by George Banker
Editor’s note: There’s no one who has done more for the running community than Phil Stewart. Yes, he’s a terrific runner both in his hey day and with recent, amazing times. As you’ll see in this interview, he is the editor and publisher of the Road Race Management newsletter and the Road Race Management Directory of the Running Industry; event director of the annual Credit Union Cherry Blossom Ten Miler in D.C.; emcee and announcer at many of the large, US races; one of the founders of Running Times magazine (1977); and an all-around nice guy. I encourage you to read his full bio here: https://www.darmangroup.com/bios/stewart.htm
Thanks, Karen Mitchell
What do the following organizations have in common?
Washington Sports Club, Washington Running Club, Running Times Magazine, D.C. Road Runners Club, Road Race Management, Road Runners Club of America, Credit Union Cherry Blossom 10 Mile Run.
To save on the research, the answer is Phil Stewart. Some may say that he started getting involved in the sport in kindergarten, but that has not been confirmed. The following is the short version of who is Phil Stewart? He can provide advice, talk about trends in the sport and industry but, he cannot give you his passion.
At what point in your life did you get involved in the sport as an athlete?
My father wanted me to be a tennis player like him and sent me off to tennis camps as a boy. I could never develop a backhand, so I was usually “love and love” (6-0 and 6-0) in the first round of local youth tournaments. I started running cross-country at Wilson High School in Washington, DC in the fall of 1966 to get in shape for tennis the following spring. However, I quickly learned I had more talent at running than tennis, so I never looked back.
What or who was your influence?
The biggest influence was that I found out I was a decent runner instead of a mediocre tennis player.
At what point did you answer the call to become a journalist?
Somehow, I wound up being editor of the DC Road Runners Club newsletter in the early to mid-’70s and enjoyed the writing and publishing.
You were spinning a web. Can you share the birth of Running Times magazine?
In 1976 I was working for the DC Government on Youth Employment Programs and having decent success on the local running scene, having run a 2:19:58 marathon in 1975 and participating in the 1976 Olympic Marathon Trials. Every runner who liked to write dreamed of working for Runner’s World, so when Ed Ayres, a fellow Washington Running Club Member, said he was going to be starting a new running magazine, I jumped at the chance. We published the first issue in January 1977. A month later I loaded some issues in the back of my mother’s VW and headed south on my first promotional tour.
At what point did Road Race Management take off as your next venture?
Road Race Management started in 1982 as a secondary publication at Running Times focusing on race directors. Since I was interested in the content, I ended up being charged with producing it. When I left Running Times in 1986, I exchanged my stock in Running Times for ownership of RRM.
What was your motivation to step up the Cherry Blossom 10 Mile Run?
Cherry Blossom was the first “big time” race in the Washington Metropolitan area with a title sponsor when it was conceived by DCRRC President Gar Williams and launched in 1973 as a tune-up for the Boston Marathon and a celebration of the blooming of the legendary cherry trees.
It pre-dated the Marine Corps Marathon by three years. The first year, it had 141 starters and 129 finishers. Although the first time I ran it was in 1974, I was intrigued by it. By the early 1980s, I was the announcer and then worked my way up on the race committee, becoming a co-race director with Jeff Darman by the late 1980s. I took over on my own in 1991 when Northern Telecom replaced Nike as the title sponsor.
How did the relationship of the Road Runners Club of America come into your life?
Gar Williams was DCRRC president in the summer of 1972 when I was running one of my first races back home after graduating from college, the Annandale 6 Miler (10Ks were still a few years away). I collapsed just before the finish line on a hot August evening. Gar accompanied me and stayed by my side at the hospital where I checked in with a temperature of 106 degrees. I always felt indebted to Gar for his kindness and wanted to make it up to him by getting involved in the DCRRC. Jeff Darman became president after Gar, and I followed Jeff from the DCRRC to the RRCA where I served as Vice President of Administration while Jeff was president in the late 1970s.
What was the running environment during your years at the Washington Running Club?
I was in the Washington Sports Club which preceded the Washington Running Club. It was mainly a German soccer organization at the time with a lot of beer drinking on the side. The soccer players had little understanding of the runners, so we spun off in the late ’70s. We were the “elite” club at the time with most of the fast runners in the area like Bruce Robinson and Bob Thurston as members. The team won several national road-running titles during this time.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced over the years?
Like most runners, my running career has been interrupted with injuries numerous times. Pelvic stress fractures ended my nationally competitive career in the late ’70s. Since then it has been sort of stop and go through the usual assortment of injuries to my knees, hips, feet, etc. About the only part of me that has been injury-free are my Achilles tendons for which I am knocking on wood. Over the last 10 years, I have added a fair amount of cycling to my training routine to the point where I now cycle or spin four days a week and run three days a week. Last fall, I took my first ever cycling vacation when I cycled for two weeks through the Pyrenees. I still hope to complete one more Boston Marathon, which would be my 25th, in my new decade of my 70s which would mean I ran Boston in my 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s. We will see if that happens.
Do you see more social running versus competitive running?
Within the running culture that is true these days. This point was driven home clearly after this year’s canceled Credit Union Cherry Blossom when there was a huge cry out for a virtual run which, with my more competition-oriented roots, was difficult for me to comprehend. It was an eye-opener when nearly 2300 people took part.
When you look at your running career what event shines for you where everything went right?
The 1977 Boston Marathon in which I finished 15th in 2:22:00. It was a warm day (not as hot as the 100-degree day in 1976), and when I finished, I had the entire final straightaway on Boylston Street to the Prudential Center all to myself. It was like I was winning the race with all the cheering crowd focusing its attention directly on me.
Looking at the other end what event did everything go wrong?
Dropping out of the 1976 Olympic Trials with a 100-degree temperature was probably my biggest disappointment.
When you think about race management, what is the Phil Stewart philosophy?
Earning the respect of my hard-working and extremely dedicated organizing committee members. I try and provide support as best I can to each one of them. Also understanding what motivates them to devote time to the race is key.
What key changes in the sport have you witnessed?
I feel the two biggest changes are the willingness of runners to pay higher and higher entry fees and the introduction of transponder-based timing. The higher entry fees changed the entire business model for the sport and made conducting running events a viable business for for-profit companies.
What lies ahead based upon your knowledge?
Figuring out a solution to the current COVID-19 crisis which does not hugely alter the fabric of the sport and its events.
What is that keeps Phil Stewart up at night?
Thinking about what could go wrong at the Credit Union Cherry Blossom.
Based upon where you are now is there anything that you feel is unfinished business?
I have had an incredibly satisfying career in the sport and raised two wonderful children. It does not get much better than that.
Is there anything in this sport which you would like to see change?
I am hoping that the for-profit conglomerates do not squeeze out all the local running clubs and small- event management companies.
How did the picture of President Jimmy Carter come about?
I was working for Running Times in the summer of 1979 when we heard President Carter would be running in a 10K road race at Camp David, I knew I had to be there to get some photos. I was the only photographer who had a media credential and had entered the race so I could run alongside the President. When he collapsed around the four-mile mark, I was the only person there with a camera as the rest of the press corps was waiting for him at the finish line. So, it was an exclusive which would have never happened in today’s era of cell phone cameras. I felt bad for the President because what happened to him has happened to many runners. It is just a bigger deal with you are President of the United States.
What is that you want the running community to know about Phil Stewart?
That I have always tried my best through all the facets of my competitive and professional careers in the sport.
Comments from others:
Phil has many talents. When I met him, he was, I guess, in his athletic prime and a competitive fixture at DCRRC races and one of the best runners in the area. He has a passion for the sport and that was shown by his eventual dedication to be a partner in Running Times. He traveled the country extolling the virtues of that new magazine, seeking subscribers.
Besides being an accomplished racer at multiple distances including a few Ultras, Phil has more than given back to the sport. His service to DCRRC, RRCA, and PRRO encompassed hundreds if not thousands of hours.
His leadership at the Credit Union Cherry Blossom speaks for itself as it is one of the most prominent and prestigious races in the country. When I stepped away as Director, he was the natural successor, but I must admit I had no idea the heights he would take it. For a while I worked in the background to support him by helping gain increased sponsorship but eventually, he took full control of the reins.
Phil is idealistic and his fervor for the sport has not waned. As founder and President of Road Race Management, he has made this membership organization stand out in the world of event management. The monthly newsletter is a must-read for event directors who want to conduct high-quality events. Added to that are the publications he has edited, like Organizing Running Events, which is now the textbook for the RRCA certification course.
Without Phil the sport competitively and educationally would be in a far different place.
Reaching back into my memory bank, I recall coming back from the World Cup Marathon Championships in Seoul in ’87 (I think) and getting ready to run the Boston Marathon. I was at a bar a day or two before, and Phil was there as well. We laid down a challenge as to who would be faster on Monday. I was having a decent (not exceptional!) race, but in the final three miles I was faltering. Nevertheless, he was behind me, so life was good. However, in the final mile he went by me and smiled as he smoothly passed. My lame excuse was that I got lost on a long training run (my last long run before Boston and it was supposed to be 18 miles) in Seoul. Eventually, after climbing over fences into back yards with pigs running around and zero people that I could speak English to, I returned to the hotel having done almost 22 miles!
He would bring that up for years afterward!
Another thing that I’ll never forget was Phil not bringing me back to announce Cherry Blossom 10 Mile after a few years in the late ’80s of doing it. (The reason behind this will go undisclosed.) I loved doing it and was sad they didn’t want me anymore. We remained friends and colleagues in the sport for several more years until the fall leading to the upcoming 25th Anniversary, he called me and said “it was time to let you out of jail, and if you are willing to accept, you can be the announcer again!” The rest is history and I have been the announcer since that time. I believe it rivals the longest continuous announcing assignment I enjoy with the Walt Disney World Marathon!
Most people see Phil as an ultra-serious, focused Race Director and writer. I see him as a fun and compassionate friend!
Editor’s Note: I’ve known Phil Stewart since the late ’70s/early ’80s. George’s interview is an excellent picture of all Phil has done for our sport. In addition, Phil is a great guy and has been a great friend. We’ve had many adventures through running and a lot of fun. A Standing O and thank you to Phil Stewart. And Thank You to RG’s George Banker for a wonderful interview. Freddi Carlip
Categories: Athlete Profiles