Back in 1970, people weren’t running much in St. Louis, according to Jerry Adams, who did his first half-marathon that year.
While he was at the race in Canton, Ohio, he learned about the city’s local running club and was impressed by the concept.
“I thought, ‘Gosh, we ought to have a track club in St. Louis,’” said Adams, who was then about 30 years old.
That first year there were a handful of runners in the St. Louis Track Club, but it grew to at one time include more than 1,000 members and created races like the St. Louis Half Marathon, which has become a fixture on the local race calendar.
As the club enters its 50th year in 2020, it’s now part of a vibrant running scene featuring specialty stores, a variety of groups for both casual joggers and competitive runners, and enough races to fill up just about every weekend.
Despite the fact that the Track Club is no longer the only game in town and has about half as many members as it once did, local runners continue to see it as an important part of the community.
“It developed out of a desire to improve your fitness and discover how much you can do if you decide, ‘That’s what I want to do,’” said Adams, who is now 80, has done 23 marathons, and continues to run. “What happens is you go to one of our Wednesday night [group runs] and you’re jogging along and all of a sudden you’re running with someone who is gaining in fitness and you discover how much fitter you can become.”
As running gained popularity not only in St. Louis but across the country — in 1968, The New York Times ran a story with the headline “Jogging Is an In Sport” — the Track Club found that there were enough runners to stage a marathon. So, in 1973, it did.
“There was hardly anyone who was doing more than their first marathon,” said Adams, who founded the group in conjunction with the Downtown St. Louis YMCA before later becoming an independent nonprofit.
Rae Mohrman started running in 1978. She had been through a divorce and one night was flipping through channels and stopped at a movie about Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon.
“I thought, ‘That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to start running,’” said Mohrman, a longtime teacher.
A neighbor recruited her to join the Track Club on its weekly Wednesday runs from the Forest Park Visitor’s Center.
“The running — and being supported by other runners — helped me to gain the self confidence that had been wiped out when I got divorced,” said Mohrman, 71.
For the last 20 years, she has served as race director of the club’s Marathon Relay, a group event in which runners form teams and complete various legs of the 26.2-mile race. The Track Club’s other annual events include the aforementioned St. Louis Half Marathon; the Frostbite Series, a wintertime race spread out over five weekends; and the Pace Series, in which participants don’t wear watches and estimate what their time will be for a particular distance (whoever comes closest wins).
The club previously had more races — like the Dog Day Duo, where partners ran together and their time was combined.
“We’re offering less than what we used to in terms of quantity of races, but we feel that we’re offering quality,” said Mohrman, who has run 101 marathons and is now president of the club.
That decision to focus on fewer races came from a realization that there is now a lot more competition in St. Louis among race organizers and that the club needed to “reenergize our brand.” So, about four years ago, they decided to redesign their website and create a new logo, said Ryan Yoch, a former board member.
“The Track Club is a great opportunity for people to give back to the community as volunteers, and there’s a real joy there when you’re able to pass out water or prepare the course in advance or stand out in the middle of a snowstorm during the Frostbite and cheer people on,” said Yoch.
He and others think the club will still attract new runners, some of them via its Weldon Spring Trail Series, as trail running continues to become more popular. The series includes three races, ranging from 4 miles to a full marathon.
And the club is preparing to celebrate its 50th year by asking people connected to the club to share a favorite memory and by planning a birthday party — of course, featuring a race — for September 2020.
“Way back when I joined, I’d never thought about us celebrating a 50-year anniversary, but in the last year or two, as we get close to that, it’s really made me feel proud that there have been so many people who were passionate about running and wanted to share it with others,” said Mohrman, who helps organize the club’s annual banquet, where it honors the best local high school cross-country runners. “That’s been exciting, because when you see the enthusiasm of these kids, you see the future of running and realize people are going to continue to run.”
Author: Eric Berger is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.