengthened.
When the Boston Marathon increased participation for its 100th-anniversary marathon in 1996, participation in the Buildup Series surged, and has topped 200 for nearly every race. The opening 10k is the most popular, with nearly 400 runners crossing the finish line just a few years ago.
“I guess the word just got out and it was a happy coincidence with the growth of Boston that year,’’ Gerweck said. “A lot of people discovered the Buildup and we started getting more people from outside the area. It was also the beginning of the second running boom at that point.”
The race attracts its regulars, some of whom have run most of the races for the past 30 years or more. There are also many “one-and-done” types, who train for their bucket list marathons and then don’t return.
“I’m surprised by its staying power,’’ Gerweck said. “You never think about long term plans. It’s kind of like the marathon. You just take it mile by mile. With this, it’s a year by year thing. If somebody had asked me to sign a contract to keep doing this for 39 years, I would have looked at them like they were crazy.”
Gerweck established his running background at New Canaan High School, where he competed for the cross country and track teams. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in English, but he also ran frequently with athletes on the school’s track and cross country teams.
“I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do after college,’’ said Gerweck, who now runs a silk screen business with Jeff Gee, the Wilton High School cross country and track coach. “I thought about becoming a teacher, but two education courses turned me off to that pretty quickly.”
He wrote for various newspapers, including a long-standing gig as the weekly running columnist for the Stamford Advocate. He has also coached boys track and cross country at Wilton High, discontinuously, since the mid-1980s. Gerweck also contributes frequently to national running publications.
Most Fairfield County runners, however, know Gerweck from the Buildup Series and the summer races at Waveny. The Buildup Series includes a 15k in Ridgefield, a 20k in Fairfield and a closing 25k in Norwalk.
The variable weather scenarios make the Series a challenge and often give Gerweck sleepless nights the week before a race.
“A couple of years ago, three of the four races had to be postponed because of weather,’’ Gerweck said. “Last year we lucked out. There was always something the day after the race. I try not to look at the forecast until Wednesday because it’s not worth it.”
The advent of the internet makes Gerweck’s job easier for communication and registration. Prior to the digital age, he relied on old school methods to report race postponements. “I think we called a couple of radio stations, we might have even had the old telephone chain,’’ he said. “Now I try to make the decision early so that people can make plans for their weekend long runs.”
Weather can still wreak havoc with the races. A while back, ink froze in pens at the 15k in Ridgefield when runners tried to write in their registration info. Another year, also in Ridgefield, water froze in the cups handed out to runners along the course.
Just three years ago, runners skated through the streets of Norwalk in the 10k. “I was on the course in the morning and the roads were fine,’’ Gerweck said. “About five minutes before the start of the race, it started drizzling. We said let’s get this started on time. The road was just below freezing, and the drizzle turned to ice on contact. It was a sheet of ice and everybody fell. I was amazed anyone finished. That was by far the worst. It just came on at the last minute.”
Through it all, Gerweck still enjoys producing the races almost as much as the runners. “It gives me something to do on weekends,’’ Gerweck said. “In the early years, I’d check in everybody personally. I knew 70 to 80 percent of the runners. Now it’s a lot bigger and a lot more impersonal, but it’s still a good way to see people. The social aspect of it is pretty important.”
For more information and to register for the Boston Buildup, click here.
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