The story of the Skunk Cabbage Classic begins well before the race itself. In the late 1960s and into the 1970s, Jim Hartshorne, the first FLRC president, conducted a spring event that he referred to as a “working marathon.” By that, Jim meant this run to be strictly a last-chance qualifier for Boston, to be conducted each year on the first weekend of March. Since the organizers of the Boston Marathon required that competitors have a qualifying time on a certified course, Jim would make sure that the Ithaca course was measured each year; then on the evening after the race, he would call in the results to Will Cloney to make sure that qualifiers got to run Boston in April. The race itself was to have no prizes, minimal services, no frills — in short, just as Jim said, it was an all-caps “WORKING MARATHON.”
For instance, Jim had his starting line at a tree in front of a Cornell barn about 600 meters up Ellis Hollow Road from East Hill Plaza. How runners got to the tree was up to them. Jim’s idea was that competitors could dress at Teagle, then make what he called in his entry blank a “short warm-up jog” to the starting line about a mile-and-a-half away. He once told me, “That shouldn’t bother ‘em. They gotta be tough to do a marathon.” (The tree, by the way, was cut down some years ago.)
When Barbara Booker became the club president in the early 80s, the focus of the spring marathon changed. Barb and her husband, Jack, came to me to ask if I would take over as director. For the next few years, the race became more of a standard marathon than a working one. The starting line was moved to Teagle Hall on the Cornell campus so that bathroom and shower facilities were readily available.
In spite of the innovation of hot showers, not to mention prizes and t-shirts, the spring marathon never became popular. In its last year, for instance, I recall that there were twenty-four starters at an event for twenty-six volunteers. Something had to change.
Before the final spring marathon but soon after I became club president, my wife Mary Ann and I instituted occasional Sunday morning bagel brunch runs at our house. We would throw an old Seiko watch in our mailbox, and participants ran either a 5K or a 10K loop. The first finisher picked up the watch and called out times for a few others, then handed the watch to someone else, etc. After the race, we all ate bagels. I recall that at one of these races we had forty-six runners, with Mary Ann and me (and the persons who stood at the mailbox with the watch) the only volunteers. It was clear there was a disconnect here.
I decided to try to put together a “best race”: it would be run at the best time of year for the competitor, with the best prizes, nicest course, lowest price, and most services. The results would be out just after the last competitor finished. Winners would not have to wait too long for trophies. And there would be free bagels. We chose April, stayed with a Teagle Hall start and ceremonies at Barton. We had equal numbers of awards for men and women; not a given in those days. I thought I had the best name: the Skunk Cabbage Runs, but Tom Dyckman had a better one: The Skunk Cabbage Classic.
That was the idea, and that was the start.
Well, as you might expect, we had some successes and some surprises. The courses, especially the half-marathon, while hilly (this is Ithaca, after all), were popular. The finish line was well organized, thanks to Bob Stalnaker, Joe Dabes, Rich Hoebeke, and so many others over the years. Katy Gottschalk and John Paul got out results so quickly that in one of the early years we announced a winner as she was coming in the Barton Hall door after just crossing the finish line. Full results, done by the ‘80’s innovation of a computer, were in people’s hands about twenty minutes after the last competitor arrived. Thanks to Mary Ann and to Louise Dabes, there was plenty of free food, including bagels.
For me, there were two main surprises. First, people didn’t like my “no prize-t-shirt” idea. (Joe Dabes, T.J. Pempel, Bob Congdon, and others had warned me, but I didn’t listen.) Competitors preferred the option of paying more than the one-dollar entry fee. We began giving shirts (for a higher fee, of course) about the third year of the race.
The other major surprise was also due to me: the weather. Well, that is, the weather itself isn’t due to me, but the race date pretty much is. See, when I had surveyed the historical records, I noticed that the average temperature in mid-April is about fifty degrees Fahrenheit; that’s good for runners. But I should have looked more carefully; the standard deviation in the temperature for April is really high. Thus, as most of you know, the temperature at the starting time for the race has varied from about 35 degrees to just about 90. One year I even recall it being sunny and 70 for the half-marathon and 35 and snowy for the 10K.
Oh well. What can I say? Next time I try to design the “perfect race,” I guess it’ll have to be elsewhere than Ithaca. Still, it is nice to see those two signs of spring: skunk cabbage, and runners around the roads in Ellis Hollow in April.