The Beachcomber – Memorial Day

Dog Day Race Still a Big Deal 40 Years Later

By DAVID BIGGY | May 25, 2018
Photo by: File photo At 19 years old, Jarrod Shoemaker wins the first of his six Dog Day Race titles in 2001. Shoemaker is the course record-holder and his mother, Mae, has run in all but a few of the 39 races to date.

During the past four decades, Art Ballinger has seen tens of thousands of runners cruise through the 5-mile course of the High Point Volunteer Co.’s annual Dog Day Road Race in Harvey Cedars. But one year during the mid-1980s, he came across something unique.

“I couldn’t tell you who it was now, but a guy called me up weeks before the race and said he wanted to race for nothing, for free,” said Ballinger, the race’s former director and race-day announcer for the past 26 years. “I said to him, ‘You have to pay the registration fee.’ And he said, ‘Well, I’m going to win your race, so maybe you can do something for me.’

“I told him that if he won the race, he and his friends could run for free. Not only did the guy win the race, he broke the course record that year. He was a serious runner – maybe a marathoner – and he was serious about winning the race, apparently.”

Of course, the record has been broken plenty of times since then. But the most aptly named event of the summer on Long Beach Island is much more than a 5-mile trek through the borough, which often challenges the best of runners because of the typically insane heat and humidity of mid-August.

“I grew up in Bucks County (Pa.), and I’ve been coming to this island every year since I was 2 weeks old,” said Mae Shoemaker, a regular Massachusetts resident and teacher who has a home around the block from the firehouse, on 79th Street. “Harvey Cedars is as much home to me as where we live in Massachusetts. And the Dog Day Race is part of home for me and my family. It’s part of the town, and it’s a cool tradition to run in it every year.”

This year’s race – scheduled for Sunday, Aug. 19 – will be the 40th edition of the Dog Day Road Race, slated for its standard 9:30 a.m. start from West 80th Street, right outside the doors of the fire company’s five-bay building.

Start of Something Special

According to Ballinger, the idea for a fundraising road race developed sometime in early 1979 following a conversation several officers at the time had with a former firefighter they affectionately referred to as “G.I. Joe,” just about the time recreational running was starting to become a hot trend across the United States.

“Joe was good friends with Hans Kampert, and together they developed the plan to have the race,” Ballinger said. “Joe was a runner and thought it would be a good way to raise money. I kind of got drafted into helping out, but we quickly found out there was a lot to putting on a race like that.”

Nowadays, electronic, computer-chipped race timing is a standard practice for most running events. But back in 1979, stop watches were the technology of the era, and it took a lot of volunteers to round up the results at the end of the race.

“We had four chutes and used clickers and stop watches to keep track of the runners and their times as they finished,” said Ballinger, the race director for 22 years. “We had to write down everything, and we had a big board that we used to sort out where the runners finished for each age category. It took a good half-hour to an hour after the last runner came through to figure everything out.”

The winner of the first Dog Day Race, during which 254 runners and walkers participated, was 29-year-old Kevin McGrath, and $1,000 was raised toward the purchase of a new fire truck with a price tag of some $100,000.

“It was a success, so we kept it going,” Ballinger said. “But we had to work out some kinks. The course needed to be changed a few years later so we could accommodate more runners. We didn’t yet have the stage to do the announcing from, and we had to figure out better ways to make everything work better. It was a learning process.”

Following the first race, the fields continued to grow. In 1980, a reported 330 competitors, ranging in age from 9 to 70, paid the $4 entry fee. In 1987, the field numbered more than 500. In 1990’s 12th Dog Day Race, more than 700 competitors took to the course. In 1999 – the first time CompuScore took over the timing aspect of the race – 812 individuals completed the race.

For the next six years, the field consistently numbered in the mid-700s to mid-800s, before organizers watched as 978 individuals in 2006 made their way through the finish-line chute. In 2007, a whopping 1,119 enjoyed the spray of the fire hydrant outside the building following the race. The next year, the number of finishers topped 1,200 for the first time, and in 2009 the field topped 1,300.

The number of finishers topped out at 1,389 in 2010 – the starting field was over 1,400 – and during the next five years that number hovered between 1,100 and 1,250, before dropping back under the 900 mark the past two years.

A Competitive Endeavor – Sometimes

Throughout the years – from the first Dog Day straight up to this year’s 40th – trophies or medals have been awarded to the top overall and age-group finishers. And with so many runners, considering they come from all over the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions, it would be easy to think the race is a highly competitive one. And certainly, some years that has been the case. The top two men, Steve Johnson and Michael Cusick, in 1990 were separated by just six seconds. In 2000, Christian Lynch outraced Eric Lorenz to the finish by 13 seconds. Brennan Coughlin won by seven seconds ahead of Ross McGraw and nine seconds in front of J.P. Botti in 2007, and the difference between winner Darryl Brown and Bryan Morseman in 2011 was 3.5 seconds.

But perhaps the two most exciting races over the years occurred in 2008 – when Philip Kilptoo, who literally arrived from Africa to Ridgewood the day before, outraced another Ridgewood guy, Daniel Koech, winning by nine seconds with a course record of 24:47, despite losing one of his shoes somewhere during the third mile – and 2004, when former Harvey Cedars lifeguard Jarrod Shoemaker, who a year earlier had set the prior course record of 25:03, sprinted to the finish line for a time of 26:14, one second ahead of former Southern Regional High School runner Vinnie Zarillo.

In 2012, after a stretch of time with the U.S. national triathlon crew, Shoemaker returned to Harvey Cedars to reclaim his spot as the course record-holder, zipping through the 5 miles in 24:36.47.

“Like me, Jarrod always felt as if Harvey Cedars was home, and he wanted that course record to belong to him,” said Mae Shoemaker, whose other three children, Jenna, at 19, Martha, at 14, and Jake, at 12, all competed in the race with their older brother and mom in 2003. “I had won my age group a few times, but I focused a lot on marathons, so the Dog Day Race was just another one to do – just run to make it to the next race.”

In fact, when reading through the results from most years, the race seems to draws many families – some of which have been frequenting the Island for generations. And, of course, the race draws plenty of people who aren’t even serious runners, as well as dozens of walkers.

“Even though people come from all over to be a part of the Dog Day Race, it truly is a community race,” said Borough Commissioner Judith Gerkens, who for 25 years has helped with race-day registration and awards. “The race embodies the essence of the Island. It’s a family race, and a lot of people who run it every year know each other. People plan their vacations around it because it’s that big of a deal for them to be a part of it.”

A Community Staple as Strong as Ever

Yes, the Dog Day Race has seen its participation drop a bit during recent years, but the fact is that it’s a 5-mile race – which is a bit of a weird distance for most runners, given the more-popular 5Ks and half-marathons – still drawing some 850 to 900 runners or walkers in a region with a lot of event competition.

So, what’s the secret? Ballinger said it’s all about an appreciation for the community’s service workers.

“We’re one of the smallest communities on the Island, but we have a great community that supports us. They appreciate what we’re doing for the them, and they return the favor by giving as much as they can to help us,” he said. “That’s not just with the Dog Day Race, but our other fundraisers as well. I never thought we’d still be running this race 40 years later. And if not for the support of the community, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do.”

Gerkens, who’s been a commissioner in the borough for 31 years, believes the camaraderie within it is unmatched, and that makes a huge difference when putting on such a big event.

“A lot of people look forward to it,” Gerkens said. “And I don’t mean runners. Even within the borough, we’re talking about months ahead of time, because it’s a time we all come together and do something big here. We have a lot of people in the borough, and even from other parts of the Island, who will do anything to help out the fire company. Our police department does a great job with it, and the Barnegat Light rescue squad has been invaluable over the years.”

Ballinger said every bit of the money raised from the Dog Day Race – about $30,000 per year nowadays – goes a long way into “doing what we’re here to do for Harvey Cedars and surrounding communities,” and he hopes it lives another 40 years.

“Equipment is expensive,” he said. “It’s not cheap to outfit a firefighter or purchase a new truck when it’s needed. But the community is still behind the race, so we’re going to keep doing it. I love it when people come up to me and tell me they haven’t been running for years, but they come back and give it another go just because they support us. That kind of support means a lot.”

All information about the race, including registration fees, course map and sponsor information, can be found at dogdayrace.com.

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