History of the Balboa Park 8 Miler
One of the Oldest Continuing Events in America
by Tom Bache
This is a history written for publication on the Internet. As such, it can become a “living history” that is updated as the future unfolds and new facts are uncovered about the past. History serves by recording facts and events that would otherwise be forgotten, and the best history includes anecdotes to help the reader to understand and appreciate the past. The author has focused on facts since they provide the baseline. Anecdotes can be added by anyone who has an interesting story to tell.
Readers will notice that there are many missing facts, but most are known or discoverable by people who are still around and active. The author hopes that some of these people will read this article and feel motivated to contact him (firstname.lastname@example.org) to provide missing facts as well as correcting any errors that may be present.
The Balboa Park 8-Mile Run (“BP-8”) was founded in 1955 and since then has been a fixture on the Southern California running calendar every August or September (usually in early August, but it was shifted to late September 1984-90). For 61 years it used nearly the same course (new construction and road and sidewalk alterations forced small changes over the years) until growing popularity forced significant routing changes in 2016. But even now, the BP8 course covers much the same ground as it always has.
This venerable event spans most of the post-war period and the development of distance running as a popular form of recreation as well as a serious sport for ambitious athletes. These trends reflect and exemplify changes in the surrounding society. So the history of the BP8 is more than facts and anecdotes about the event itself.
The BP8 is Among the Oldest Continuing Running Events in America
The BP-8 is a cross-county race with significant similarities to a road race. So it is both — or neither. Either way, it seems to be one of the ten oldest distance running events in the U.S. It would be much higher (maybe first?) on a list that only includes events that have used nearly the same course during their history. According to the www.arrs.net/LongRunR.htm list of continuing road races, the only older event west of the Mississippi is San Francisco’s Bay-to-Breakers, and there are another eight older events in the east. Many have probably had significant course alterations over the years. Cross-country races that use the same course for many decades must be very rare. The Dipsea in Marin County could be one (held on most, though not all, years starting in 1905), but it is a unique “go-as-you-please” event that allows course-savvy entrants to leave the marked course to take advantage of shorter routes.
A Brief Summary of Balboa Park 8 Miler History
Over the decades the BP-8 has been a constant fixture as society evolved. Its history reflects these changes and can claim to have driven some of them. Some of the highlights are summarized below and will be described in more detail later.
In 1955 the post-war generation perceived a need and founded the BP-8 and San Diego Track Club to fill it. Bill Gookin led that effort.
Gookin managed the BP-8 most years from 1955 until the 1970’s, and occasionally thereafter until stepping down after a six-year stint (1991-96) in the 1990’s. Over the years there have been many other short-term race directors, but the event has remained nearly the same.
Mixed gender competition began in 1967 as Donna Gookin became one of the first U.S. women to run (unofficially) in AAU-sanctioned long-distance. In the 1970 she was an official entrant in the BP-8, and so became one of the very first officially recognized female distance (more than a few miles) runners in the U.S.
The age-group era began in 1968 as over-40 athletes begin to compete on the track. The “Masters Division” concept quickly spread to distance runs, including the BP8.
The BP-8 started as an afternoon event (typical start time was 5pm) and remained one until well into the 1970’s. No doubt, many tourists visiting the zoo and museums on an August evening back then still have memories of being startled and perhaps sprayed with sweat as BP-8 runners darted through their midst. So the BP-8 was shifted to the early morning start now used by almost all distance running events.
Inspired by (and to some extent driving) the running boom of the 1970’s, professional race managers entered the running scene in that decade, but the BP-8 stayed true to its volunteer management roots for several more decades.
The BP-8 experienced its peak competition years in the 1970’s when some of the nation’s best distance runners had epic battles on the course.
The number of entries peaked between 1976 and 1985 (highest was 500 in 1981), then declined to between 111 and 298 until a rapid post-2013 increase to a new high of 566 in 2015.
The sponsoring SDTC partnered with a professional race management firm (San Diego Running Co.) for 2013 and following years, and their expertise seems to be the primary reason for the subsequent increase in entrants.
Female entries have increased steadily over the years, nearly equaling male entries in 2011, then increasing to nearly 68% of total entries in 2015.
The entry trends predicted 1000 or more entrants in 2016 – too many for the traditional course in some areas. So in 2016, significant changes have ben made to eliminate bottlenecks while still using most of the same terrain.
Founding of the Balboa Park 8 Miler and SDTC in 1955
Modern society offers countless options for fitness-oriented recreational activities, but the world was very different in 1955. Track-and-Field (T&F) was a popular men’s sport at the High School and College level (much more popular than now). But post-school opportunities were few. In some large urban areas there were clubs supporting women’s T&F from youth to adult and others serving elite post-college men. The men’s U.S. Olympic team members came from the school programs and these club teams. All elite woman athletes came from club programs, but there were relatively few Olympic events for women, and the longest distance was 400 meters.
Distance running and most other T&F events were for men only in the 1950’s. Post-school opportunities were focused on elite (or otherwise very serious) competitors, and then in only a few areas. There were few competitive opportunities in smaller urban areas (like San Diego), and no encouragement or support for recreational runners. This changed dramatically in the next few decades, and the BP-8 was at the forefront of these changes.
Consider the social context of the 1950’s. Those becoming young adults in the mid-50’s had grown up in the sequential national traumas of the Depression and World War II. But they reached adulthood in what was by far the world’s richest and most powerful nation. They could look forward to secure and prosperous lives. Aside from those few with realistic Olympic dreams, post-school training and competition had long been considered to be a pointless distraction from serious adult responsibility. But some of this post-war generation believed they could mix passionate avocations with responsible adult lives, and they had the time and energy to do something about it. Such people attended San Diego State College (now San Diego State University or SDSU) and were part of a good men’s T&F team. They weren’t willing to follow the conventional path and put the joys of competition behind them when they left college.
Bill Gookin was a natural leader and compulsive organizer who was especially eager for more competition because he had recently blossomed to set SDSU school records. He had the potential to achieve success at the national level. There were opportunities for such athletes in Los Angeles (clubs, T&F meets, and road/XC races). But that was far away (4 hour drive) with the cars and roads of the time. San Diego County was growing rapidly (census estimates: 290,000 in 1940, 560,000 in 1950, >1M in 1960), so Bill thought it could support its own post-college structure for T&F athletes. He led a group to create this structure.
After graduating from SDSU in 1955, Bill and some teammates founded the San Diego Track and Field Association (later renamed the San Diego Track Club) to organize “All-Comer” T&F Meets and San Diego’s first distance race – the Balboa Park 8 Mile in August. Many of those in the founding group remained active for decades as athletes and officials (especially notable were Dick Straub, Tom Sturak, Bill Ellis, Mike Muirhead, and Don Donnelly).
As noted earlier, the BP-8 course was and remains a mix of typical road and cross-county courses as it tours Balboa Park. Bill says he chose the 8-mile distance and hybrid terrain because he had been running Los Angeles road and cross-country races at 6 and 10 miles and wanted an in-between event to attract LA runners to San Diego. He also thought this event was a good fit for his talents, giving him a competitive edge. But Bill was a perfectionist race director who often compromised his competitive ambitions with his do-everything approach to race management. So that first year and for decades beyond Bill did most of the work (obtain the permit, design, measure, and mark course, take entries, run the race, compile the results, give the awards, publish the results and clean up).
During those early years, Bill and others worked to get young people involved in the All-Comer meets, and decided to extend opportunities for the distance runners by adding a 3-mile run to the BP-8 program. The added 3-mile continued to be offered most years until it was dropped in 2016. Over the years it has been variously billed as a youth run, fun run, or simply another distance. But it has never had equal billing with the 8-mile, and the results are not always published. So we will keep focus on the BP-8 – the historic centerpiece.
Bill Gookin Management Era from 1955 to 1996
Shortly after that first BP-8, Bill left San Diego for a 2-year hitch in the Army (the draft was part of life in those days). So the 1956-57 editions of the BP-8 were managed by Dick Straub. When Bill returned in 1958, he resumed his BP-8 Director role and continued in that position nearly every year until 1979, and again from 1991-1996 Bill had his way of doing things (very effective, but labor-intensive for him), and the event remained very nearly the same over all those years. Many others served as Race Directors in the “non-Gookin” years, but all did their best to sustain his vision while technology and society evolved.
Until the late-1960’s, the entrants in BP-8 and other distance races around the country (and world) were mostly men who considered themselves to be serious competitors and trained accordingly. There were no women or age-group runners, or health and fitness enthusiasts, or recreational runners out for a pleasant day with like-minded people, or joggers who walk much of the course. In other words, the demographics and objectives of 90% of the entrants in 21st century events just weren’t part of the scene back then. So in those first 15 or so years, relatively few (25 growing to 80 or so) youngish (nearly all under 40) men entered the BP-8 and raced as hard as they could. They enjoyed the camaraderie, but saw the event as a serious test of their fitness and will. Of course, many current entrants see it the same way, but the surrounding atmosphere has a bit of a party feel. That is, of course, part of the attraction.
Women (led by pioneer Donna Gookin) Enter the Scene
As for many other sports, participation in T&F and distance running is inspired by and driven by the Olympic Games and the events the Olympic organizers choose to showcase. Recall that in 1955, the longest women’s Olympic running event was 400 meters. The 800 meters had been part of the Olympics in earlier times, but it was eliminated for the 1932 Games (Los Angeles), then reinstated for the 1960 Games in Rome. So there was a small beginning of interest in woman’s distance running in the late 1950’s. This expanded a bit with the addition of the woman’s 1500 for the 1972 Games (Munich), then expanded dramatically when the woman’s marathon was added to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.
International cross-country championships for men have been around since the early 20th century (race length from 6-9 miles). Since the 1930’s there have been woman’s cross-county races elsewhere in the world (mostly in England), and a separate woman’s international cross-country championships was organized a few times (race distance from 1.9 to 2.8 miles). But the U.S. didn’t enter the men’s event until 1966 (the author was a member of that first U.S. team, and many San Diego based runners have been members of subsequent teams). A woman’s race was added to the championship program in 1967. American Doris Brown won five times, 1967-1971. So the U.S. had successful female distance runners in the 1960’s, and interest was growing.
Donna Gookin married Bill in the 1950’s and so was immersed in the growing distance running activities in San Diego. She began running herself, and asked the San Diego Parks Department to support a woman’s running program at the North Clairemont Recreation Center. At that time Ralph Smith was head of the SD Parks Department and also Chairman of the San Diego AAU (same role as today’s USTAF), so he approved her request. Donna’s program was very popular, and many of the first generation of San Diego female runners got started in that program. Donna and many of the women in her classes wanted to join the fun in San Diego road races (nearly all managed by Bill).
But at that time the AAU would not sanction mixed gender events at any distance or any woman’s event longer than 3 miles. There were threats that men who ran an unsanctioned event might be barred from future sanctioned events, and Bill took those threats seriously, as he should have at the time. Donna wrote letters to top AAU officials asking for official permission to enter men’s races, but she was rebuffed. So in the late-1960’s she organized a few parallel events for her group (nearly the same course at nearly the same time). She also ran the less formal BP 3-mile in 1968, and was the first woman to do such a thing.
At the same time women elsewhere were pushing to get into distance races. Most famously, in 1966 San Diego based Bobbi Gibb ran the Boston Marathon as a bandit (runner without entry or number). In 1967 Katherine Switzer completed Boson with a number issued to K. V. Switzer. But Boston didn’t officially recognize female entrants until 1972.
In 1969 Donna finished the BP-8 as a bandit, becoming the first woman to complete a major San Diego distance race, and one of the first in the U.S. Ralph Smith was sympathetic to her quest, and he gave AAU permission for women to enter the BP-8 in 1970. Donna was the only woman entry, making the BP-8 one of the nation’s first long races to admit women.
As we know, women’s distance running has grown enormously since those early days, and now woman make up the majority of entries in many road races around the U.S.
The history of the BP-8 provides insight into many other interesting and significant aspects of the evolution of modern distance running. But to describe them coherently, we need to examine some statistics. The first and broadest characterization of the event is to show the number of entrants over the years (below).
The winners and their winning times are listed below. A tabulation of all men’s times below 42:00 and all women’s times below 51:00 follow the tabulation of winning times. Looking at the fast men’s times, we see that all but two outliers (Billy Mills in 1967 and Thom Hunt in 1991), were run in the years 1971-1985. The first official woman entrants wasn’t until 1970, and the fast women’s times are spread more evenly over the years. But even so the four fastest times occurred in a three-year period (1981-1983) – mostly due to the participation of an exceptionally fast woman (Liz Baker).
Fast entrants run fast times, and the fast times in the 1971-1985 period occurred because an exceptional number of national-class runners lived and trained in San Diego at that time. They chose to test each other at the BP-8. More about this period is provided after the two tables.
Bob Larsen and the Glory Years for San Diego Distance Running
Human excellence tends to flourish in clusters (e.g., biotech in San Diego, IT in Silicon Valley, distance running in northwest Oregon, etc.). In the 1970’s there was a distance running cluster in San Diego. Such clusters begin with a core, then grow as success attracts others who bring more success. Bob Larsen provided the core, and the cluster grew with San Diego natives who were coached, advised, or otherwise influenced by Bob Larsen.
Larsen is a San Diego native who won the BP-8 in 1958 while an SDSU undergraduate. In 2013 he was inducted into the USATAF Hall of Fame for his accomplishments as UCLA track and cross country coach from 1979 to 2000. (http://www.usatf.org/Athlete-Bios/Hall-of-Fame/2013-Hall-of-Fame-Bios/Bob-Larsen.aspx). Before that he developed many great distance runners while coaching at Monte Vista High School and Grossmont Community College (http://www.ustfccca.org/ustfccca-hall-of-fame/ustfccca-hall-of-fame-class-of-2003/bob-larsen-ustfccca-class-of-2003, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bob_Larsen).
Larsen supported the BP-8 and encouraged his runners to enter to test their fitness before the Fall cross country season. Of the 35 times under 42:00, 21 (Pfeffer, Fleet, Harper, Trup, Lux, Mendoza, Lusitana, Close, Evans, Brownsberger, Peters, and Blue) were posted by Larsen coached runners. Others (e.g., Hunt, Camp, Cour) followed independent programs, but no doubt improved due to the strong competition from the Larsen runners. Five-time BP-8 winner Thom Hunt was also a member of the 1976 Jamul Toads team that won the cross county national championships (see below). All were nationally ranked runners with numerous high placings in national championship events and selection to U.S. teams competing in international championships. The Larsen-coached Jamul Toads won the National AAU Cross Country Championships in 1976.
San Diego still produces many national-class runners, but most pursue their dreams for excellence in other places with well-funded clusters. For better of for worse, the days when a cluster of national-class amateur runners would clash in a low-key event like the BP-8 seem to have passed (the 1976 Jamul Toads had to raise the money to support their trip to the championship site in Philadelphia).
The Growing Popularity of Women’s Distance Running
As described earlier, female ;participation in long distance running events was almost non-existent until the 1970’s. In fact, the number of male entries in the BP-8 peaked at 415 in 1981, but decreased to 203 in 1987 and has remained in the 100-200 range ever since (see below).
Since the number of male entrants hasn’t changed much for decades, the recent increase in the number of total entries is almost entirely due to greater participation from women. This can be seen in the following plot.
In this entry trend, as so many other things, the BP-8 mirrors national trends. According to Eric Marenburg of San Diego Running Co. (SDTC partner for organizing and managing the BP8), female entrants are now 60-65% of total entries for distance running events throughout the U.S. (the higher percentages tend to be for the longer events). This is a subject of some concern for professional event management firms like SDRC because a more equal ratio is a better fit with their vision and business model.
The Future of the Balboa Park 8 Miler
As described in the foregoing, the BP-8 began as an event for highly-competitive male runners. As such it was small. In the running boom of the 1970’s and 1980’s it grew and reached its zenith as a competitive event with many national-class runners testing their fitness on this challenging course. Then the local running community changed, and the BP-8 got smaller and shifted toward dominance by recreational and age-group entrants. But through nearly six decades, the BP-8 stayed faithful to its roots in being organized and managed by SDTC volunteers. As such, it was one of the largest volunteer-organized events in the area since management by professional race management organizations became the norm for all but very small, low-key events. As entry numbers and other logistic headaches increased in the 21st century, it became a huge challenge for SDTC to continue to manage the event with volunteers. So in 2013, SDTC formed a partnership with San Diego Running Co. (SDRC) to provide their professional race management expertise. SDRC’s event promotion expertise will increase the number of entries (it already has – dramatically) and their management expertise should provide a well-organized event that provides a good experience for all entrants.
The new BP-8 will be different, but the beauty and challenge of the Balboa Park course (somewhat altered to allow more runners) remains the same. The marketing and event amenities are very different, but in a way that aligns the BP-8 with the larger world of distance running events as it has evolved since the 1970’s. Everything changes over time.
2016 Update: The 2016 edition of the BP-8 had nearly 1700 entrants with nearly all being recreational runners out to tour Balboa Park and enjoy a vigorous fitness-enhancing experience with like-minded people. The number of entrants was about three times larger than the previous maximum of 566 in 2015 and roughly ten times larger than the 150-300 level that prevailed from 1985 to 2013. In short, the venerable BP-8 is healthier than ever and promises a bright future.
Author: Tom Bache moved to San Diego in 1968 to attend graduate school at UCSD. He had just completed four years of service in the Marine Corps (three years on the Marine Corps Track Team at Quantico, VA, and one year in Vietnam). So he was a serious distance runner who was eager to continue high-level competition. He joined SDTC and was a frequent training partner of Bill Gookin and other dedicated San Diego runners of the time. He served on the SDTC Board of Directors for many years, and he and wife Lolitia edited the SDTC Newsletter from 1969 through 1973. In 1969 he and Bill Gookin designed the SDTC logo that still adorns SDTC uniforms in 2016.
Sources: The BP-8 results were collected from Lolitia Bache’s archive of SDTC Newsletters (1968-1998). The author also relied upon several informative articles about BP-8 history published in old Newsletter issues. The 1st place results for 1955-1967 are from a Newsletter article by Mike Plant. The results for 2002 – present are on line at https://www.athlinks.com/Events/463639/. Bill, Donna, and Ed Gookin were involved with the BP-8 from its inception and many decades thereafter. The author benefited greatly from conversations with them as well as documents they kindly loaned. Thom Hunt won the BP-8 five times between 1980 and 1998 and competed many other times. His insights provided helpful information. The author’s son (also Tom Bache) suggested this project and gained the enthusiastic support of Eric Marenburg of San Diego Running Co. Both also provided valuable information about the recent evolution of the BP-8.