Forty years ago, running races were something you only read about. But that was about to change, because the "running craze," as it became known in the 1970s, was about to hit. And a handful of local runners were on the leading edge.

Forty years ago, running races were something you only read about. But that was about to change, because the "running craze," as it became known in the 1970s, was about to hit. And a handful of local runners were on the leading edge.

"We had to travel out of the area to run a race. We thought it would be fun to have local races," says Zellah Swartsley, an original Southern Oregon Runner.

Swartsley and her husband, Jerry, of Phoenix, both retired teachers, founded the Southern Oregon Sizzlers running club 40 years ago. The club changed its name in 2008 to Southern Oregon Runners, but the spirit of the original name lives on.

" 'Sizzler' was associated with speed. We liked (the abbreviation) S.O.S. It was how you felt after running hard," says Jerry.

The club's first race was held on the Fourth of July in 1969, a 10-miler in Eagle Point. A mere 14 runners toed the line, small potatoes compared to the nearly 2,400 who signed up last year for Medford's Pear Blossom 10-mile and 5K races.

Back then, race directors didn't have chip timing or computers to record results. A runner crossing the finish line was given a popsicle stick with their finishing order drawn on it, and the timekeeper used an old-fashioned, wind-up stopwatch, shouting out the times for the scorekeeper.

"Manual watches had a 15-minute sweep, so you really had to be careful watching the clock (to avoid adding or subtracting 15 minutes to the finishing time)," Zellah Swartsley recalls.

During long races, competitors didn't have sports gels or other specialized foods. They sewed pockets on their jerseys and filled them with sugar cubes and salt tablets.

It's not just the technology that's changed. As the club begins its fifth decade this year, Jerry Swartsley says he sees a difference in motivation in today's running community.

"Today, races here are not as competitive — not as much depth in the fast times. More people are running simply for health and fitness. We also didn't used to have walkers," he says.

After that first event in 1969, the popularity of road races increased, and the Sizzlers added the Pioneer Road Run in Phoenix and the Stagecoach Run in Jacksonville. Both are still held today.

"The Pioneer nine-mile was originally only for men, following the example of the Olympics," Jerry explains. When the Sizzlers formed, the international running establishment believed longer races were too strenuous for women.

Attitudes were changing quickly in the early 1970s, and by 1977 men and women ran side by side when Medford's first race was held.

"The Medford Chamber of Commerce wanted to expand the Pear Blossom parade and asked us to put on a race," Jerry says.

As April approached, the Swartsleys brainstormed about how best to increase the number of participants and the visibility of the race. Perhaps a celebrity runner could attract locals? They called their friend Bill Bowerman. The legendary running coach from the University of Oregon and co-founder of Nike was a Medford High School graduate, as are the Swartsleys. The coach agreed to help, and he picked up his phone.

Bowerman convinced two-time Olympic marathon medalist Frank Shorter to run the first Pear Blossom, planned as a 13-mile race.

"Shorter was also the parade marshal. He ran — and won — the race, then hopped on a float in the parade. A very nice man," Zellah Swartsley recalls.

The Pear Blossom race has been held every year since 1977 and is today a 10-miler. Jerry Swartsley, now 69, is one of seven runners to complete all 33 annual races. With an ever-increasing demand for shorter races, a 5K race and children's one- and two-mile races have been added to the Pear Blossom.

The Swartsleys have been the race directors for the event's entire history. Today, a core group of 40 people help plan The Pear. More than 400 volunteers now show up on race day, which this year is April 10.

When you organize more than 150 races over four decades, you make close friends.

"There are a lot of people we only get to see once a year, at the Pear Blossom," Zellah says. "It's like a family reunion."

Daniel Newberry is a runner and freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Reach him at dnewberry@jeffnet.org.