Few road races have the history of the Boys & Girls Club Patriots Day 5-miler, the oldest race in Maine.
But tradition alone has not been able to halt a steady decrease in participation for the Portland race – from 917 finishers in 1991 to 230 last year.
“It’s a race with so much history, we really wanted to reinvigorate it,” said Lauren Farina, the new chief development officer for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Southern Maine. “It wasn’t on the chopping block. It was more that this is a really cool, historic race, and we just need to get the word out there and get more people involved.”
This year, three major changes have been made for the 88th annual event, organized by the group’s alumni association to raise money for college scholarships for its members.
n A 5-kilometer option was added for those who don’t want to go the traditional 5 miles.
n For the first time, race day is the Saturday before Patriots Day, with an earlier start time of 9 a.m. for the 5-miler and 9:15 for the 5K. There is no kids’ race.
n There is a new point-to-point course for the 5-miler, starting near Ocean Gateway and finishing at its usual spot on Cumberland Avenue near the Boys and Girls Club. The 5K also starts near Ocean Gateway and finishes at the Boys and Girls Club.
“Back in the 1970s, the 5-miler, they had 1,000 runners every year,” said Howie Chadbourne, the first-year race organizer and longtime member of the alumni association who has run the race more than 20 times.
“Then, all of a sudden, the runners changed. A 5-miler is not in their heads. And you can’t have a race at noon. No one will come to a noon race. Races start at 9 a.m. That way you can run the race and still have two-thirds of the day left. I think it will draw more people.”
Chadbourne isn’t looking for an immediate return to glory days. For this year the goals are modest. Get more runners than in 2016, make sure the word is out about the changes, then respond to feedback and re-emphasize the race’s charitable purpose.
“This tradition has helped young men and women with scholarships,” Chadbourne said. “They’re not large scholarships but it puts some money in some young men and young women’s hands so they can buy books or help with tuition. We’re just not getting the message out well enough that this race is about providing scholarships.”
The changes appear to have made an impact. There were 242 entries when preregistration closed at noon Thursday. Runners also can sign up in person at The Portland Company at 58 Fore Street from 3 to 6 p.m. on Friday, or 7 to 8:30 a.m. Saturday. The entry fee is $30.
As in the past, the $1,000 Haley Challenge prize is available in the 5-mile race for the first man to break 23 minutes, 30 seconds, or the first woman under 27:50.
Both courses use the Eastern Promenade Trail before crossing under I-295 to connect with the Back Cove Trail. Participants in the 5-mile race will turn left onto the Back Cove Trail and do a counter-clockwise loop around Back Cove, and 5K runners will turn right onto the Back Cove Trail.
The final stretch on each course takes runners up Preble Street and Elm Street to Cumberland Avenue, where they turn left and end in the opposite direction of the old loop course.
The Patriots Day 5-miler has had dwindling attendance for at least a dozen years, with less than 400 finishers in 2004. A shift to a Sunday race gave a small improvement from 2009-13, but the last three years had large declines: 351 finishers in 2014, 302 in 2015 and 230 last year.
Competing against the Boston Marathon became an issue, especially with the Boston Athletic Association increasing the field with charity runners. In the last 20 years, Boston Marathon entries have more than tripled to 30,741 in 2016. Monday’s Boston Marathon has 228 Maine residents entered.
Chadbourne said the Patriots Day race also grew smaller as the old guard used to the 5-mile distance retired from racing or died. This year’s race will include a ceremony to honor Dennis Morrill, who died in December. Morrill ran his 50th Patriots Day 5-miler in 2016.
Morrill’s good friend, Dennis Smith, 67, of Yarmouth plans to start his 44th straight Patriots Day race. Smith said having the starting area about a mile from the finish could present logistical problems, but he agrees the race needed to make changes.
“I’d rather see the race keep going and if they go with a 5K, (no) problem,” Smith said. “I don’t want to see it stop. I’ve got a streak going, you know.”
Steve Craig can be reached at 791-6413 or: