GOSHEN — Rick Clark thumbed the fabric of an old Parade 5,000 T-shirt as he shared memories from his years in the running world.
He has 32 of those shirts, one for each year of the Elkhart County 4-H Fair’s Parade 5,000 road run, which he has directed since its inception in 1982.
Clark carefully unfolded a handful of shirts and laid them on the kitchen table at his Goshen home. Each shirt, each year has a story. And for a man who coached cross country and track runners at Goshen College and Goshen High School for 36 years, there’s no shortage of supply.
At 64, Clark looks like he could qualify for the Boston Marathon. But a 2012 stroke left his speech impaired and made it difficult to walk — let alone run — without assistance.
His son, Graham, has assisted with organizing the race since Clark’s stroke, but Rick Clark is still the heart and soul of the Parade 5,000.
He retired from coaching in 2010, but he never stopped being a coach. People still call him “Coach,” a distinction he carries with great affection.
Tim Yoder, Elkhart County 4-H Fair president and former Goshen High School runner, said he derived this year’s “All In” theme from Clark’s motivational pre-meet talks with the team.
“He would talk about in track and cross country, if we all were in and we all did our jobs ... then we’d win,” Yoder said. “It was just one of those things that stuck with me. If you think about the fair — if we’re all in, if we all just do our jobs, we win.”
Clark fondly rattles off names of runners who have become Parade 5,000 staples over the years. There’s Lawrence Scholl, of Goshen, who has only missed one race since 1982. There’s husband and wife duo Peter and Tammy Casaletto, who each won the race five years in a row and hold course records in their age groups.
Clark chuckles as he remembers Dexter Lehman, who ran down the wrong road in the middle of the 1987 race but still ended up setting the course record. Lehman’s 15:01 mark has never been broken.
Parade 5,000 Road Run
Sunday, July 20. Check in is at 11 a.m. Race begins at 1:20 p.m.Where:
The starting line is at Rogers Park. The race follows the Elkhart County 4-H Fair parade route.Cost:
$20 (Free admission to the fair afterwards)Deadline:
Saturday, July 19.Register: runrace.net
Rick Clark’s advice to first-time runners:
“This is a hot run. They’ll need to do some training in the heat of the day. Make sure they get used to it. ... Don’t go out to race it. Go out to be part of the event.”
The Parade 5,000 was the product of the fervent running boom in the 1970s and ’80s.
Clark pitched the idea to the 4-H Fair president at the time, who eagerly accepted.
“They said (the director) would have to be on the fair board, and they pointed to me,” Clark said. “And 32 years later, here I still am.”
Since the race directly precedes the parade and runs along the same route, runners are cheered by the hundreds of people lined up for the festivities. It’s that touch, Clark says, that makes this race special.
“The first year, people sitting along the parade route didn’t really respond to runners,” he said. ”Now they respond to runners real well. That’s what gets the numbers up, I think.“
After three decades of tinkering, Clark has the 5K running like a well-oiled machine. He has a strong relationship with sponsors, volunteers who know what’s expected of them and a new online-only registration process that streamlines the sign-up process.
Like football and basketball, the running scene has changed over the past several decades. As the sport has evolved, Clark has watched the race evolve.
"I think running has become a mainstream activity, whereas it used to be something only the competitive people did — the high school or college runners,” he said. “Now entire families sign up to run it. Brothers and sisters sign up to run it. You get people with their baby strollers, they’re runners now.”
Clark has watched the field swell from 163 to the mid-400s. He has watched high school runners dressed as gorillas, SpongeBob SquarePants and superheroes cross the finish line. He’s pulled the race through the 1990 flood and instituted the Dick Shank Lifetime Fitness Award in 2011.
Shank, a longtime state legislator from Elkhart, was a running aficionado until his death in 2009.
“He used to say, ’Any day I could run was a good day,’” Clark said.
The way Clark talks, he would spearhead the 5K for another 32 years. But his wife, Jan, tells him he’s retiring in two years — after the 35th annual Parade 5,000.
Though he hasn’t narrowed down a successor, Clark knows the race has been set in motion to live on without him. He hopes the next director carries on the legacy of the race while also implementing new ideas.
In all his years as the race director, Clark has never actually had a chance to run the 5K. He planned on tackling that goal after retirement, but the stroke has mostly confined his athletic endeavors to a three-wheel bicycle.
He can still try to walk it, though, as Graham Clark suggested.
Yoder agreed that “Coach Clark” will set a goal to see it through, affectionately calling his former coach “stubborn and determined.”
And if he does, the T-shirt he’ll add to the growing collection will tell a whole new story.