By JOHN T. WARD
For George Sheehan Classic organizer Phil Hinck, the annual Red Bank running event is really several races in one.
The foremost is the one in which hundreds of runners, walkers and wheelchair users strive to cross the finish line on Broad Street in as little time as possible.
But well before that race, there’s the pressure to prop up the number of runners, which has been in gradual decline since the event moved to the borough from Asbury Park in 1994.
And then there’s the race against the clock to break down the street barriers and timing equipment to get out of the way of downtown merchants opening for Saturday morning business.
Now, in the biggest change to the event in years, Hinck and the race committee have decided to shorten the main race to a five-kilometer event, from five miles, a move that they hope will juice attendance and expedite post-race clean-up.
Hinck said that starting with the June 16 event, the race will no longer include the nearly two-mile stretch that took place in Fair Haven. Instead, it will follow its traditional course from downtown Red Bank into Little Silver. But instead of heading east on Harding Road into Fair Haven and back, it will turn west on Harding from Prospect Avenue, directly up the dreaded Tower Hill, and on to its customary finish.
“I know they’re happy about it in Fair Haven,” Hinck tells redbankgreen, adding that residents of the Alderbook community in Little Silver, with a single access point on Harding, will also no longer be “trapped” in their development by the road closure.
The race, named for longtime Rumson resident and Red Bank physician Dr. George Sheehan, who popularized the sport through books and newspaper columns, was launched in Asbury Park in 1981 and relocated to Red Bank in 1994, when it was shortened from a 6.2-miler to a 5-miler.
The latest curtailment, Hinck said, is a reflection of runner preferences for either short runs or longer one, such as marathons and half-marathons. Five-mile races have fallen out of popularity, he said, noting that Rumson’s traditional five-miler is going to a 5K this year. Summer heat and humidity are factors, too, he said.
“Last year, there were good conditions, but there were only 1,500 runners,” he said. “We used to get 3,000.”
Hinck said the edited course will mean cost savings in terms of police protection, but it’s unclear if it will translate into lower entry fees, which ranged as high as $35 for late arrivers.
“We’re still working on that,” he said. The decision will rest on the level of corporate sponsorships, he said.
The shorter course should also translate into earlier postrace breaktown time. Hinck said he still hears complaints from some merchants that the race disrupts their business, but “we really hustle to get the streets open by 9:30 or 9:45,” before most shops are open.
“Every year it’s gotten better,” and the quicker race can be expected to shave a large block of time off the earliest street reopening, he said.
The decision to shorten the race, though, was a tough one, Hinck said.
“The hardcore runners don’t want to see these distances go away,” he said.
Registration opens March 15.