Tim Fairchild is nearly four decades removed from his Chanute High School football career, but he still roots for his hometown squad to kick the stuffing out of archrival Iola, just as he relished the Blue Comets’ 14-7 win against the Mustangs his senior year.
But that gridiron rivalry between the two southeast Kansas towns has been a hindrance when carried over into areas such as business recruitment or community improvement, said Fairchild, a banker and economic development official.
So, on Saturday, he joined with other community boosters from nearby Iola and Humboldt to seize on the region’s common heritage through a sporting event designed to raise awareness about good health and the benefits of regional cooperation.
The event was the inaugural Portland Alley Marathon, which derived its name from the type of cement produced at plants in the Chanute-Humboldt-Iola corridor. It drew 88 participants, including individuals who ran the whole route and teams that split the race into legs.
Talking about the football rivalry, Fairchild said, “If we can build some ways to communicate that acknowledges the joy of this battle – the satisfaction of working as a unit – (while also improving) the health and well-being of our area, then we’ve got it all.”
Organizers of the Portland Alley run said they hope the 26-mile race can help achieve that goal. Main sponsors of the race were the Chanute Regional Development Authority and Thrive Allen County, a nonprofit group that works to promote active lifestyles among county residents.
The Portland Alley run dovetails with other initiatives in Allen, Neosho and surrounding counties to improve the health of residents and the overall quality of life in southeast Kansas, which is the state’s poorest region.
The efforts include Project 17, named for the number of counties in that region that have joined together as part of the effort to improve the region’s economy and health.
In July, Thrive Allen County also drew more than 1,000 registrants to its fourth-annual Mad Bomber 5K walk/run, an event that starts at midnight. Also this summer, Chanute held its second annual Journey Through the Jungle sprint triathlon, which played off the town’s Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum.
Participants in the Portland Alley Marathon ranged in age from 15 to 61, said David Toland, executive director of Thrive Allen County.
A 49-year-old man from Manhattan won the race with a time of 3 hours and 20 minutes.
The first team came in 12 minutes behind the winner and third place overall, Toland said, and the last-place finisher was a man who traveled more than 300 miles from Woodward, Okla. His time was 5 hours and 45 minutes.
Among the friendships that developed through the run was the one between Fairchild and the 35-year-old Toland. Fairchild knew Toland’s father, an Iola attorney, from Fairchild’s time with Emprise Bank in Iola.
Brainstorming for what would become the Portland Alley run began when Toland first contacted Fairchild in August 2011, after reading a newspaper article about the initial safari triathlon. The two met face-to-face a few months later at a Project 17 meeting in Iola.
Toland said bonds like the one he forged with Fairchild could pay larger dividends.
“I feel like we could work together on an economic development project, on a housing project, or another marathon, or a bike race, or whatever it may be,” he said, “because of the relationships we have built through this event, and that has not been the case in the past.”
Organizers already have talked about reversing the route next year to start in Iola and end in Chanute. One benefit of that, Fairchild said, was that participants should have a tailwind.
Mona Hull, 40, grew up in rural Iola, went to school in Humboldt, and now owns a child care center with her husband in Iola.
She said she knows well the historical competition among communities in the region. And she led Team Mona, the eight-person group that finished the Portland Alley run in 4 hours and 18 minutes.
She said she was happy to see the camaraderie, evidenced by teams from rival cement plants cheering each other on. She said she was less pleased that individual runners beat her team.
“That’s why we are thinking next year we are going to beat our time,” Hull said with a laugh. “It seems like we need to do a little bit more work.”