By Tim Kelly
Dave Kolesar’s T-shirt said it all.
The 63-year old competitor in Saturday’s Captain Bill Gallagher Island Run made a strong fashion statement about the event and his loyalty to it with his green, crudely designed shirt, a relic from the 1975 race, its fifth running.
Kolesar, a senior engineer at DuPont from King of Prussia, PA and former Villanova University track and cross country star, was competing and would finish for the 44th consecutive year.
“There’s no other race like this one,” said Kolesar. He finished the 10-mile Promenade and beach course in 1:22: 20, good for 298th place overall and fifth in his age group. “The fan support is one of the things that sets this race apart. All the people coming out, and cheering on the runners, especially at the South end, really make it special.”
The 49th edition of the race was no exception. More than 1,000 people completed applications to run, 900 answered the starter’s horn and more than 700 finished. And once again, thousands of spectators lined the course holding signs of encouragement, chanting the names of their favorite runners and offering water and sometimes stronger libations. It’s all part of the event’s charm.
The Island Run, which began as a lifeguards-only run covering more than 14 miles attracting about 25 people, has evolved into one of the most popular summer runs on the East Coast, despite also being one of the most grueling.
Known for being traffic free, having a modest entry fee and offering numerous runner amenities, the race’s main attraction is the unusual course itself. Starting at beach Patrol Headquarters at 44th Street, it proceeds north on the Prominade to 29th Street, then onto the beach to a turnaround in Strathmere, back to the Prominade south to 59th street, then on the beach again to the final turn near the recently re-opened Ocean Drive Bridge. The final miles complete the loop northward to the finish line back at 44th where the trek began.
No matter how familiar runners may become with the course, each year is different, said Bill Kehner, 67, of Pitman, another longtime participant who finished for the 42nd straight year and was the eighth oldest person to cross the finish line.
“Some years, there are jetties to hurdle and water to slosh through,” he said. “The wind direction can change in the middle of the race.”
This year, however, runners said a tailwind helped them after the final turn, and there were no exposed jetties or significant ponding of ocean water.
The SICBP did its usual stellar job of organizing and executing the event.
“I think it went pretty well,” Beach Patrol Chief Renny Steele understated. “We haven’t heard any complaints. For an event of this size that’s good. (Running) conditions couldn’t have been a whole lot better.”
Steele’s history with SICBP closely parallels the Island Run. Next year’s race will mark the 50th anniversaries of both the event and Steele’s tenure with the Beach Patrol. A retired teacher, he never envisioned the Run’s exponential growth.
“When I became Captain, I knew the race was part of the job,” he said, but admitted he didn’t think Race Director of a major event on the East Coast running calendar would one day be a line on his resume.
A team approach is one of the keys that makes it all work, Steele explained. “I have 96 employees and all 96 worked the event in some way,” Steele said. “We also have tremendous community support. The City understands the (tourism) value the race brings.”
In the mid-90s, the event’s name was changed to honor Bill Gallagher, its founder.
“Bill was one of my mentors, and Captain when I was starting out as a beach Guard”, said Steele. He was and still is very active, helping us tweak the race and make improvements to it. I know he is really looking forward to next year’s 5oth anniversary.”
Planning for the half-century anniversary edition will begin in earnest in early January, Steele said. The 2020 race date is already set, August 8, and it will begin, as always, rain or shine at 5:30 sharp.
For Steele, who has led the SICBP as Captain and then Chief since 1986, the Island Run is in a very good place as currently evolved.
“To be honest, we don’t want it to get much larger than it is now,” he said. “We’re not trying to make money, we’re actually trying to keep the cost down. And the Prominade can’t really handle many more people. We don’t really advertise it other than a few race calendars.”
That said, Renny’s not worried folks won’t show up.
“One of the reasons it’s so popular is the tradition. People (of a certain age like Kolesar) run it for as long as they can, and the next generations are picking up the tradition.”
Some would say that as the Island Run approaches the 50 year milestone, the race has become more than a tradition. It’s now a bona fide Sea Isle institution.