By Heather Mayer Irvine
If you run, you probably know the name Bart Yasso. He served as the Chief Running Officer for Runner’s World for nearly 30 years, before retiring last December. And for those who live in Bethlehem, you can call him your neighbor.
More than 25 years ago, Yasso, who was born and raised in the Lehigh Valley, wanted to start a running event that was different from the status quo 5K or 10K. And he wanted proceeds to go to a good cause. So he created the Lehigh Valley River Relay, benefiting the American Red Cross.
The relay was about 22.5 miles long, all along the Delaware and Lehigh Towpath, from Allentown to Easton.
“I didn’t worry too much about distance,” says Yasso.
But one year, someone approached Yasso with a problem: “This guy said, ‘I’m too slow, and no one wants me on their team. Can I run it solo?’”
And that’s when Yasso decided to make the course the marathon distance: 26.2 miles.
“If people were running 22.5 miles solo, it didn’t make sense to not make it a marathon,” he says.
So in addition to the relay, which consisted of five legs, runners could choose to cover the whole distance by themselves. One of those relay groups, from the 1993 race, sticks in Yasso’s mind.
Yasso recruited residents of the Keenan House, a rehabilitation facility for drug offenders, to train for and run the race. At first, the director of the program didn’t think Yasso was serious.
“These people won’t run across the street unless we tell them they’re free,” Yasso remembers the director telling him.
Determined to introduce running to these people who were trying to better their lives, Yasso put together three teams—15 residents total.
“These people stood out,” Yasso says. “They were covered in tattoos. They weren’t wearing running clothes even though I gave them running clothes. They were wearing cutoffs and beater tank tops.”
When Yasso reminisces about the finish line of that race he chokes up.
“The runners were nice to them. They were not used to that,” he says. “They felt like they really accomplished something.”
Eventually, the race became too much for the American Red Cross to oversee, so Yasso approached Via of the Lehigh Valley, an organization that helps children and adults with disabilities.
“Via teaches independence,” Yasso says, pointing out he wanted the race to benefit a local organization.
Via of Lehigh Valley took over as the benefactor in 2007, and the group handles race details while the Lehigh Valley Health Network is the title sponsor. This year, DMSE, the Massachusetts-based company that oversees the logistics of the Boston Marathon, will serve as race director.
Today, the weekend-long event offers a 5K, half marathon, marathon, the relay, and a kids run.
“This event is the largest annual fundraiser for Via of the Lehigh Valley, and proceeds help us continue our mission to help people with disabilities reach their full potential,” says Jillian Lovejoy, communications director for Via of the Lehigh Valley.
Last year there were more than 3,000 participants across all events.
Over the years, the Via Marathon, has become a popular race because of its downhill course, which runs through 14 municipalities, and its reputation for being a top Boston Marathon qualifier.
“I never set up the course thinking about it being a fast course,” says Yasso. “But it is fast.”
Last year the race was the sixth best Boston Qualifier (BQ), with an average finishing time of 3:59, says Lovejoy.
The timing makes it a popular BQ race, too: It’s held the Sunday before registration for the storied marathon opens.
“It’s literally the last train to Boston,” says Yasso.
The 5K (7:30 a.m.) and Kids Race (9:30 a.m.) will be held Saturday, September 8. Register here.
The marathon, half marathon, and marathon relay will be held Sunday, September 9. Register here until August 6 or until the races reach capacity.
General information about the Via Marathon events can be found at http://www.viamarathon.org