The late Dick Kunkle, founder of the Sound to Narrows race, regarded his brainchild as if it were, well, a child. And like any proud parent, Kunkle collected mementos of those fabulous formative years, meticulously stored inside a box that ended up in the attic of his house.
Kunkle died in 1996, seven months before he could celebrate the 25th installment of an event the longtime News Tribune sports writer conceived as a “run for fun.”
A few years ago, Kunkel’s widow, Leah, bequeathed the attic box to race coordinator Danette Felt.
“I love looking at those photos from the old newspapers,” Felt said Thursday, two days before the 40th Sound to Narrows. “It’s so much better than microfiche.”
If a story was written about the Sound to Narrows – and a lot of stories were written, many under Kunkle’s byline – it’s on file. But Kunkle also preserved correspondence, statistics and notes detailing the race’s evolution from a modestly attended novelty into a sports ritual that has annually announced the arrival of Pacific Northwest summers since 1973.
“It was on a gray morning June 9, 1973, as a matter of fact, that a field of slightly more than 300 people gathered at the old Point Defiance Boathouse to inaugurate something called the Sound to Narrows run,” Kunkel wrote in 1992, on the eve of the 20th Sound to Narrows.
“A few friends, families and curiosity seekers were there, too, and at the Vassault Playfield finish, no doubt amazed that quite that many people in various forms of dress would have the desire, let alone the ability, to run 7.6 miles. For fun.
“Remember,” continued Kunkle, “these were the days before Nike, Adidas and Reebok became part of America’s vocabulary days when tenny-runners and gray sweats were vogue days when running any distance more than a mile or two was considered a marathon.”
Kunkle’s idea was for the Sound to Narrows to become Tacoma’s version of San Francisco’s Bay to Breakers. Such hopes required imagination – Bay to Breakers, which originated in 1913, had a 60-year head start on its baby brother from Point Defiance – but Kunkle’s hopes soon were realized, then exceeded.
The field of participants increased exponentially, from 305 finishers in 1973, to 1,265 finishers in 1975, to more than 5,800 finishers in 1978. Such a startling growth spurt created logistical problems best solved by relying on the expertise of outside consultants.
Before the 1978 Sound to Narrows, former event director John Rouse typed a letter to his counterpart at Atlanta’s Peachtree Classic.
Rouse was looking for suggestions, and the Peachtree race, which also attracted about 6,000 runners, provided an effective template.
The letter was answered earnestly, via that primitive technology of the era: a hand-written response, legible for those who have the time and the patience, returned to Tacoma.
Kunkle also saved evidence of internal issues.
“Red Cross emergency service swamped,” noted a report following the 1977 race. “Communications (citizens band) was swamped Congestion in Vassault Playfield created many problems. Similarities between exhaustion, hyperventilation and heat problems created diagnostic confusion.”
The report contained a recommendation: “Establish a First Aid tent in the finish area with cots, oxygen, water and a doctor in charge. Doctor to be expert for diagnosis.”
Kunkle, a Pennsylvania native who enrolled at Waynesburg (Pa.) College with the intention of joining the ministry, had little tolerance for bureaucrats. But in this case, he clearly appreciated how the bureaucratic process sometimes works: problems are exposed, solutions are implemented, problems are solved.
As the Sound to Narrows was making strides toward promoting physical fitness as a non-competitive activity – despite the race’s ability to attract regionally acclaimed distance runners, Kunkle never strayed from the premise it was supposed to be fun – so was American society.
A 1980 Sound to Narrows preview section in the News Tribune contained this priceless lead regarding the early signs of employers encouraging their employees to stay healthy:
“While the martini still serves to relieve midday and after-work stress for many business men and women, a growing minority in Tacoma is turning its attention to the beneficial effects of exercise, many with the encouragement of their employers.”
The ultimate demise of the midday martini is sad for some of us (sad, even, for those of us who have never tasted one). But to remember the midday martini was alive and kicking in 1980 is good news for fans of “Mad Men.”
The problem with savoring the sort of old newspaper clippings Kunkle collected is their potential for digression. On the same page as a story on the 1993 Sound to Narrows race, for instance, there is a headline: “M’s fall to new low: ‘It feels like last year.’ ”
That the Mariners had been blown out by the Angels wasn’t the essence of manager Lou Piniella’s postgame gripe. It was how they lost on a night outfielder Henry Cotto and pitcher Erik Hanson committed throwing errors on the same play.
“I’ve seen that play before,” Piniella said. “But I was 11 years old and living in Tampa.”
As for Kunkle, who after 19 years at The News Tribune left to operate his own public relations and marketing firm in 1987, his contributions were well established by 1993.
The founding father of Sound to Narrows also was the originator of Star Track, the multi-classification state high school track and field championships that have been held in Tacoma every year – with the exception of a six-year stay in Pasco – since 1982.
The Sound to Narrows and Star Track innovations are an impressive legacy for a guy once described by former News Tribune columnist Denny MacGougan as “a sportswriter who can’t even walk fast.”
Although Kunkle championed a distance race of the people, by the people, for the people, he acknowledged, in a good-natured way, that he wasn’t inclined to run, or even walk particularly fast, toward the equal-rights movement.
“For years, at least it seems that long to us male chauvinists, women have been crying for equal time, for equal rights, etc. Of late, they’ve carried their battle cry into sports. In many cases, their complains have been well founded.
“Thus, when the News Tribune (created) its format for the June 9 ‘Sound to Narrows’ race, women were given an equal opportunity to run.
“But with less than a week remaining before Friday’s early deadline, official entries were running almost 10-1 in favor of those male chauvinists.”
Two years later, in the 1975 Sound to Narrows, Kathy Knowlton became the first female to cross the finish line. The sixth-grader was 12.
She ran a few strides ahead of her friend, Susan Rossiter.
“I need a good night’s rest,” the female champion said, “but I’ll be out again tomorrow. I’m going to keep running until I’m really old, and can’t run any more.”firstname.lastname@example.org