The inaugural Cowtown marathon in 1979 didn’t exactly prophesy success in either the short or long term as the figurative locusts, in the form of sleet, swarmed tree, street and rooftop.
Those conditions did nothing to deter five visionaries – Jim Alter, Jim Gilliland, Bob Kaman, Charles Olglevie and Bob Patton -- who became The Founders Club, our westernized Pheidippides, heralding victory over Mother Nature and a bright new day for a new culture of fitness in Fort Worth.
“The temperature went from 70 degrees [on Friday] to the mid-20s at daybreak,” said Kaman, a professor emeritus at the UNT Health Science Center, home of the race’s initial headquarters. “The course was covered in thick, white ice.”
Gilliland bought up all the spray paint he could find to re-mark the marathon course and 10K route.
About 1,000 runners had signed up for the marathon, though only half showed. Among the 185 who actually finished the 26.2 miles was the future majority leader of the House of Representatives Dick Armey, at the time a professor at North Texas.
Saturday and Sunday will mark the 40th running of The Cowtown, now offering a 5K and 10K, the marathon, half-marathon and ultra-marathon.
Instead of the more than 1,000 who registered in 1979, more than 28,000 from 49 states and 10 countries are expected for both days in 2018.
“I am so proud of the Cowtown Marathon,” Kaman said. “I never imagined it would grow to what it is. It has become one of the major running events in the U.S.”
Before the terrible start and the growth and evolution of the race, there was a meeting in Kaman’s office at the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine, now the UNT Health Science Center.
The year was 1978, and Kaman was the director of the school’s Board of the Institute for Human Fitness, and Bob Patton was a professor. Among the things the institute did was create exercise programs and fitness testing and the such.
“In our meetings, we realized Fort Worth did not have a marathon,” Kaman said. “Bob Patton and I, and Dr. Joel Alter [professor of surgery at TCOM] brought this to the board of the institute: ‘Let’s do a marathon for Fort Worth.’”
Gilliland, a running buddy of Kaman’s, volunteered to be race director.
The Cowtown’s first “administrative office” was Kaman’s office at the school. Gilliland charted the course, starting and ending in the Stockyards on the North Side. Packet pickup for racers was staged in the school’s Carl Everett building.
Bill Parmalee and Nancy Denniston, both of Fort Worth, were the first winners. And everybody was cold.
Race organizers, though, saw the future through the blocks of ice.
Kaman helped oversee a number of changes throughout the year, including two course changes and recertifications, from the Stockyards, to Sundance Square, to the current location at Will Rogers, where race organizers wanted to be from the beginning.
At the time, the city wanted a two-day event.
Kaman, 76, with both a PhD in biochemistry and a law degree, remained in an active role with The Cowtown up until about two years ago.
He has been on the board all 40 years and the board president on a few different occasions. He has done just about everything here, from driving the lead car of the marathon and posting at the finish line, to coordinator of the Solutions Desk, where runners take their problems.
“Truly, I don’t think Cowtown would be here if Dr. Kaman hadn’t been around in 1979,” said Heidi Schwartz, The Cowtown’s executive director. “And he’s got a passion for the youth program more than anything.”
Kaman does not reserve praise for Schwartz, who, he said, “has moved this event forward as a nationally recognized event.”
But it was Kaman, a former marathon runner, who led the beginnings of what is now The Cowtown’s C.A.L.F. – Children’s Activities for Life and Fitness – program. Kaman was among the brain trust that came up with the idea of schools bringing their kids to The Cowtown to run as a group.
Oakmont Elementary was the first, he recalled. And Kaman was proud to say that today the children’s 5K is the largest in the nation.
Kaman also reminded a nearby listener that The Cowtown lost money every year until about seven or eight years ago. For more than three decades, sponsors made up the losses.
The books today for the nonprofit are in the black, but whatever the excess over costs goes to the C.A.L.F. program, mostly to buy shoes for underprivileged school children.
In addition to teaching wellness, out of the program has come some very highly competitive runners, too.
It is those lessons learned in the children’s program, one’s individual responsibility for fitness, that Kaman has held most dear for his entire life. So much so, that he made both a career and vocation out of it.
The community is a healthier, better one because of Bob Kaman.
“I have served in several capacities,” Kaman said. “I’m most proud of the marathon. I have never looked for any personal recognition, but I am so proud of The Cowtown marathon and my university’s role in its support.”