Dean of the charity race

Worthy causes were always front-runners in the hundreds of races Dave Cooley organized

December 30, 2005|By LINELL SMITH | LINELL SMITH,SUN REPORTER

Over the course of 600 races, Dave Cooley has heard plenty from frazzled runners who "just couldn't help" showing up late for the start. He's listened to complaints about the sizes of race T-shirts, about the number of hills on a course, about the heat and humidity, and the length of the lines at the portable toilets.

"There's not a race where something doesn't go wrong," the 73-year-old race director says with his slightly crooked smile.

He makes it hard to believe. Not only have Dave Cooley-run races introduced thousands of new runners to competition, but they've also raised more than $5 million for local charities. And tomorrow, as the dean of Baltimore race directors - currently at Charm City Run - officially retires from his 20-year career, he will be cheered by hundreds of runners, volunteers and friends who are running a race of appreciation.

"Dave's races always seem to go off without any glitches or problems," says elite runner Lee DiPietro. "He's always been incredibly organized and quietly diligent. And he's a really nice guy."

"The Coolman's Last Stand," as tomorrow's contest is known, will raise money for the Maryland Chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, which is the real reason Cooley is excited about it.

Many have benefited

In Cooley's mind, race directing is a way to help worthy charities. He helped build Baltimore's annual Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure from a 5K with 2,500 participants in 1993 to an event with about 25,000 runners in 2000, the last year he officiated.

Beneficiaries of the 40 or so races he's directed this year include hospitals, veterans' programs, hurricane relief, victims of crime, scholarship funds and research investigating cures for cancer and other diseases.

"The best part for me about this work is building an event initially, and then making it work for the nonprofit," Cooley says.

Just as important, he makes each race work for the runners. Always accessible on race day, easy to spot in his yellow jacket, Cooley takes care of the details - such as having enough toilet paper in the toilets - that leave big impressions with runners.

Especially today's runners.

Cooley's career as a race director spans the transformation of recreational running from the "serious" to the "social." Now sidelined from competing by an arthritic hip, Cooley began running in the 1970s, when pencil-thin racers, inspired by Frank Shorter's 1972 Olympic marathon victory, trained 75 miles a week or more to improve their race times.

The newbie runners of today are more apt to trade tips about cross-training, dieting and energy bars while invoking the name of celebrity marathoner Oprah Winfrey. Many find glory in merely finishing a race and raising money for a cause they believe in.

Thus racing today is something of a paradox. At the top, world records continue to fall, while finish times for average runners have gotten slower over the decades as the number of competitors, especially women, has soared.

In 1980, roughly a million runners competed in organized races, and only 10 percent were women. In 2004, females made up half of roughly 8 million competitors, says Ryan Lamppa, a researcher for Running USA, the sport's trade association.

"Women have flooded the market - a lot of that is tied to the charity component of the races and the widespread training programs like Team in Training," Lamppa says. "Twenty years ago, those programs were nonexistent. Now almost every marathon in this country has a program that can take a novice runner and get him or her over the finish line.

"When Oprah kicked down the door in 1994, millions of people who'd said `I'm too busy' or `I don't have the body type for running' didn't have those excuses any more. Because if you're `busier' than Oprah, heaven help you!"

Late bloomer

At 5'9" and 138 pounds in his Navy days, Cooley had the right body type. But he didn't take to running until he was in his mid-40s and recovering from surgery for a touch football injury. When he ran in his first competition, the 1978 Constellation 10K, the race world was a simple place where finishers often received wooden sticks numbered with their order of finish.

There were no computer timing chips. No "fuel belts" or electrolyte-balancing "fuel." No GPS watches to challenge a course length. There were no gait analysis specialists hawking the wonders of orthotics. There were no MP3 players. Or jogbras.

Cooley initially volunteered to direct races while he was working full time for the Internal Revenue Service. His first big assignment was the 10K portion of the 1985 Baltimore triathlon. Cooley had to oversee roughly 1,800 athletes who ran 6.2 miles from the Inner Harbor around Fort McHenry and back.

When it was all over, triathlete Lyn Brooks, the overall race director, handed him a check for $400 - and a challenging new career. "Race directing is the art of squeezing blood from a turnip and having the turnip smile the whole time," she says.

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