Arts Fest Lore
by Marty Mazur
(a shorter version of this article appeared The Voices of Central Pennsylvania, July/August 2003)
The Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts Road Race will be held for the 28th time on Sunday, July 13. The “Arts Fest Race” is regarded with a mixture of affection and dread by the local running community. It’s always been one of the longest races in town, and is certainly one of the most grueling. It will be a hot, humid morning. Arts Fest kind of guarantees that. The locals call it “Arts Fest Weather”. And winners of the race, after replenishing their fluids and electrolytes, will relish their victory in “a race steeped in lore”…
The Arts Fest Race started in 1976 as the brainchild of Marie Doll, an avid local runner and community volunteer. Marie got the race going with the help of Penn State track coach Harry Groves and the Nittany Valley Track Club. The race started out as a small affair, with 125 runners finishing the first race. Prizes were acquired from the artists (mostly local at the time) whose booths and tables lined the Festival sidewalks. The Nittany Valley Running Club, as the old Track Club is now known, has kept up the running tradition in State College and continues to put on the Arts Fest race.
In the 1970s and early 80s, American distance running was in its heyday, and the Arts Fest race rode the crest of that phenomenon. The race was fed by a very strong local running community, which included world class runners, not only at Penn State, but in the surrounding area. Companies such as HRB Singer had strong running clubs. By the early 1980s, race attendance was near 1000 runners. The State College running community was close knit. Large post-race barbecues replaced the fluids and calories lost by runners during the morning’s exertion.
The Arts Fest race started out as a 10 miler, with the course changing a little bit every year. The course used to start out on Fox Hollow Rd close to the airport, head down the steep decline on Rock Road, up through Houserville, out onto Rte 26, and then up the long hill on East College, finishing in front of Penn State’s Allen Street gates. In the mid-80s the race was changed over to a 10K, in large part because of a wane in the fanaticism required to run 10 miles in blistering Arts Fest weather. Now the race makes two loops of the University Park campus on a certified, wheel-measured course that starts and ends near the Intramural Building. At least that’s the theory. Summer road construction and Penn State’s perpetual building boom have forced race planners to continue the tradition of “a different course every year”. The upside is that every year produces a new “course record”.
Greg Fredericks has fond memories of the early Arts Festival races. Fredericks ran track and cross-country for Penn State in the early 70s. He set an American record in the 10,000 meters on the track in 1972. After graduating, Greg continued to compete, winning the American cross-country championship in 1975 and landing a spot on the 1980 Olympic team in the 10,000 meters. The 1980 team never saw Olympic competition due to the American boycott of the Moscow games.
Greg is now 53 years old, and though he can still run people half his age into the ground, he hasn’t raced in 17 years. But local runners remember that Greg owned the early years of the Arts Fest race, winning six of the first seven races. In the early races, Greg’s main competition was the Penn State running teams, whose members tried in vain to beat their older rival. The only Penn Stater to win the race in the first seven years was George Malley. The year was 1980, and Greg Fredericks was in Berlin for a pre-Olympic track meet. In the storied early races, the lead pack could be counted on to run the first mile in under 4-and-a-half minutes and blaze through the 10 mile course, sometimes in less than 50 minutes. Now, it is unusual for runners to break 5 minutes per mile on the shorter course.
The most often told Fredericks story centers on his efforts to get to the 1978 race. On the morning of the Arts Fest race, Greg was returning on the red-eye from Berkeley, California, where he’d run a race the previous day. Despite a nearly sleepless flight, Greg was determined to make the starting gun at the Arts Fest race. At a 6 AM changeover in Detroit, Greg changed over to his running clothes. The next flight took him to Pittsburgh, where he had arranged with the pilot of a small plane, who looked for any excuse to fly, to take him to State College. Greg was on the ground in State College at five to nine, and Greg’s wife Anne drove him down the road to the starting line in time for Greg to do a toe-touch to warm up. The starting gun went off at 9. Fredericks started well behind another Penn State great, Paul Stemmer, but gained on him the entire race and finally caught him about a mile from the finish.
Like the Tour de France, the Arts Fest race has its share of legendary five time winners. Sue Crowe was the first woman to take the laurels five times. Sue won the race three times when it was a 10 miler and twice since it became a 10K. Sue preferred the race when it was longer and ended in front of Old Main, but still shows up for the double looper, taking a Master’s prize now and then. Sue, 47, and her husband Bob have raised six kids, all runners. The older ones have distinguished themselves in high school and collegiate running, and the youngest are showing a lot of promise in that direction.
Wendy Nelson-Barrett has also won five times. She dominated the race while a student at Penn State, taking the title in 1989, 1990, and 1991. She later returned to take the crown in 1993, and again in 1998.
The Arts Fest race went through a few lean attendance years in the early 90s when the sport was on the wane. But the race has been gathering steam again. Last year the race attracted over 500 runners for the first time in years. The Nittany Valley Running Club wants to attract people from all over the region, and is looking forward to a 1000-runner race soon.