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River Bank Run ready for 40th start

More than 18,000 runners expected to compete in annual event, which features largest 25K in the country.

April 28, 2017
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Fifth Third River Bank Run
The Fifth Third River Bank Run pumps about $1.8 million annually into West Michigan’s economy. Courtesy Fifth Third Bank

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Marty Allen found a spot on the curb near the starting line of the River Bank Run and perched beside his friend and volunteer Jerry Seigersma.

As they had done for years — ever since the first River Bank Run, when a strong gust of wind taught them the importance of cutting vent holes into the “START” banner — Allen lit a cigar and Seigersma his pipe, as they gazed on the space that soon would be occupied by thousands of runners.

“We’d sit there and laugh thinking about how the runners would react if they saw us,” Allen recalled.

Siegersma passed away in 2010, but Allen continues to be a mainstay at the annual race he co-founded in 1978. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Fifth Third River Bank Run, with more than 18,000 runners expected to take part on May 13 in the event’s six road races. Each year, the event brings about $1.8 million in economic vitality to the area, and its flagship 25K is the largest 25K road race in the country.

“Somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 people ran in that first race when all we had was the 25K,” Allen said. “The big transition came when we started adding races and other events, and I can honestly say that every year since that first year, we’ve improved.”

The River Bank Run was born when Frank Cashman, of the Grand Rapids Track Club, approached Allen, who was then the marketing director at Old Kent Bank. Allen and bank Chairman Richard Gillett were looking for a way to bring people into the resurgent downtown, when Cashman reached out and asked if Old Kent would be interested in sponsoring a road race.

“I told Frank, ‘Sit still, I’ll be right back,’” Allen recalled. “I went upstairs and said to Dick, ‘I think we’ve got it solved.’”

The Track Club already had determined the course design and supporting details. Cashman, an engineer by trade, had painstakingly researched running and came into the first race with bell curves showing the times when most runners would cross the finish line. Still, some pitfalls nearly derailed the first race.

A tweak to the course moved the finish line, so the runners would end the race at Calder Plaza — meaning the runners would run up the Michigan Street hill at the end of the race. And despite Cashman’s bell curve, volunteers weren’t prepared for the influx of runners that would finish and tear off their race bib for an official time. The resulting bottleneck meant a stream of racers waiting in a single file line to finish with the clock still running.

“At that point, I didn’t think we’d be allowed to do this anymore, the runners are going to hang us,” Allen said. “But the runners were great, and they saw this as such an opportunity to do something great for the city.

“The bank, we were kind of like pioneers with a few arrows in their backs — we stumbled through on a number of things, but finally got it right.”

After that first year, Allen said race participation steadily grew as more and more events were added to the schedule. He attributes some of its growth to good timing — running was just starting to take off — but mostly, he praises the running community and citizens of Grand Rapids for rallying around the race to make it a national draw.

“What’s very unique about this city is the relationship between the private and public leadership, and (Gillett) was the epitome of that at the time,” Allen said. “With the police and everyone in the city involved, I’ve always had the feeling that they enjoyed doing it, and the community just kind of embraced it. That’s just the nature of our community, we are extremely proud of Grand Rapids and it’s the culture of the city to grow.”

Race Director and Fifth Third Regional Marketing Senior Vice President John Zimmerman said about 1,500 volunteers — including 800 from the bank — come together each year to make the race a success. In addition to the annual economic impact of $1.8 million, the race has raised $2.2 million for local charities and impacted more than 650,000 children through the Feelin’ Good Mileage Club fitness incentive program.

Zimmerman said the bank has tracked the economic impact of the River Bank Run for about 10 years and has seen steady increases in viability, as downtown continues to add restaurants, hotels and other attractions. He also credits the city itself for the River Bank Run’s success.

“Although the bank owns and runs it, it’s a community that really makes this successful,” Zimmerman said. “The police department, the Sheriff’s department, the city and county workers, all of them have embraced this race and it’s a year-round conversation with city officials to make it happen.

“Yes, it’s about running, but it’s also all about being a part of something that’s really big.”

In addition to being the largest 25K in the nation and the lone 25K with a wheelchair division in the world, the River Bank Run has held the USA 25K Open Championships since 1995. Olympians, Boston Marathon winners and amateurs alike have participated in the run, which also is the site of the current 25K U.S. record for both women and men.

The chance to compete against some of the best runners in the world makes the River Bank Run a unique event for Grand Rapids, Zimmerman said. Allen recalls an early feature the Grand Rapids Press used to do each year, profiling local runners on their reasons for running the race.

“There was one I read about a factory worker on the West Side, who had a ‘Walter Mitty-type’ way of thinking — dreaming about one day of hitting a home run or one day climbing Everest,” Allen said. “And all of a sudden, there was this event with world-class runners that he could compete in. So, he got into shape and fulfilled his dream.”

Over the course of 40 years, Allen has countless stories stemming from the race. From runners helping one another cross the finish line, going back and finding stragglers and running with them as they finish, to those who are running for a cause or in the memory of loved ones, Allen is blown away by the resolve and sense of community that permeates through the running world.

Like he does every year, Allen looks forward to standing on the podium and watching the sea of runners descend on Monroe Avenue at the crack of the starting pistol. This year, he also will keep an eye out for his daughter racing below, a little cherry on top for the race’s 40th iteration.

“What’s going through my mind, watching that mass of runners all wearing different colored shirts, is that factory worker from the West Side,” Allen said. “I just wonder how many people out there have stories like his, and that’s what I love about it. In my mind, there’s a story for everybody running that race.”

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