This morning I went for an early 10-mile run along the Burlington Waterfront, ending up at the finish of the Vermont City Marathon. With Covid-19, the event has been postponed (hopefully not cancelled!) until October and it was very quiet on the bikepath. This is the way it was in Burlington on Memorial Day weekend before 1989.
On May 27, 1989, I recall driving into Burlington at 5 a.m. from Shelburne where I lived. The sun was rising and anticipation in the air. We had been planning the event for 18 months and it was here! There were now several hundred volunteers setting up the course, filling up cups at the aid stations, donning traffic vests to supplement the police, setting up the start and finish areas and running around taking care of various tasks. From the air, it might have resembled a sweater being knit. The pieces were coming together!
As the 1,025 runners congregated at South Winooski and College for the 8:05 start (an agreement with the churches to minimize conflicts with their 8:00 a.m. services), the P.A. system embedded in the local radio station’s van quit, so Governor Kunin used a bullhorn to greet the runners and start the race. Otherwise, things went pretty well. There were some traffic holdups on the road coming into Burlington from Colchester (two years later we revised the course with an out-and-back section to avoid that pinch point) but nobody went down on the course and the medical tent had only minor issues to deal with, Joe Kreutz ran a sub 2:30 marathon, and the marathoners and relay runners coexisted OK. Overall, it was a rich learning experience — we saw a bunch of things to improve upon.
Much has changed during those 32 years. The race grew 15-25% a year for a number of years, topping out at around 8,000 runners. The finish was moved to Waterfront Park; after 2013 and the Boston Marathon bombing, security became a priority; increased sponsorship has led to more emphasis on marketing; and to manage the growth a year-round staff supplanted the all-volunteer effort. But as originally intended, VCM remains an important kickoff of the tourism season. Which made the paucity of activity this morning feel quite strange.
While each year will be different and bring its own set of challenges, there will never be another first year for the Vermont City Marathon. It’s a memory those of us who were there can cherish. Hopefully, this year’s race will happen in October and in 2021, Memorial Day weekend will again be bustling with running activity as the tradition returns and continues.