Thirty-five years ago on the last Sunday in September, runners descended on Frick Park to line up for a race.
More than three decades later the course is the same and, surely enough, runners still flock to the same starting spot on that same last Sunday in September. Now, though, it happens to be a slightly larger event with a greater meaning.
Sunday, the Great Race will take place for the 35th time. In its rich history it has evolved from a little-known 10-kilometer race into a signature event on the local sports scene.
"The significance is that the event continues to grow not only as an athletic event, not only as an event for the fitness of our population, but also as a civic celebration," Great Race director Mike Radley said.
As it celebrates its 35th anniversary, the Great Race has reached new levels of popularity. This year, organizers raised the cap on the number of participants in the 10K and 5K to 15,000 total and just a few weeks ago, registration was closed as that 15,000 racer mark was met.
That was far from the case when the event began in 1977. Established by then-mayor Richard Caliguiri as a "community fun run," the inaugural Great Race featured 1,000 runners and some rather primitive substitutes for timing devices -- popsicle sticks in 1977 followed by frisbees in '78. Radley acknowledged running was not as popular then as it is now and that the race, which he said still has a "bit of newness" to it, originally suffered from a lack of female entrants.
From its humble origins, the race grew considerably, reaching the 10,000-runner plateau in '81, just four years after its inception. The race is the largest 10K in Pennsylvania and the 12th largest in the country.
"I don't think anyone would have predicted that the sport would grow and prosper through the years and do what it's doing today," Radley said. "It's a pleasant surprise and it's also a tribute to the fitness community here in Pittsburgh that it continues to grow to this day."
There is also another, perhaps far more important, aspect to the race than what takes place on the course. Each year, the Great Race donates a portion of its proceeds to the research and advocacy of amyloidosis, a rare protein disorder in which one or more organ systems in the body accumulate deposits of abnormal proteins. Caliguiri suffered from the disease and ultimately died from it in '88 at age of 56.
Radley spoke about people who have been part of the Great Race from the outset who share stories and fond memories.
"It is the tradition that sets the Great Race apart from many of the other races," Radley said. "I don't think there are many races that can state they have been around since 1977, and that tradition has continued. The race is integral to the fabric of the city of Pittsburgh."