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A legacy that's still running strong

Editor’s note: Community Builder is a periodic Q & A series providing perspectives from local people who have been involved in significant change in Southern Oregon. Today’s conversation is with Zellah and Jerry Swartsley, founders in 1969 of the Southern Oregon Runners club, and co-founders of the Pear Blossom runs.

Q: Here we are in 2021, and the Pear Blossom Run is in its 45th year. Both of you, Shirley Eads and Richard Hensley were the founders of the event. What was the origin of the Pear Blossom Run?

Zellah: In the 1970s, Southern Oregon had lots of smaller local races but there weren’t that many big events. Jerry was running marathons then. In 1971, on the way home from summer school in Bozeman, Montana, Jerry ran the Salt Lake City Marathon. The marathon finished in front of a parade with 100,000 people in attendance. That gave us an idea about what a run could be.

Jerry: We directed the first marathon in Southern Oregon in 1975, and it was a National Masters Championship. The Medford Chamber of Commerce wanted to add something to the Pear Blossom events, because at the time it was just a parade. We got to talking, and in 1977 the first Pear Blossom Run took place.

Q: Are you both runners?

Zellah: I’m mostly a walker. I like to stop and smell the roses. I was a runner, but not like Jerry, who is out there every day.

Jerry: I still run about 22 miles a week. I’ve got just under 400 miles to go to complete my third trip around the world. Each trip is 24,901 miles.

Zellah: He runs and then he walks two miles with me every day.

Q: How did you get Frank Shorter here for the first Pear Blossom? He was the premier distance runner in the world.

Jerry: He was the Olympic gold medalist in the marathon. After he ran here, he won a marathon silver medal. Dick Hensley with help from Fitz Brewer contacted Bill Bowerman, the famous Oregon track coach and co-founder of Nike. Bill grew up in Medford. He was able to arrange Frank Shorter as the grand marshal of the parade, and Bowerman was the first Pear Blossom starter. Money wasn’t like it is today, with paid runners. Frank and his wife, Louise, just came out for the Pear Blossom Festival. Nice people.

Zellah: Well, but he could run! Oh, my goodness, wow!

Q: How was Bill Bowerman involved with you in the early years of the Pear Blossom?

Jerry: Bill was our mentor and guide in developing the race. I remember meeting with Bill after an Oregon track meet to discuss the concept of paying runners to compete. We didn’t like the idea, our philosophy was, “everyone’s a winner.” Bill confirmed our feelings and wrote a supportive letter encouraging us to continue what we were doing. The monument in front of city hall is dedicated to “all who start and finish Pear Blossom.”

Q: You’ve hosted a lot of big names in Pear Blossom history. How were those people important to the success of the Pear Blossom Run?

Zellah: One of the things that we always felt through the years is: the person who finished first was no more important than the person who finished last.

Jerry: Philosophically, Zellah nailed it. The last person is just as important as the first and it really didn’t matter where they came from. Seeing Mary Decker Slaney or Billy McChesney run is a real treat.

Zellah: They were beautiful runners, out there by themselves a half hour ahead of everybody else on the course. It was good publicity, but the Pear Blossom Run is mostly for local runners.

Q: How has the Pear Blossom Run evolved over the years?

Jerry: Technology has impacted the race a lot. The first year we expected 200 runners and ended up with 546. We hand-cut all of the numbers. You just couldn’t go out and buy numbers then. The first numbers we purchased were from a rodeo company, rodeo bib numbers that cowboys use.

Zellah: Equipment has changed everything. A timing machine called a chrono mix and the digital clock really improved the accuracy and efficiency. Pear Blossom was the first race to use a computer chip.

Jerry: First there was a chip that you attached to your shoe, it was a hard piece of plastic.

And those had to be removed after everybody finished. People are throwing up, they’re exhausted, sweating, and you’re trying to get the chip off. (Laughs) Then we went to a nonreturnable chip with a piece of paper that went on the shoelace. That made things a lot easier. And the final thing was the chip in the bib, which is currently the way it is.

Q: How has the sport of running and long-distance races changed in the last four decades?

Jerry: The sport is female dominated now. Participants used to be two-thirds males to females. Now it is 40% males to 60% females.

Zellah: People thought that women running anything more than two miles would cause physical harm.

Jerry: The Boston Marathon didn’t even have a women’s category until 1972.

Zellah: Kathrine Switzer had to run the Boson Marathon disguised as a male.

Q: Is running as popular now?

Jerry: In the early ‘90s, we had 5,000 participants at Pear Blossom. It’s tapered off to about 4,000 now. There’s more things to do in the world and different ways of exercising. Unless you run with a group, it’s an individual sport and it can be lonely.

Q: Pear Blossom started as a 13-mile race and currently is a 10-mile run. How did that come about?

Jerry: The distance was dictated by the course we had. We changed it from a 13-mile race to 20 kilometers when the world went to metric. And then because the Rogue Valley grew and too much traffic had to be rerouted, we changed the course to 10 miles. And then we added the 5K (3.1 miles) because there were more and more people who couldn’t or didn’t want to run 10 miles. The Mayor’s Cup was added, which is a one- and a two-mile race. We also added a Pear Blossom scholarship for high school students.

Q: Is the Rogue Valley a place that has embraced running?

Zellah: Southern Oregon Runners Club is 52 years old. So yes, running is solid here. Our current club president, Amber Jacobson, has many good ideas to expand running and increase participation. Our running club still has good membership numbers. There are other clubs across Oregon that have ceased to function. We’ve met some of the best people in the running club.

Q: How did you two end up calling the Rogue Valley home?

Jerry: We grew up here. We’re native Oregonians, we have webbed feet.

Zellah: We both graduated from Medford High.

Q: When you tell other people about Southern Oregon, how do you describe it?

Jerry: It’s a great place. It’s got everything. We don’t have tornadoes, hurricanes or bugs, the kind that carry you off. Our weather’s great. And the Oregon Coast is an hour and a half away.

Zellah: We have the mountains, we have skiing. We have lakes, boating, camping and backpacking. We’ve got good school systems and there’s lots of opportunities for families.

We have family in Nebraska. Everything is so flat and wide-open there. There’s nothing to hold you. I always feel hugged by the mountains around our valley.

Q: What are you most proud of?

Jerry: The Southern Oregon Sports Commission honored us, and Medford City Council declared a Jerry and Zellah Swartsley Day. We were inducted together into the Medford Sports Hall of Fame as charter members. That was appreciated, but the things we’ve done together are the most special. We built a house together. We biked the Oregon Coast from border to border twice. We directed the Pear Blossom Run for 35 years, and we’ve both been involved with the running club together for 50 years.

Zellah: I’m most proud of our 52 years of marriage, our daughter, Julie, our careers as teachers and the years we did Pear Blossom Run together. We were just two kids who grew up in the valley from the west side of the tracks. We never thought about starting the Pear Blossom Run that has involved thousands of people for 45 years. It makes you feel like you have a legacy that you’re leaving behind. That’s a good feeling.

Q: What are you grateful for?

Zellah: They say, “build it and they will come.” The Pear Blossom Parade was already in place, the run was a great addition. And they came. When you have something like that, it draws good people who want to support it. We’ve got friends from 30 years, and we’ll always be friends. Pear friends.

Jerry: We’ve had opportunities to work with a lot of special people. We’re grateful to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Business sponsors, volunteers, the city, the county; everyone working together to make a remarkable event.

Zellah: We’re really grateful that the Medford YMCA, specifically Brad Russell and Jeni Beck, were willing to give a home to the Pear Blossom Run when we decided to hang up our race director cards. We’ve been retired 10 years. Now we get to sit on the sidelines and just enjoy watching it happen.

Q: What do runners tell you about the Pear Blossom Run?

Jerry: It’s a personal challenge for most people. To me, running is like brushing my teeth. I just do it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s rain, snow, sleet or hail. But for many people, it’s a challenge to be in a race. And that can be a scary thing. Running a mile with their grandchild or doing the 5K is a huge personal accomplishment.

Zellah: I really enjoy hearing everyone’s stories. There are many different reasons people come out to do a 10-mile run. Maybe they’d watched it the year before and thought, “Oh, I want to do that.” Or maybe they want a physical challenge, or they want to lose weight or were trying to overcome some kind of obstacle. And they run to the finish line and get cheered for their accomplishment.

Steve Boyarsky is a retired educator and longtime resident of the Rogue Valley. He continues to be involved in educational and youth programs.

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Zellah and Jerry Swartsley bio

Zellah and Jerry Swartsley started Southern Oregon Runners club, the first running club in Oregon, in 1969. Little did they know then that running would be central to their lives for over 50 years.

Together with their daughter, Julie, and many friends, they have organized over 100 races. A favorite running course west of Phoenix become the difficult and hilly Camelback Run in 1969. One of the oldest continuous events, the Pioneer Run, has used the same course since 1971.

Both Jerry and Zellah were educators, graduating from what is now Southern Oregon University. Zellah taught kindergarten and first grade in Phoenix and Medford schools. Jerry taught in Medford and was an administrator at Scenic Jr. High and Crater High School.

They love to travel the back roads and visit small towns, often running a race as they go: Rodeo Days in Spray; Buffalo Days in Nebraska; Sweet Pea Run in Bozeman; Hollywood Run and Garden of the Gods, Colorado, to name a few.

When they retired from 35 years of organizing The Pear Blossom, they were the longest continuous directors of a road race in the country.

Jerry and Zellah Swartsley, founders of the Southern Oregon Runners club and the Pear Blossom Run, walk up Carpenter Hill Road outside Phoenix, part of the route of the Camelback Run, which they started in 1969.Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune