One of the original course certification maps from The Woodlands Marathon, 1988...how things have changed!
For those that participated in the original Woodlands Marathon, it was a sweetheart of an event – and not just because it was held close to Valentine’s Day each year.
However, it almost didn’t get to become that. Houston’s Arlen Isham ran the very first event in 1979. “I remember thinking I was lost around mile 21 as there was no one in sight anyplace,” said Isham, the owner of 34 Houston Marathon finishes. “And I was running a 3:30.” Inside Texas Running, at the time, reported that there were just 225 total runners.
Houston’s Gail Sabanosh wasn’t too far in front of Isham – as she was the women’s winner in 3:24:33. The race was held under very trying conditions as rain and winds caused times to soar. “I really didn’t mind it,” Sabanosh told Inside Texas Running. “But I did stop to change shoes at about the 18-mile mark. “My feet were killing me and I thought my toes would come off, but I didn’t really care about that. I’m just really happy that I won it.”
The overall winner was Tony Ashton in 2:39:06. A year later, Dave Reinhart, a three-time NCAA D-1 cross county championship competitor for American University in the mid-1970s who had finished 8th overall the month before at the Houston Marathon in 2:23:25, would post a 2:24:48 that was certain to be the event’s all-time record. But no one knows for sure.
“John Converse, who was our results guy, has died,” said longtime race director Doug Earle, who now is a Deputy Director in the city of Houston’s Parks and Recreation Department. “My hunch is when the race no longer existed, the files were dumped.”
There’s not dumping of runner’s memories, though. Especially those like Spring’s Bill Dwyer. The 1980 marathon was his first after moving to the greater Houston area from New York. “The race started at McCullough (High, now Junior High) and finished at The Woodlands Inn and Country Club,” he said. “We were shuttled in vans to the start. It was a cold morning and there were some very light snow furries before the start. I finished in 3:44 and remember saying that I would never run another marathon again.” A year later, Dwyer, one of our 40-plus event coordinators for 2012, returned to take another 20 minutes off of his time.
But it would be San Antonio’s Charles “Chuck” Frawley who that year would win with another sub-2:30 performance, 2:29:54. Mary Jane Haggerty dropped the women’s record to 3:07:20 in 1981 a year before a future Olympian would run what was then the second fastest women’s marathon time in all of Texas. California’s Julie Brown would win the Dallas White Rock Marathon in December 1981 in 2:33:29, but Lamar University track star Midde Hamrin would get close two months later. Originally a basketball star in Sweden before coming to the States, the 24-year-old would win The Woodlands Marathon in late February 1982 in 2:34:28. She would later outrun Brown in the inaugural women’s Olympic Marathon in Los Angeles, finishing 18th overall in 2:36:41.
But even though the winning times wouldn’t crest those put down by Reinhart and Hamrin in the race’s first four years, the marathon and its companion 10K event – won two of the last three years by former U.S. marathon record holder and current Woods Edge Church pastor Jeff Wells – would feature approximately 1,300 participants before it folded after the 1993 race.
Well up from the race’s debut 15 years earlier, but the Houston Marathon would push past the 3,000-finisher number in 1988 and start knocking on the door of 4,000 while the original Woodlands Marathon was ending. And an inability to draw more numbers as well as the all-important sponsorship dollars drastically reduced the amount of charitable monies the race could dole out to its two major charities – The Woodlands Track Club and the South Montgomery County YMCA.
Times, though, have changed. And the sport has too. However, the common thread between paper and online registration, a pat on the back and a nice medal around your neck or the cotton t-shirt to the wick-away technical shirt is – you, the participant.And you’re already making history as we all “Bring it Back!” in joining over 6,000 other runners to become the largest, single-day sporting event in South Montgomery County.
By Jon Walk, with research support from Bill Dwyer