Nearing finish line, Cooley set pace for grateful runners

OTHER VOICES

Commentary

December 27, 2005|By MICHAEL REEB

They were going to come to bury Dave Cooley, not to praise him.

Friends of his had decided to honor him with a memorial run, and Cooley, who is calling it quits as a racing director with Charm City Run after 20 years of putting on races in the Baltimore area, pointed out: "Hey, I'm not dead. I'm just retiring."

On second thought, his friends came up with "The Coolman's Last Stand," and the 3.2-miler Saturday at Du Burns Arena in Canton will mark Cooley's retirement from active race direction.

The running community will be all the poorer for his decision.

Cooley is 73 but has the stamina and countenance of someone 20 years younger. He is that omnipresent figure at road races who would be seen pacing madly in front of the starting line, looking like someone who was mad with the world.

I didn't believe it for a minute.

Truth be told, Cooley is a soft touch whose penchant for getting things right, for tending to every detail, made him a delight to work with. When Maryland Marathon director Les Kinion slipped into retirement and moved to Ocean City, Cooley inherited the mantle of race director extraordinaire in the area.

His productions were well-executed, his races as tried and true as a taut string line on a mason's block wall. When I saw Cooley pacing back and forth in front of the starting line of runners at the Baltimore Marathon, I knew everything was going to be OK.

On at least one occasion, it was thanks to Cooley that I was able to do my job at all. For the inaugural running of the Baltimore Marathon, all members of the media had to be credentialed. That was something that happens on more prominent beats like baseball and football, but it was a first for a Baltimore road race. In the confusion, security did not want to give me access to the finish line. Cooley remedied the situation with the wisdom of a man who had been there, done that, and for that I will always be grateful. After all, it would be difficult to write a story without talking to the winning runners.

The marathon was where Cooley really made his mark, first with the Baltimore Road Runners Club's Northern Central Trail Marathon and then with the Baltimore Marathon.

The Baltimore Marathon was one of some 600 races that Cooley directed, and probably the most difficult. The inaugural one came shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which made its staging even more complicated.

Cooley was in his usual form, pacing back and forth at the start, when Steve Rosasco, a longtime area runner but on this day just a spectator, yelled: "Smile, Dave." It helped to cut the tension and became a common refrain at Cooley races thereafter.

But a marathon produces more than a few headaches, a roadblock or two and some detours along the way.

"You're going to have someone inconvenienced," Cooley says. "It's the nature of an urban marathon; it's the nature of marathons period."

The inaugural Baltimore Marathon contained hilly runs up Edison Highway and Walther Boulevard and produced a fair share of complaints. The following year, those hills were eliminated and a leg across the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge in South Baltimore was included. But the next year the course was further modified because the bridge run had restricted access to Interstate 95. A leg out Fort Avenue was added, but a run through Fort McHenry was rejected.

For the 2005 running, Mayor Martin O'Malley and Under Armour marathon underwriter Kevin Plank were successful in gaining permission to run through the fort, but not until a month before the race, and it was left to Cooley to have the course remeasured and recertified.

"We had talked about going through the fort since the first year," Cooley says. "Kevin and the mayor and the superintendent [of the fort] made it happen. We had to pull a mile and a half out of the first half of the marathon."

Perhaps it's Cooley's self-deprecating sense of humor about running in general and marathons in particular that has made him so good at what he does.

"We've had races where you get to the finish line and you think you have the course marked properly," Cooley says, "and you have runners coming from both directions."

On the Baltimore Marathon, Cooley says: "We've had the course every year. With keeping it completely in the city - and that was a rule at the time and still is - sooner or later you're going to hit a hill."

Perhaps it's genetics that is responsible for his youthful outlook.

"I have an aunt who's 104," Cooley says, "and her sister, who would have been my grandmother, lived to be 104. Now, she's not in very good shape at 104, but what the heck."

Whatever it is, the running community is richer for his involvement. Unlike track and field, staging road races is an inexact science at best. Cooley made it more exact.

Smile, Dave. It's time to put your feet up.

mike.reeb@baltsun.com

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