The Historic 100th Footrace at Berwick


A record field and an eye-opening course record highlighted the 100th running of Pennsylvania’s oldest footrace--the Run for the Diamonds--staged on a cool, overcast Thanksgiving morning in Berwick. In contrast to the inaugural event in 1908 when those pioneer “marathoners” were followed by a race official mounted on a clip-clopping horse, the 2009 extravaganza featured a hovering news helicopter above the huge field of colorfully clad participants whose finishing times were clocked by computer chips.

Event organizers of this race--one of the five oldest in the nation--were swamped with a record number of entries, as more than 2,100 runners registered. That number was 700 more than Berwick drew in the 2008 edition, which represented the 100th anniversary (but 99th actual running) since the inaugural slog over muddy, unpaved roads way back in 1908. That 1908 race drew just 13 men, but thousands of spectators were on hand, some of whom had wagers riding on the outcome.

This year a total of 1,987 runners finished the rugged and rolling nine-mile course, a layout that includes a grueling climb between the two and four mile marks. Approximately 800 of those finishers were women--a tremendous difference from 1972 when two women completed the course and finished at the back of the pack.

All finishers were rewarded with a commemorative medal, a long-sleeve shirt, and a reproduction copy of the first entry blank from the 1908 event. Runners from 30 states (and the District of Columbia) posted, plus--keeping up with tradition--forty Canadian runners competed in this special race. Canadians first competed at Berwick in 1909 and have been coming down almost every year since.

At least one of those finishers--former Yale University standout Katy McKinstry--ran the race with a nod toward history: McKinstry’s great-grandfather, former Penn State star John “Blondy” Romig who was from nearby Wapwallopen, won the race in 1920, defeating soon-to-be Finnish running great Ville Ritola in a blinding snowstorm.

Fast Women

There was no blinding snowstorm for the 100th race on Thanksgiving (thankfully!), but there was something blinding--the speed of the women’s race. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the women put the most bling-bling in Berwick’s Diamond Run--on this special morning.

Heidi Wolfsberger Peoples shadowed defending champ Maureen McCandless through the first half of the race, then roared through the final four miles en route to a record time of 50 minutes, 35 seconds (about 5:38 per mile). Peoples’ astounding performance broke Katy Schilly’s 1981 mark of 50:54 by 19 seconds. According to Peoples, McCandless’ racing skills probably deserved some of the credit for her record run, as the former knew she could not ease her pace with the former University of Pittsburgh All-American on her heels. McCandless had, after all, missed Schilly’s long-standing record by a mere 7 seconds with her 2008 victory when she clocked 51:01.

Peoples--who participated in the 2008 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials and also won the Berwick race back in 2005--said she was encouraged early in the race by being close to the favorite, but also by passing some noted male runners. She pushed ahead of McCandless near the halfway point in the competition and then powered past dozens of men before launching a strong kick down Market Street to the tape.

“I pushed the downs and took the lead,” said Peoples, who finished 25th overall in the large, competitive field. “I kept thinking Maureen was going to come up on me, but I was able to hold on.”

Much of the pre-race hype understandably focused on McCandless--an elite racer who can run consistently under 16-minutes for 5K--and whether she would set a course record. In 2008, McCandless had blitzed around the course without even knowing how close she had been to Schilly’s long-elusive clocking.

But it was Peoples, just four months after giving birth to son Liam, whom swept home for the triumph and the record. McCandless finished a solid second in 52:05. Rounding out the top seven were Emily Shertzer (Peoples’ former teammate at Moravian College earlier in the decade) in a strong Berwick debut with 54:08; Erin Fisher (4th, 55:28), Danielle Hunt (5th, 55:54), former Bucknell standout Leanna Nastase (6th, 56:04) and first female Masters Lori Kingsley (7th, 56:38). The top seven women all won diamond pendants.

In addition to Kingsley’s diamond in the 40-plus age group, diamonds went to Ann Sick (50-plus, 1:01:58) and Deborah Gebhardt (60-plus, 1:13:57), a former native of nearby Hazleton who now resides in Maryland.


The Men’s Race

Like Katy Schilly’s former record, the men’s mark at Berwick dates back to the days of disco. Pete Pfitzinger, a two-time U.S. Olympic marathon runner, set the sizzling, long-surviving mark of 43 minutes. 20.9 seconds. He was pushed in the early miles by former Penn State star Greg Fredericks (who still has the second fastest men’s time on the course in 43:41) en route to that record set in 1980.

Although Pfitzie’s record got nothing close to a scare, the men still came up with a spirited mano-a-mano race between Christopher Clark and Ryan Blood. Now training partners and former college rivals, Clark and Blood broke away from a pack of contenders on the winding climb up to Summer Hill. Clark, who had never beaten Blood before, used his long legs and proven 5K speed to gain some separation on the descents shortly after the 5-mile mark. “I am really good on the down hills,” Clark later admitted.

The eventual victor kept the pressure on back to Berwick and charged down Market Street to post a winning time of 45 minutes flat. Former Lock Haven star Blood blitzed home just 18 seconds later to secure runner-up honors, with Fred Joslyn (the 2006 Berwick champ) a strong third in 45:56.

Rounding out the top seven men (all of whom snagged diamond rings for their efforts) were Thomas Skosky (4th, 46:06), Matt Byrne (5th, 46:52), Sam Luff (6th, 46:59) and Kevin Borelli (7th, 47:12).

Other age-group diamond award winners included: Canadian runner Jose Fluentes (40-plus, 50:54); former Millersville standout Greg Cauller (50-plus, 51:41); and Johnstown’s still-tough Steve Molnar (60-plus, 1:02:11)

The Locals

As always, the race within the race features “the locals”--Berwick area runners battling it out for their own diamond and local bragging rights. Leading the charge for the 11th consecutive year was Tony Lawson in 53:45--breaking the record of 10 straight local wins held by Berwick cross-country coach Bill Bull. The win was Lawson’s 12th overall title.

In the women’s local scramble, Wendy Calarco snared her eighth local title in 1:01:43, a big personal win for her since it required a major comeback from injuries that have plagued her in recent years. High school runner Alex Bull finished second for the second year in a row, while two-time defending local champ Miranda Hildebrand was third.

Also big on the local scene was Dave Hook, who finished the course in 2:05:02. But throw the watch out the window on this one because what is noteworthy concerning Hook’s run was this: he is the only man to have finished the 50th, the 75th and the 100th races in Berwick.

Schoolboy 5K

Although the big Thanksgiving race understandably take top billing in Berwick, the 50th Annual C. Wilfred (Bill) Heller event for high school (and younger) runners takes place the Saturday before the Run For The Diamonds and creates its own fanfare. A former Berwick cross-country coach, Heller was also instrumental in running the event that is now known as Run for the Diamonds (in Heller’s day it was still called “The Berwick Marathon”) and launching the Schoolboy race in 1959. This year’s event drew nearly 400 participants.

Leading the way for the boys was Jess Adams of Dallas, PA followed by Donnie Scatena and Andrew Hess. All three runners broke 17 minutes.

In the girls’ race, defending champ Katie Sick of Millville (third in the Pennsylvania cross-country State AA meet earlier in the month) smashed the course record in 18 minutes, 26 seconds. Hot on her heels, however, was 13-year-old Regan Rome, who also dipped under the old course mark in 18:34.

And as if to symbolize just how tough runners are in this part of Pennsylvania, Rome was back on the Berwick course five days later--this time in the Run for the Diamonds 9-miler, in which she clocked a more than respectable 1:02:35--sub-7-minute per mile pace for the promising youngster.


Old School

While the Schoolboy 5K is designed to encourage the young runners of the future, the 100th Berwick did not pass without a nod to the past: The event brought in a gathering of former flyers, a dozen or so former champions. The oldest among those was three-time U.S. Olympian Curt Stone of Brooklyn, PA. Stone won the 1949 Berwick Marathon (as it was then known) and is the oldest living champion of the race at age 86.

Stone said a few words and also socialized with some other former Berwick champs, such as Canada’s Rob Legg (1975), the irrepressible and ever-exuberant Tom Carter (1976), Dave Patterson (1979), Todd Fach (1997), Jamie Hibell (1998), Mark Stallings (2004), Fred Joslyn (2006), defending women’s winner Maureen McCandless (2008) and two-time winner Budd Coates (1984 and 1991).

What did Stone have to do to win the 1949 race? He ran 47 minutes, 19 seconds and he also had to out-kick two other U.S. Olympians on the track--10-time Berwick victor H. Browning Ross and Stone’s own Penn State teammate of the day, Horace Ashenfelter. All Ashenfelter did was go on to win an Olympic gold medal in the 1952 Olympic steeplechase event.

History, of course, goes on. Thanksgiving Day, 2010 will start the second century of footracing in Berwick, Pennsylvania. Be there!