Smoliga and Alico Claim Gold at Silver Anniversary
Classic or Who was that “Masked” Man?

BY DON SLUSSER, CO-DIRECTOR

10K

MONROEVILLE, PA--The June 6 running of the Monroeville Classic 10K marked the 25th and final edition of the 10K portion of this Western Pennsylvania spring tradition. Seventy-eight 10K runners answered the 8:30 a.m. starting pistol on a near perfect Sunday morning for racing. Pre-race favorite, the only four-time winner and defending champion, Jim Hommes, appropriately wore bib number one. Other returning top finishers from last year’s race, who were expected to challenge Hommes for the overall title, included 2003 finishers Hans Rottmann (3rd), Brian Caskey (5th), John Brockenbrough (6th), and Doug Basinski (9th).

Hommes’ bid for his fifth crown was spoiled by a “mystery” runner, unknown to the local running scene, namely, Jim Smoliga (26). Originally from Ithaca, NY, Smoliga is presently enrolled in doctoral studies at the University of Pittsburgh. Despite running his first area race and his first 10K in a year and a half, Smoliga still decided to force the early pace. His opening 5:13 mile put daylight between him and the trailing pack, which included Hommes, Rottmann, Basinski, and Masters ace, Ian Bath (43). The “lead” pack could only wonder, “Who is this guy” and “Is he for real?” Each of the pursuers knew what Smoliga did not, that the hilly mid-section of the Classic course could exact a painful price for early heroics. Smoliga continued to push the pace, reaching the three-mile point in 15:48, well ahead of Hommes and Rottmann, the only remaining contenders.

At approximately 3½ miles Smoliga got his first glimpse of the 600-yard climb to Mosside Blvd., a hill that the trailers knew all too well. Smoliga later admitted suffering on the challenging hill, but not so much as to allow his pursuers any real encouragement. Several of Hommes’ past wins were based on obtaining even a small lead prior to the final friendly downgrade to the Mall finish. By the time Hommes reached that point in the race, the defending champion knew that the deficit was too great to overcome and clearly, “This guy is for real.” Smoliga’s winning time of 32:54 was the fastest time run on this certified course since Hommes’ first win in 32:32 back in 1997. The quality of Smoliga’s performance was comparable to his track 10K best of 31:31, set as an undergraduate in New York State. Hommes, Rottmann, and Bath, Tuesday Night Racing Team Master, held their respective 2-3-4 spots. Youngster Zach Kocian (19) edged Basinski, 35:54 to 35:59, for fifth place. Tuesday Night Racers John Brockenbrough (45) and Brian Caskey claimed the 7th and 8th positions, respectively.

Kevin Dowdell’s (45) 39:20 effort earned him the top Masters award because Bath and Brockenbrough had earned overall awards, thereby eliminating them from eligibility for other awards (the Classic has a policy against award duplication, except for the special Monroeville’s Fastest categories). The principal contenders in the Veterans category were Jim Moyer, Art Wiland, Curt Grimm, and Don Slusser (Slusser, one week after the Buffalo Marathon). Each keyed on the others for the first 4½ miles of the race, but Slusser managed to prevail by pushing hard in the final stretch to secure the Fifty-Plus laurels. Slusser also claimed the Monroeville’s Fastest male honors with his 41:46 clocking, whereas Tuesday Night Teammate Art Wiland (55) followed in 42:24.

The women’s 10K was dominated by 2001 Classic champion Mary Alico (41). Seven-time winner and defending champion Tammy Slusser wisely ran only the 5K, having finished third a week before at the Buffalo Marathon. Alico’s only company during the race was the second pack of male runners, and her 38:10 placed her 9th overall--an impressive 7:53 ahead of local Masters legend Cindy Grimm (52) of Industry. Stephanie Verona claimed the third spot in 48:13.

5K

As the final 10K runners were approaching the finish, the sixty-four racers in the 5K responded to the gun promptly at 9:30 (many raced both events, and they are referred to as “doublers” in the remainder of this article). The men’s 5K race matched defending champion Dave Wilt against 2000 10K champion and University of Pittsburgh standout Mike Diano. Like Smoliga in the 10K, Diano took charge from the start; however, unlike the 10K course, the 5K course is flat and fast with no hills whatsoever to punish minor early pacing errors. Diano continued to dominate the field, extending his lead with each successive stride. His 16:18 winning time was sufficient for a 50-second margin ahead of Wilt. Steve Tinker (17:42) and fifteen-year-old Larry Lenhart (17:47) distanced themselves from fifth place finisher John Brockenbrough (18:24), who was the first of many “doublers” to complete the 5K.

Other notable “doublers” included: Basinski, 6th in the 10K and 8th in the 5K; Caskey, 8th and 13th, respectively; John Caskey, 13th and 14th, respectively; and Ron Romanoff (48), 14th and 26th, respectively.

Steve Swantner (50) earned the top Masters laurels with an 18:32 result, because Brockenbrough’s finish had garnered an overall award. Tuesday Night Racing team member Steve Fowler (51) earned the top Veterans spot with a 19:08 clocking. The top Senior (60-plus) ranking was earned by Ralph Ross (68), whose 22:34 time led running legend Lou Lodovico, 80 years young, by a minute. Lodovico’s astonishing time of 23:36 earned him the top award in the 70-plus division and did nothing to diminish his almost mythical status as a nationally ranked age-group performer. Lodovico continues to inspire us all.

The women’s 5K was marked by Liz Bricklet blasting the opening mile, forcing Tammy Slusser to consider the familiar question regarding this unfamiliar runner, “Is she for real?” Initially, it seemed like deja vu because of the way the 10K had unfolded just an hour earlier. Slusser, despite weary legs from the previous week’s marathon, decided to not take the chance of allowing her unknown competitor the luxury of a large uncontested lead and chose instead to pursue the younger pacesetter. After clocking the first mile in 5:40, reality began to set in for Bricklet. Although both runners slowed after the opening suicidal surge, Slusser slowed the least, only being overtaken sporadically by one of the male competitors. Her winning time of 18:34 put her 1:25 ahead of Bricklet, who paid the price for early irrational exuberance. Heidi Heydorn (20:57), Julia Fraser (22:48), and forty-two-year-old Michele Adams (25:01) completed the set of top five finishers. Once again Slusser captured the award as Fastest Monroeville finisher, as she bettered male local champion Martin Kinnunen (43) by 2:05.

Epilogue

Pre-race entries were each treated to a box of Tammy Slusser’s homemade chocolate candy. All finishers found a multitude of random awards, assorted postrace edible goodies, and welcome massages awaiting them after the race. Award winners were also delighted with the Classic logo polo-style shirts and Classic logo beach towels.

Following the event, it was reluctantly decided (after nearly a quarter-century and 25 races) to cancel the 10K aspect of the Classic, citing as reasons: (1) the low runner turnout (the 10K race attracted over 700 runners in 1983 versus only 142 in the combined races in 2004), plus (2) the monumental effort required for the 10K traffic control, which involves disrupting major transportation arteries through a heavily-traveled part of Monroeville.

For 2005, the revised Classic format will continue with the 16th annual 5K and will add a competitive 5K walk and feature heats of the “MALL MILE.” This restructured version of the Monroeville Classic is tentatively scheduled for Sunday, June 5 of next year. With the exciting new array of competitions, the acres of free parking, and the confinement of the event to the more compact venue of the Monroeville Mall, it is hoped that the Classic can rebound to recapture a bit of its past glory.

Please save the date and mark your calendars with erasable ink!

Many thanks go to the following fine Classic sponsors, whose contributions have been essential to the success of this event over the years, and have also benefited numerous Rotary charities.

Major Sponsors:

Giant Eagle
Waste Management
# 1 Cochran Pontiac
PNC BANK at Miracle Mile

Additional Sponsors:

Amore Group
Convention Bureau Document Solutions
East Suburban Sports Medicine
Fahringer McCarty Grey
Fishman Chiropractic
Family Floor, Forbes Regional Hospital
Insurance Restoration Service
Interactive Media Systems
Jack Finnegan
KCI Technologies, Inc.
Mark Pechersky
Monroeville Mall
National City Bank
S & T Bank
Sebring & Associates
Servicemaster Clean

Grateful appreciation is also extended to the principal race organizers:

Monroeville Rotary Club
Municipality of Monroeville
Monroeville Mall

We are obviously indebted to the new race directors, Gary Rick and Bill Segar, who benefited greatly from the considerable assistance and guidance provided by former race director Marshall Bond during the transition.

Final Reflections on the 25-race history of the 10K Classic:

April 27, 1980: Monroeville Classic I--The original idea for the race was an inspiration of Al and Gavin Chafin (Richard Baldock volunteered to serve as technical advisor), and was inaugurated with the full support of the Monroeville Rotary Club, the Municipality of Monroeville, and the Monroeville Mall. Don Slusser joined the team following the first year’s race.

Classic I, 1980: Dean Shaw’s time of 31:53 led a stellar field on the much tougher original course. The field included Rich Bogaty (3rd in 32:27) and Don Slusser (6th in 32:49), both of whom competed a few weeks later in the May 20, 1980 running of the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in Buffalo, NY. Slusser ran 2:17:43 (PR) at the Trials; Bogaty ran 2:16:39 (PR) in a subsequent Boston Marathon. Kim McKay won her first of three titles in 40:41. Race Advisor Baldock finished in 36:50.

Classic III, 1982: Malcolm East ran 30:32 on the original course, undoubtedly the best performance in the history of the Classic. His postrace comments that the course was overly difficult provided an impetus to search for an alternate, more reasonable route. East later became the first three-time winner.

Classic IV, 1983: The course was changed to the present course, still challenging but far “easier” than the course used for the original three races from 1980-1982 (most estimated the new course to be at least a minute faster than the original route). This new course was found to be 70 feet short upon its certification in 1984. With the friendlier course, Paul Malott led 700-plus runners with a 30:12 clocking; Shelia Fleming became the first female to crack 40:00 with her 38:42 effort.

Classic V, 1984: Bill Reilly, former Olympic finalist in the steeplechase, set a Masters record of 32:50 that was never threatened over the final 20 renditions of the Classic 10K. His time would have won the final Classic 10K.

Classic VI, 1985: Co-Director Baldock finished as an “also-ran” in 50th place in 36:31.

Classic VII, 1986: Witnessed the best quality field in Classic history. During the early and mid-eighties, the Monroeville Classic was a “team race” for many regional shoe sponsored teams, as well as individual runners representing adidas, Converse, Etonic, and Nike. With regional “bragging rights” on the line, Mark Amway was pushed to a phenomenal 29:59 time by Don Freedline (30:00) and Dennis Rice (30:07). In all, seven runners ran sub-31:00, 24 runners ran faster than 32:54 (Smoliga’s 2004 winning time and fastest since 1997), and 32 runners beat 34:22 (Rottmann’s time in 2001 was the slowest winning time in Classic history). Arguably, outside of the Pittsburgh Great Race, this may have been the best 10K field ever assembled in Western Pennsylvania.

Classic VIII, 1987: Tammy Slusser, who was still competing in college at IUP, claimed her first of seven 10K titles. She went on to match Kim McKay’s feat of three consecutive titles.

Classic XII, 1991: Co-Director Baldock, 45, ran 35:12, but still could not match Roger Pflugfelder’s 45-plus record of 34:35 established in 1986.

Classic XXI, 2000: Mindy Sawtelle (who later enrolled at IUP) made Classic history with her masterful double, setting both the 10K record of 35:31 and 5K record of 17:16--both records had been held by Tammy Slusser (36:00 in 1991) and (17:26 in 1994) prior to Sawtelle’s multi-pronged assault on the record book. Sawtelle also placed 5th overall, the highest overall placing female in Classic history. Diano won his first ever 10K in 33:26.

Classic XXII, 2002: Jesse Labuff’s 33:21enabled him become the only Monroeville male resident to win overall honors. Tammy Slusser won her sixth title, and then garnered her seventh and final title the following year (2003).

April 27, 1980--Random Notes:

Gasoline was 73 cents a gallon.

The U.S. Olympic Team was boycotting the Moscow Olympic Games as a result of an Executive Order by the President.

Actor Ronald Reagan was the probable Republican challenger to incumbent Jimmy Carter in the upcoming Presidential election.

Don Slusser ran his first of an eventual 25 Classic 10Ks; the past several were run on knees that have confounded numerous expert surgeons (each of whom has asserted that the deteriorated state of his knees would imminently end his running career).

Jim Smoliga (2004 10K Champion) was two years old; Don Slusser was 28; Richard Baldock was 34.

Editor’s Notes:

I can’t say that I was terribly surprised by the decision to terminate the 10K. Although lamentable from a historic and nostalgic perspective, it is impossible to refute the logic of this action. A new opportunity now exists to re-create the Classic for 2005 and beyond. Sometimes there is a natural life cycle to events, and perhaps the Monroeville Classic 10K became a casualty of this phenomena.

I never fully understood the gradual decline in the number of Classic participants, but I can point to a number of probable factors. The general rise in popularity of the 5K and the universal diminished interest in the 10K, especially those encompassing challenging terrain, likely had an effect. Also, when the Pittsburgh Marathon debuted in 1985, it created a climate of uncertainty for late April races like Monroeville. For most of the following decade the race date bounced all over the spring calendar, attempting to avoid Easter weekend, as well as striving to avoid the time period either just before or just after the Marathon. Consideration was given occasionally to switching to a fall date, but the fall racing calendar is no less conflicted than the spring schedule, and that would have required either two races within six months or an eighteen-month hiatus.

In the interim, new 5Ks were being inaugurated by local communities all around the Pittsburgh area. Soon, it became virtually impossible to pick either a spring or fall date without creating a conflict. With a few notable exceptions of races that found a niche with a predictable date, most races tended to attract smaller fields of 100-200 runners, instead of the 500-plus the Classic routinely attracted in its heyday.

When I first learned that the Monroeville Rotary Club was planning to sponsor a 10K in Monroeville, I thought it would be an excellent location for a quality race. Monroeville Mall was an ideal venue with plenty of parking and ample space for staging a large event. Monroeville was easily accessible, located at the intersection of several major highways, and both the Municipality and the Mall were providing great support for the proposed 10K competition. Although Gavin Chafin was a top runner for Gateway H.S. at the time, no one on the committee appeared to be knowledgeable regarding the myriad technical details involved in staging a successful road race. My experience with the Greater Pittsburgh Road Runners had taught me about some of the pitfalls that could ensnare the unwary race organizer (on one occasion via painful personal experience), so I “foolishly” volunteered to assist behind the scenes as technical advisor. The following year I was invited to assume a more formal role as one of the Co-Directors, and I continued to serve in that capacity until I departed Western Pennsylvania in April of 1996. Since then, my role has been mostly confined to editing the annual postrace report written by Don Slusser for publication in Runner’s Gazette.

After the first race, Slusser made the “mistake” of writing a complimentary letter and offering to assist in promoting the race to elite runners he knew throughout the region. Hence, he was invited to join the committee, and he’s been an integral part of the Classic ever since, including the distinction of being the only runner to complete all twenty-five 10Ks. I’m not personally aware of anyone who has run all fifteen 5Ks, but we would be interested in knowing if anyone has done so.

Corollary: Don’t praise or criticize an event too extensively--you might be invited to volunteer as a result thereof!

Edited by Richard Baldock, Co-Director Emeritus

Results compiled by The Runner’s High.