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Swartsleys hand over the Pear

Jerry Swartsley remembers when he and his wife, Zellah, agreed to put on a road run for the Medford Chamber of Commerce in conjunction with the annual Pear Blossom Festival.

It was 1977, and the Swartsleys were sprawled on their living room floor, cutting out numbers from yellow vinyl and using them to stencil bib numbers. They expected a modest number of racers, perhaps 200, but nearly three times that, or 546, finished the race.

"It doesn't sound like much, but in those days, that was a huge number," said Swartsley.

If the turnout wasn't an indication that this would be more than just another road run, perhaps the presence of Frank Shorter, the Olympic gold and silver medalist in the 1972 and '76 Games, respectively, and eventual winner of the inaugural Pear Blossom Run, was. Or, that the starter was Bill Bowerman, the Hall of Fame coach at the University of Oregon.

It was a mom-and-pop operation, sure, but from the first "bang" of the starter's pistol, it had megastore written all over it.

Now, it's changing hands.

The Swartsleys are turning over stewardship of the race to the Rogue Valley Family YMCA. They announced their plans in a letter to Pear volunteers this week and have begun meeting with the new race directors, Rich Stanfield and Steve Buxton.

"I've got a great big ol' notebook that Jerry and Zellah gave me," said Buxton. "I've got a homework assignment."

One that was 35 years in the making.

In the letter to volunteers, the Swartsleys said the run has always been about people and is an opportunity for the community to come together for a special event.

"Our slogan since the beginnig," it said, "says it quite clearly: 'Everyone's a winner.' It doesn't matter if someone finishes first or last."

There have been more and more runners packed between the first and last runners, one reason the Swartsleys deemed it time to hand off the baton to an entity better able to deal with big numbers and help the race continue to grow.

There were 3,700 entrants in the 10-mile (1,757) and 5-kilometer races (1,943) in the 35th running this past April. The total grew by 500 from the year before, when it also climbed 500 from 2009.

In addition, the popular Mayor's Cup Mile and a 2-mile race pushed the total participants to more than 5,000.

The YMCA took over organization of the Mayor's Cup five years ago, and Stanfield and Buxton are race directors of the Stage Coach Run, so the Swartsleys are confident their baby is in good hands.

"We're both healthy and we just figured now is a good time," Jerry Swartsley said. "We're mentally sane and everything. The race has grown and we've done everything out of the house. We just need an infrastructure. There are some things we can't do that the YMCA can."

The Swartsleys began planning for the transition four years ago, he said. They welcomed the advent of chip timing, in which runners wore sensors on their shoes so their times registered electronically at the finish line.

"We wanted to experience that," said Jerry Swartsley.

The hope now is that there won't be any evidence the guard has changed in the operation of the Pear.

"That's one of our goals," said Buxton, "is to make this seamless. We hope that almost nobody really picks up on it. We want it to be as perfect as it has been with Jerry and Zellah doing it. It is simply just one of the best events I've ever run."

Jerry Swartsley, who is 70, didn't run in school but took it up in the 1960s after graduating from Southern Oregon College. He and Zellah formed Oregon's first running club in 1969, he said, the Southern Oregon Sizzlers, so they seemed an obvious choice to handle a Pear run.

Shorter was invited to be the festival parade's grand marshal and ran the race. Among those he beat was Jon Anderson, a Boston Marathon winner.

Oh, and Swartsley, who is one of seven to have raced in all 35 Pears.

After two years of organizing the race for the Chamber, the Swartsleys formed a nonprofit and took complete control of it.

The race began as a 13-miler, was changed to 12 kilometers (12.4 miles) in 1980, then was reduced in 1990 to the 10 miles of today.

The list of ceremonial starters includes Governor Vic Atiyeh, world champion Mary Decker Slaney, Olympic gold medalist Billy Mills, football coach Fred Spiegelberg, Miss Oregon Tricia Leines and Mickey Mouse.

Jerry Swartsley marveled at the advances through the years.

In addition to handmade bibs, the equipment in the old days was fairly simple: a stopwatch and a clipboard.

"We put concrete in coffee cans and put stakes in them," said Swartsley. "That was the basis of our finish chutes."

A computer was used for results for the first time in 1979. Now, there's the timing chip, the run has its own website and most of the registration is done online.

Cotton shirts, shorts and gray sweat pants have given way to high-tech material that keeps runners dry and comfortable. And stiff, leather shoes have been replaced by ones that are light and pliable.

"You didn't just go out and run five miles in news shoes or you'd end up with a ton of blisters," said Swartsley.

The Swartsleys will serve as advisors going forward.

Jerry will continue to run the race, and Zellah, who has twice previously run, is preparing for the 5K in 2012.

"Are we going to miss things, absolutely," said Jerry. "We're going to miss the people. Hopefully we did it right. It's a big event to organize. Now we're both looking forward to participating. We've always said, the Pear Blossom would be such a neat event to go to; we'd really like to go to that event."

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email ttrower@mailtribune.com

Jerry Swartsley and his wife, Zellah, have been directors of the Pear Blossom run since its inception in 1977. - MT file photo