The Utica Boilermaker just celebrated its 37th running. It’s a great event, attracting over 17,000 participants for the 15K, 5K, Invitational Mile, Kids’ Run, 3 Mile Walk, and more. The 15K sold out in mere hours this year. I’ve traveled to races around the country, and Utica’s big one is right up near the top in terms of organization, community support, quality of the course, and bang for the buck.
For those unfamiliar with the event, the Boilermaker 15K starts at the Utica Boilers plant and finishes at the West End Brewery, which makes Utica Club and Saranac beers. The course is moderately hilly and offers wonderful views of the Mohawk Valley. Community participation is a huge part of the race, with cheering crowds lining the roads almost the entire way. Utica runners who have only run the Boilermaker are often surprised when they attend other races and discover how unique The Boilermaker is in this regard.
My first Boilermaker was 1988, just after I moved to Utica. My cousin asked if I wanted to enter a race with her. I’d never run before, but I said “Why not?” We trained for just four weeks. I ran in a pair of basketball sneakers, because that’s what I had. Just after five miles I had an urgent call of nature and ran off the course to my boss’s house, about .25 mile away. To his everlasting credit he didn’t turn me away. I’ve since become expert at using Port-a-Johns, although I hate them.
One of my signature memories is cresting the rise at 9 miles that first time and seeing the finish line, just 3/10 mile away. Both sides of the road were crowded with people, and it felt like they were all cheering at the top of their lungs. My eyes filled with tears and I floated through that crowd and into the chute, where somebody took the stub off my bib – those were pre-chip days. My final time was something like 80 minutes, which was right in the middle of the pack. The next day I couldn’t walk.
My grandmother Ruth was a devout Boilermaker supporter. From practically the beginning (I don’t know if she cheered the first year), she’d sit at the end of her street, just before the Mile 8 marker, and clap from the first runner to the last. By the end, her hands were swollen to almost twice their normal size.
In 2001 my cousin returned to run the Boilermaker again. I had another friend in town, who’d never done the race. I was an old pro by that time, and I drove us to the start line. Unfortunately, I parked too far away and we didn’t make it before the gun went off. It’s a terrible thing to have to run before you ever cross the start line of a race. To make things worse, my cousin said she wanted to finish under 80 minutes. I took it as my mission to pace us, and we weaved in and out of the packed crowds in the early miles to stay on track. I still remember her screaming at me just before the third mile: “The only reason I’m still behind you is because I want to kill you!”
I ran one year with the uncle of a friend, a 70 year-old man who hadn’t really trained or run at all in about 40 years. For some reason I believed his trash-talk: “You’d better be ready because I’m going to break 70 minutes today.” After the first mile, he was running a 15-minute/mile pace, gasping “Oh boy. Oh boy.” I became seriously alarmed that he was going to collapse, but we finished in 2-1/2 hours (my slowest ever).
This year, I sat with my family in my grandmother’s old spot and we also cheered from first to last. Susan and Sarah have been doing it every year; I get a break when I run the race. I think it’s harder to be a good spectator – between the 5K and the 15K, you’re putting in 3-1/2 hours. Most of the runners are finished and drinking beer in less than 90 minutes. (Trivia: Before the NY “blue laws” changed, the Boilermaker had to obtain a special exemption to serve free beer at the finish line. For years, it was the only place you could get beer before noon on a Sunday.)
In the marathons I’ve run I often hear people talking about the Boilermaker. No matter what anybody thinks about Utica, they always speak fondly of the race. My favorite was two guys I followed during an 18.12 mile race from Watertown to Sackets Harbor last September. “It’s nice they have that race in Utica. It’s the only thing those people have to look forward to every year.”
I think I’ve run the Boilermaker 11 times, with a PR of 72:18 in 2002. That’s tantalizingly close to 70 minutes, and every year I wonder if I might sign up and break my own record. Maybe next year.