It’s as much a Fourth of July staple in these parts as red hot dogs, jet skiing, baseball and softball.
For three decades, runners young and old from all across the country and state have made the Queen City their July 4 destination for one reason: A fast 3-kilometer (1.9-mile) road race.
One of Greater Bangor’s longstanding traditions, the Walter Hunt Memorial 3K, will celebrate its 30th birthday this weekend when hundreds of people line up on upper Wilson Street in Brewer for the fast, downhill journey to Pickering Square in Bangor.
Robin Emery knows all about the tradition of this event, as she has run more than 20 Hunt races, and won the first race, a 5K in 1980.
“Going along the parade route is fun, seeing old friends and stuff,” said Emery, a Lamoine resident.
The original 1980 route started at the Brewer Auditorium and finished at the Bangor Auditorium, traversing downtown streets, but the 3K format was adopted a year later, to cater more to runners of all ages.
“I’ve seen tiny 5-year-olds running with their parents. The good thing about it, it’s not that hard,” said Emery, who posted a winning time of 18 minutes, 25 seconds in the first race.
Bucksport native Gerry Clapper was the overall winner in 1980, completing the race in 15:39.
One hundred sixty-nine folks completed the first race that summer, a 5K which former race director Bob Booker admits was sort of a nightmare.
“It was a mess, there was no traffic control whatsoever,” said Booker.
The first race went across the old Bangor-Brewer bridge.
But Booker switched it to a 3K a year later, the first time the race was run in front of the parade, and it was an instant success.
“The [main] reason we had it on the parade route was good traffic control,” said Booker, a 1966 graduate of Brewer High who now lives in Media, Pa.
The original 3K course started at the Brewer Auditorium, down Wilson Street into Bangor and down Main Street but went onto Central Street and eventually to Exchange before finishing up in Pickering Square.
The only year the race wasn’t run was in 1985, when lightning canceled the event.
One of the main reasons Booker founded the event was not only to offer runners a shorter race, but a faster one.
“[A] lightning-fast course, all downhill, incredibly fast times [and] a big crowd,” said Booker, explaining the factors that keep runners coming back to Bangor every summer.
The race was formerly known as the Greater Bangor-Brewer Fourth of July 3K up until 1995, when the race was named after Walter Hunt.
Hunt was a longtime president of the Dead River Co., which has sponsored the event every year since its inception, and after Hunt’s death, longtime race director David Torrey decided to rename the race for Hunt.
A decade of dominance
There have been many dynasties of champions in this race, but in the 1980s, the traditional winners were guys named Clapper, Wakeland and Millard.
From 1980 through 1992, Tim Wakeland of Dedham, Bucksport native Gerry Clapper and Orono’s Peter Millard combined for an astounding 10 race victories, while Wakeland and Clapper still share the current course record of 8 minutes, 10 seconds.
Wakeland hit that standard in 1987 and Clapper a year later, with Wakeland’s feat coming a year after the course was changed to its current layout.
“It previously started right next to the Brewer Auditorium,” said Wakeland, who ran 8:06 on the aforementioned old course.
Wakeland owns five Fourth of July titles while Millard owns three and two went to Clapper, a former UMaine running standout who moved to Maryland and then Connecticut after graduating from UMaine.
“What I remember is it being really fast,” said Clapper, who has traded in his running gear for biking equipment. “I went through the mile in like 4:06 or something, I was like, holy cow.”
Jo-Ann Nealey of Northport, the current cross country and track coach at Belfast High, owns the most women’s titles with five, while Wendy Delan’s course record of 9:28 has stood up since 1988.
During the 1980s, the race averaged roughly 150 finishers per year, which were good numbers for those days.
“Certainly running was really big around the country during those times, and I think that race was pretty big,” Clapper said.
The first year Wakeland ran the race, 1983, he earned runner-up honors to Millard, and while the Dedham man doesn’t plan on running Sunday, he has plenty of memories.
“When I was in college, it was a good test,” said Wakeland, a Foxcroft Academy running standout who enjoyed a fine track career at Iowa State University.
As the 1990s commenced, some new champs started to emerge, including Bob Everett of Fort Fairfield, Ellsworth cross country coach Andy Beardsley, Brent Leighton of Hampden Academy and Sheldon Young of Jay, while the Luchini brothers of Ellsworth, Joey and Louie, dominated late in the decade and into the new millennium, each winning two titles between 1999 and 2002.
Even though Wakeland and Clapper’s record has stood for 22 years, neither runner would be surprised if 2009 champ Riley Masters, who ran 8:16 last year, breaks it this summer.
“He’s quite talented and has a nice [distance] range,” Wakeland said. “If he doesn’t get it, I would be surprised.”
Masters, a Bangor High grad and current UMaine track star, was second in 2008, and a win Sunday could be the start of a new dynasty.
July 4, 2005, figured to be just a normal Independence Day for 386 runners, including Bill Pinkham.
Line up in Brewer. Run fast into Bangor.
Then chat with old friends, possibly collect an award, and head on home.
But tragedy struck one of Maine’s most popular sporting events that day.
Pinkham, a well-known runner from Lamoine and a close friend of Emery, died of a heart attack after finishing the race, collapsing in the Pickering Square Garage.
“That’s one thing we’ll [always] be thinking about [at] that race,” Emery said, “seeing his shoes sticking out, I knew they were [his].”
Pinkham has been commemorated at the July 4th race since 2006 with the Bill Pinkham Award, which goes to the winner of the 60-69 age group, while every March since that same year, a 5K has been run in his hometown.
“Bill was a great guy, he certainly left an impression on a lot of people,” Wakeland said. “Everybody liked Bill, it was hard not to like Bill.”
Pinkham was, as many people would say, one of the good guys of racing, so it’s difficult for those who run here to not forget his down-to-earth attitude, competitiveness or what he was best known for, flat, white hair.
If you run it, they will come
When you compare today’s era of running to that of the 1980s, when the Walter Hunt race was born, there are a vast variety of similarities and differences.
For one, FinishLynx timing systems, the brainchild of Orrington native Doug DeAngelis and Brewer High coaches Glendon Rand and Dave Jeffrey, didn’t exist back then, while FinishLynx is a sponsor for the 2010 race.
The race fields have also steadily increased, evidenced by the robust figure of 511 finishers from the 2009 race, th
e most to ever finish the event.
But one thing factor in Wakeland’s eyes that draws people here is the fact that a lot more short races, such as 3Ks and 5Ks, are popping up nowadays compared to the 10K boom of the 1980s, and the shorter distances cater to competitive runners and recreational ones.
“It was rare to have a real short race, it created a pretty good draw [because] most anybody could run it,” Wakeland said. “Anybody should be able to make that distance for sure.”
The draw of running in front of hundreds of cheering parade-goers is also appealing.
“There was another race in Baltimore, but a 6K, the last mile or so was on the parade route and [was] sort of a similar thing,” Clapper recalled. “It gives you a little more of an adrenaline rush.”
Of course, there are also some not-so-pleasant memories, such as Emery taking a wrong turn which cost her the 1990 race.
“I was winning it and [official] Don Kerrigan, he was standing right by the stairs [of the parking garage], and myself and 15 other guys went down those stairs, and I look up and the race is going over the bridge,” Emery said.
Through all the triumphs, tragedies and challenges met, the Fourth of July 3K is a hit with those young and old, competitive or recreational.
“It’s a thrill to run in front of the crowd, even if you aren’t running to your peak performance,” Wakeland said. “I think it’s become such a part of the Fourth of July celebration of Bangor. I’d be really surprised if it were ever given up.”