Starting in 1978, with running for fitness in its infancy, The Jacksonville River Run, as it was called, was more of a competitive race than a fun “run.” Race organizer Buck Fannin recruited the Times Union and Jacksonville Journal as the sponsors, drumming up publicity and support for the run.
Using the Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta as a model, the first race had about 2,600 participants. A pretty good start. Peachtree is 10K, and Jacksonville wanted something a little different. So they settled on 15K.
Marathon icon Bill Rodgers was recruited for the first race. He won, but then did the course again to complete his training for the day. Organizers paid him about $1,000 under the table so he could keep his amateur status.
Doug Alred ran that first race in 1978 and the next four as well. That same year, Alred, a CPA by trade, and his wife Jane had opened a store on Baymeadows calling it, “1st Place Sports.” They had sign out front labeling the store as “Your Running and Snow Ski Headquarters.” They knew only selling running stuff wouldn’t keep them in business.
“We had a store and were wondering how to get people in the store,” Alred said this week. “So we got involved in the River Run.”
It was a business that followed their passion for running. Doug was a pretty good competitive runner and wanted to keep it up. This was before running became a fitness craze, before Nike became Nike and Adidas was still a European phenomenon.
But to get the store open, Alred knew he needed the latest equipment, and Nike was about to boom.
“I knew we needed Nike in the store, so I met with their sales rep at my apartment and put together a big order to get us going,” he recalled. “But Athletic Attic got wind of the order and told Nike not to sell to us. So the salesman called and said, ‘Sorry Doug, we have to cancel.’’
Thinking he’d never get the store off the ground, Alred went to meet with his business partner Doug Milne to give him the bad news.
“I told Doug Nike wouldn’t sell to us because Athletic Attic put the squeeze on them. He didn’t say a word, didn’t flinch. He just turned around in his chair with his back to me and started dialing the phone. I heard him say ‘Hi Bill’ and tell the story. When he was finished he turned around and said, ‘You’ll have Nike next week.’ Turns out his college roommate was Bill Bowerman at Oregon, (the founder of Nike.) What are the odds!”
It was in 1983 that Doug and Jane were asked to be the race directors for the River Run as the day, the sport, the run and the business of running began to explode.
“River Run was born out of the first running boom. A competitive boom. It was a competitive race,” Alred recalled. “The first one had a very high percentage of out of town runners.”
Icons like Rodgers, Joan Benoit, Greta Waitz, Meb Keflezigi, Todd Williams, and Denna Drossin raised the profile of the Gate River Run to international status. Williams set the 15K American record in 1996 at 42:22. A time so fast that Alred went out and re-measured the course.
In 1994 USA Track and Field designated it as the 15K National Championship. Also in ‘94 Herb Peyton decided to get involved, putting up prize money to put “Gate” in front of “River Run.”
“We’ve gone through the dominance of so many countries and continents when it comes to winning the race,” Alred said of the GRR, now in it’s 42nd year
“The English dominated, the Mexicans, then the Americans and the Kenyans. We created the ‘American Cup’ awarding $2,000 to the first American finisher and helped to keep developing American runners. That led to the National Championship designation. Then we were fortunate to have Todd (Williams) and Meb (Keflezigi) dominate for so long.”
Now known in the running world as the “Gate,” the 15K here every March has established itself as one of the premier races on the international running calendar.
“One thing I wanted to do along the way was to keep it as a competition,” Alred said. “It started as that but there’s the fitness component. We try to roll everything into one race.”
While the GRR has an international reputation, it’s the local runners who fortify the day.
“We’ll have 85 elite runners in the field this year,” Alred explained, “But the number of first-time runners every year is a very high percentage. It’s more of a social event. It’s a bucket list item.”
River Run in 1978 had about 2,600 runners. The 2019 Gate River Run version will have over 20,000 participants.
“The biggest boom in running happened when women started running,” Alred said. “That changed the business. The first River Run had 85% men. This year’s Gate will be 57% women.”
Now in his 37th year as race director, Alred has a full-time staff of five dedicated to the GRR and the nearly 100 races they organize and operate ever year. Jane runs the now five stores that make up 1st Place Sports on the retail side of running.
It’s safe to say the GRR wouldn’t be what it is without Doug and Jane at the helm. Do they have an exit strategy?
“We’ve been working that way,” Doug said with a laugh.