It All Started 25 Years Ago

By Dr. Steve Smith, Pacers Founder and Team Doc

On the first Sunday in June, Robin and I stood dead center of the Rose Bowl’s Lot K. It was early and the parking lot was empty.

Nearly a year of planning and it all came down to this. We sent out flyers by mail and sat knee-to-knee with patients in the office convincing them of health benefits to be gained from an exercise program.  

“All you gotta do is peel the sheets off your face and get your shoes on, the rest is easy!”

“Meet me at the Rose Bowl and I’ll help you get started.”

“You’ll only have to run for one minute—that’s doable, right?”

With five minutes until start time, we were filled with anticipation, armed with schedules and information sheets, but the lot remained deserted.

We nearly resigned to just go on a run by ourselves when a couple of cars arrived. I thought, “Great. Only a couple of people. This is going to be a tough day.” (If you’ve ever given a speech where only two or three people show up, you know the feeling.) A few minutes later there was traffic headed on our direction. Then a crowd arrived.

Elation—we had a running club!

They came from all walks of life: tall, short, muscular, out of shape, old, young, and nearly all of them looked a little confused, didn’t know if they had the right clothes, didn’t know how to run, worried they’d be the slowest. In those first moments, we created a program that would eventually lead running these ragtag runners across the LA Marathon finish line.

For that first marathon, months later, Robin felt it was more important to support our runners with encouragement than to run, so she created the 20-Mile Cheer Station, a tradition we still continue. For the first year, I was the Marathon Coach and President; she did the administration, communication, and was my wingman. For the next eight years or so, she would serve as President, Secretary, party planner, and made sure we had water and snacks while I tweaked programs and gathered runners. Basically, she did all the work and I took the credit.

But the other Pacers hated to see us carrying all the load. Generosity elbowed its way into the Pacers and before long we were overwhelmed with the many people who volunteered. Leaders emerged and a full organization began to form.

Over the last 25 years we have had 23 presidents, one imperial Water Czar, two Water Mafias, and two Water Bosses, and a slew of vice presidents, administrators, social media experts, event planners, cheer station organizers, calendar planners, and Coaches. We’ve only had six Marathon Coaches and there have been a handful of Half Marathon Coaches. The 10 Mile-Challenge was started by volunteers who didn’t want to run a half marathon and didn’t want to do Pre-Conditioners. The 20-Mile Challenge was started by another volunteer who had an idea in his head and was willing to lead it. We have had only three warm-up coaches. (Coach Ezra is in his own category, simply known as Ezra.) We now have a leadership team of at least 25 volunteers. All of them add something unique and special to the Pacers program. There are people who work diligently behind the scenes making sure important, boring things get done. They work without pay and they do a lot. They do not stand in the light to be known. I’ve known a few heroes in my lifetime, the Pacers who run your club are among them. Personally, I have enjoyed extraordinary leadership training from the Pacers, finer than the best university. All of them brought something of great value to the club and we all learned from them.

We thought we started an exercise program—and we did—but we really created a social club.

Soon we saw members looked forward to Saturday mornings not because of running, but to see their friends. The camaraderie from training together and the victory of crossing finish lines forged bonds of lasting friendship. People talked on their runs, got to know each other, social barriers dissolved, and little victories were shared as their goals were being realized. Runners were staying at the tables and breaking bread together, some went to coffee, some invited people into their homes. Some found soulmates, got married, and some have started families. We have Pacer children who will one day come to run with us, maybe even be leaders.

Every single one of our runners is special in some way. Everyone has an interesting story. I consider it my personal duty to collect as many of those stories as I can get. Every runner is a gift, it is up to you to open that gift to discover what’s inside. Every single person has qualities, that if known to you, would add something of value to your life. The Pacers is a special sauce, every runner is a special ingredient. Without you, it just wouldn’t taste right.

Through our journey we have had many runners who moved away and missed their running club. They missed it so much they started their own Pacers club. We have started 11 Pacer clubs in three continents—an amazing accomplishment that would have been so crazy to me and Robin that empty parking lot all those years ago.

Our mission is “to raise the health and spirits of our community” and because of every Pacer past, present, and future, we are succeeding.

Thank you to all Pacers for the last 25 years. I look forward to another 25 where we continue share stories, create victories, build communities, and run, too.