Forty years ago, it started out as just a suggestion.
A pipe-dream, really.
“It was a time of urban renewal in downtown Grand Rapids,” said Marty Allen, who was the marketing director for Old Kent Bank when the race began in 1978. “Many new buildings were being built, and Dick Gillette (former chairman of Old Kent Bank) put me in charge with the task of figuring out a way to get people to come downtown.”
In early 1978, Allen says he was approached by a man named Frank Cashman who, at the time, was with the Grand Rapids Track Club.
“Cashman asked if he could come and see me about an idea he had about how to get more people to come downtown,” Allen said. “He shows up and brought a binder with him.
“When he opened the binder, he showed me a display of how a 25K race could be run on the streets of Grand Rapids.
“I took Cashman’s idea back to Dick Gillette and said that I think we have the beginnings of how to get people coming back to downtown.”
Cashman brought the idea and Allen pledged the funding through Old Kent Bank.
The “Old Kent River Bank Run” was born on Saturday, May 13, 1978.
“We had what we thought were some great ideas,” said Allen. “That first year, we thought having the finish line under the Calder would be great, but there was a massive bottleneck of runners when the pack started coming up the Michigan St. hill.
“The runners couldn’t move, as they were trying to finish the race.
“I literally thought that was the beginning of the end of this endeavor.”
World renowned runner, Bill Rodgers won the inaugural race, with Grand Rapids native, Greg Meyer finishing second overall.
Despite the finish line issues that plagued the first year, the River Bank Run landed back on the second Saturday in May again the following year, and continued into the 1980s. In 1981, Joan Benoit-Samuelson ran in the River Bank Run only three weeks after finishing third in the Boston Marathon.
Tragedy surrounded the 1982 race. 29-year old, Thomas Guerre from East Lansing, Michigan, collapsed and died of a heart attack at the finish line.
The River Bank Run continued to grow and evolve during this decade, while acquiescing to the running skills of Grand Rapids native, Greg Meyer who won the race an unprecedented seven times.
“I was lucky enough after that first year to become best friends with Bill Rodgers,” said Meyer. “I ended up moving to Boston soon after that and began training with Bill, who was the best runner in the world at that time, and that helped elevate my running quite a bit.
“It just so happened that the early years of the River Bank Run sort of coincided with my best years in running.”
Meyer’s seventh and final River Bank Run victory came in 1987 with a time of 1:16:12. The 10th anniversary of the race was also his last, as Meyer retired from competitive running in 1992.
Meyer loved seeing how this annual race had become a staple in his hometown and began collaborating with race organizers to help make it bigger and better.
“It was a growing in stature and notoriety as the 1980s gave way to the 1990s,” said Meyer. “We started recruiting elite runners from around the United States and around the world.
“Like any athlete always trying to improve, the River Bank Run was always trying to improve.”
In 1992, despite suffering a hamstring injury a month earlier, Bill Reifsnyder broke the course record with a time of 1:14:47, ushering in the era of the elite runners finding their way to the finish line before everybody else.
In 1995, the River Bank Run reached an apex, of sorts, becoming a USA Track & Field national championship race.
In 1997, the River Bank run turned 20 and had a record 7,519 combined participants in the 25K and 5K runs and the 5K walk. This is the year runners from Kenya began to dominate, reaching the finish line first in each of the next five years.
The turn of the millennium (2000), the River Bank Run was forced to endure a course change, due to the construction being done on the US 131 S-Curve in downtown Grand Rapids. The race was moved to Old Kent Park (now Fifth Third Ballpark), which is the home of the West Michigan Whitecaps minor league baseball team. Logistics were a nightmare for organizers and volunteers. Parking and the shuttle system forced many runners to arrive late for the 25K and the 5K. Many of the runners chose to not run the race at all. As if things weren’t bad enough, a storm blew in and caused a metal scaffolding to collapse at the finish line of the 25K, and the 5K course measured longer than 3.1 miles.
“There were some years when the course had to be changed at the last minute due to flooding along the Grand River,” said Allen. “Then there was the year when a train stopped on a track [along the race course] before the run started.
“The race had to be held up until the train finally got moving again.”
While the elite runners certainly made the River Bank Run more competitive, both Allen and Meyer agreed that the interesting stories behind why the rest of the field was running, had become a big reason why more and more people kept coming each year to run.
“Our focus in the early years were making sure there was a start and finish line, and a race that happened in between,” said Allen. “Then suddenly we started hearing about a variety of reasons why many of the people were running.
“They were running in honor of a dead loved one, or for a charity, or because they had spent the last year enduring cancer treatment and recovered well enough to run.”
“This race has literally changed people’s lives,” added Meyer. “I look at people who show up and have lost 100 pounds, and their mission is to finish the 25K because it was something they could never consider doing before.
“The elite runners are interchangeable, but the stories within the race seem to change every year, by the every-day folks who choose to run in it.”
In 2007, the River Bank Run celebrated its 30th anniversary with a record 5,600 registered for the 25K.
The 2011 River Bank Run saw Americans rule the streets of Grand Rapids. California’s Fernando Cabada and Pennsylvania’s Molly Pritz won the 25K races. It was the first U.S sweep in 15 years. This was also the year the run suffered it’s second death as Jason Kinzler, a former Grand Valley State football player, collapsed at mile marker 14 and died of a heart attack.
In 2017, the River Bank Run turns 40. It’s a major milestone for an event that was not intended to ever grow into what it’s grown into.
“The Fifth Third River Bank Run has evolved into an unintended consequence,” said Meyer. “The outcome of this event is not what anybody had foreseen.
“It’s more than just a race, and at 40, it’s grown up quite nicely.”
The 40th edition of the River Bank Run is expected to draw close to 20,000 combined participants in the 25K, 10K, 5K runs, 5K walk, hand-cyclists and wheelchair riders.
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