Hospital Hill Run
Established in 1975
2021 will be the 47th running of one of the most storied races in Missouri history.
What started as a single 6.8-mile race with 99 runners has evolved into a world-class event that hosts thousands of runners completing 3 different distances. Athletes have participated during torrential downpours, high heat and humidity, and slightly confusing courses. (1975 was famously referred to as “an orienteering event” due to the large number of runners who ran off course. 1994 saw the top 6 half marathon runners being led off the course by nearly ¾ of a mile.) The event is always evolving and changing with the times to bring the best to Kansas City and the athletes who participate in the Hospital Hill Run.
The event has hosted a number of different distances over the years. In 1975, a half marathon was added. In 1976, the 6.8-mile event morphed to a 7.7-mile race. This changed again in 1994 when the 7.7-miler was replaced by an 8k. In 2001, the distances were a half marathon, 12k and 5k. Eventually, the event settled at its current distances: a half marathon, 10k and 5k.
Hospital Hill Run has hosted a number of record-breaking runners, ranging from Frank Shorter, winner of the Olympic marathon gold medal in1972, to local boy Mark Curp, who held world and U.S. records in the half marathon from 1985-1990. In addition, Mark set a Hospital Hill Run record in 1983, then broke it in 1985. That record stood until 1996. That record time of 1:03:26 by Gert Thys still stands today.
In 1979, computers were used for the first time to compile results. Participants were told, “Hopefully, the complete results will be available and in the mail within 2 weeks.” In 1984, technology had moved to the point that computerized results were printed and available that day. Today, timing chips built into the race bibs allow runners to scan a QR code with their smartphones and get results almost as soon as they cross the finish line.
1984 started a tradition of awarding prize money to the top 3 half marathon finishers. 1988 saw the first wheelchair athlete, Bill Botton of Overland Park, KS in the half marathon and John Selmears of Kansas City, MO in the 7.7 mile race. In 1991, Jim Dawson, the Vice President of Marketing at Crown Center was quoted as saying, “I see fifteen years from today that there will still be a Trinity Hospital Hill. It will start and stop at Crown Center. It will still be a 7.7 miles and 13.1 miles, although we may add a 5k or something to augment that, but keep the core.” 2006’s Hospital Hill Run was a 5k, 10k and half marathon that did start and end at Crown Center, though that’s the only prediction that was fully realized.
Hospital Hill Run has helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for local charities. Special Olympics of Metro KC was the first official charity partner in 1996. A partnership program, allowing multiple charities to use the race as their own fundraiser, started in 2008. Over the years, more and more charities have used the event to raise awareness and money.
Volunteers have always been the backbone of the Hospital Hill Run. Each year, more and more individuals and groups come out over the course of 4 days to unwrap medals, pack post-race food packets, sort, stack, and pass out t-shirts, distribute bibs, set up and staff aid stations, cheer and steer participants on course, award medals, give wet towels, food, and hydration at the finish line, and then help clean it all up.
Weather has consistently played a huge role in the Hospital Hill Run. High heat and humidity warnings have been common over the years. A number of races were held in torrential downpours. 2001’s results could not be confirmed because the rain interfered with the timing system.
The first 2 years of the event, registration was $1. In 1978, it cost $3 to register for the event if you were under 19 years old and $5 if you were 20 or older. In 1981, the registration fee was $8., the organizers stated, “Hospital Hill Run has failed to produce significant revenues. Thanks to several of you, we were able to come close to the break even point.” By 1983, the fee was $9. Ten years later, in 1993, it cost $23 for a bib. By 2001, the half marathon was $40.
The Hospital Hill Run was named one of the top 25 road races by Runner’s World Magazine in 1984. In February 2013, Runner’s World Magazine chose the Hospital Hill Run as the 11th best half marathon in the U.S. The Hospital Hill Run hosted the first USATF National Championship half marathon in 2002. 2009 was the first year that a competitive team challenge was offered with 6 men’s teams and 4 women’s teams participating.
A number of amazing people have worked together to bring the race to life and nurture it along. Russ Niemi, one of the early race directors, remembered how everything began:
In 1973, Dr. E. Grey Dimond, head of the UMKC School of Medicine, scheduled a symposium on physical fitness to be held in May of 1974. Dr. Dimond thought it appropriate to include a run in the weekend event. Running had become very popular after the publication of Dr. Kenneth Cooper’s book Aerobics in the late 1960s. In addition, an American, Frank Shorter, won the Marathon Gold in the 1972 Olympics.
Dr. Dimond approached Dr. Ralph Hall of Saint Luke’s Medical System with his idea. Ralph, a runner himself, was supportive and looked to Jim Burnley for advice on administrating the race. Burnley was the secretary-treasurer and newsletter editor for the young running group called the Missouri Valley Masters Track and Field Association or MVTAFA for short. That organization’s current name is Mid-America Running Association.
Under Jim Burnley’s leadership, the race was held in early May of 1974 and consisted of a 6.4-mile run and a 1-mile race. The races started and ended at Crown Center. Crown Center was in its infancy and the race and symposium provided public awareness of the new development in mid-town Kansas City, Missouri. To this day, Crown Center is a sponsor for the Hospital Hill Run and provides shopping, dining, two hotels, Lego Land and an aquarium.
The entry fee for the first year Hospital Hill Run was an affordable $1.00. A total of 99 runners entered, 66 in the 6.4-mile run and the balance in the 1-mile race. Former Kansas City, Missouri mayor Charles Wheeler was the official starter for the event. The first winner of the Hospital Hill Run was John Haraughty of Lenexa, Kansas.
The second year, 1975, the Hospital Hill Run was scheduled on the first Saturday of June. With the success of the first year, the organizers wanted to attract more runners and added a half marathon to the other events. The half-marathon race course was designed to cover much of the same route as the previous year’s 6.4-mile event with the addition of half marathoners crossing Broadway Street and circling the Penn Valley Park. Since Jim Burnley had work demands that kept him on the road, he had asked Russ Niemi to assist him.
The 1975 race itself was a disaster. A half mile into the race, the lead runners went off course. Some runners followed the leaders while others went off in many directions. Police, who had been paid and scheduled in advance to stop traffic on Broadway, never showed up. With all the confusion, race officials returned everyone’s entry fee (again $1.00) and did not declare a winner.
The third Hospital Hill Run was again scheduled for the first weekend in June. After the previous year’s problems, the City of Kansas City, Missouri wanted to become involved by providing police protection and routing the race along the many picturesque boulevards the city offered. Russ Niemi had become the sole race director and was assisted by Rich Ayers. The UMKC School of Medicine requested the route for the race to also include as many health care centers as possible.
The scheduled events for 1976 included the half marathon, 6.7-mile run and the 1-mile race. The half marathon run started at Crown Center, went north and circled back south by the Hyatt Regency Hotel, and continued passing Children’s Mercy Hospital down to Baptist Memorial Hospital. It then returned north on Brookside to the Country Club Plaza passing by Saint Luke’s Medical Center and Trinity Lutheran Hospital and St. Mary’s Hospital (now the Federal Reserve Bank) located across from the Liberty Memorial. The challenging course rewarded runners with a half-mile downhill stretch to the finish line in the Crown Center Square. The 6.7-mile runners followed the beginning portions of the half marathon but turned into the Country Club Plaza at the Nelson Museum of Art.
Several hundred runners entered the races in 1976 and no difficulties occurred. Scoring in the early years included giving runners a popsicle stick with their finish position and asking them to give their names to the scorers. Today, electronics provide instant results down to many decimal points.
After the 1976 race, the Hospital Hill Run became THE race to run in Kansas City and surrounds. The event achieved national attention and attracted famous runners such as Joe Henderson, Frank Shorter, Bill Rogers, George Sheehan and many others.
Rich Ayers replaced Russ Niemi as race director in 1982. In 2000, UMKC took over the event, and Lisa Drake became the race director. She was instrumental in creating a Hospital Hill Run website and expanding the reach of the event.
One of Lisa’s favorite memories was recruiting Marines from the Marine Corps Mobilization Command in Kansas City to act as course marshals. “It was so cool to see the Marines in their yellow shirts and camo pants as course monitors along every street and corner making sure the course was safe as each participant ran by! The participants really loved and appreciated it.”
Lisa also secured 3 Men’s USATF Half Marathon National Championships and one Women’s USATF Half Marathon National Championship. She led the charge to turn Hospital Hill Run into a not-for-profit organization and created a board of directors. Once this was done, she stepped down and brought Beth Salinger on as race director in 2007. Lisa loved the event, loved working on it, and was thrilled when she could be a participant again. “After Beth took over, I was finally able to participate in the 5k. I finally experienced the incredible feeling of running down the hill to the finish line in Crown Center with the announcer calling my name. It was awesome!”
Beth Salinger has taken an amazing race and tradition and brought it even further along. Under her leadership, the race has grown approximately 300% since 2006. New sponsors have come aboard, and past sponsors came back when they saw how the race was growing. Beth has leveraged social media, email, workshops and television, including a “Training Tips” segment on Fox 4 TV, to make current and past Hospital Hill Run participants feel a personal connection to the event. Her excitement and enthusiasm for the race is contagious.
In 2015, Beth hosted a Race Director conference, inviting local Race Directors to Kansas City to share best practices. The half day conference was such a huge success with over 95 in attendance, that the conference became an annual tradition.
The race has grown from the beginning 99 runners to more than 9,000 entries in 2013. This year’s events celebrate 47 years of success for Kansas City’s oldest race, as The Kansas City Running Tradition. We hope you enjoy your weekend and bring more friends along to experience the “Thrill of the Hill.”