Bringing back GRRRR: A look back at event's history

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“It was a special event,” said original GRRRR organizer Don Smalley, pictured here kicking off the 1989 event. GRRRR will be held this fall, on Oct. 5, for the first time in 17 years. (North Iowa Times file photo)

At its peak, GRRRR drew over 600 entrants, who were attracted to the beautiful setting, well-managed race and unique pancake and chicken gravy breakfast. (North Iowa Times file photo)

Over the next few weeks, the North Iowa Times will spotlight the history of the Great River Road - Road Race, as well as the activities that will be offered this year as part of the reincarnation of the iconic fall event. GRRRR will be held on Saturday, Oct. 5, at 8:30 a.m., at Pikes Peak State Park near McGregor.

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

After a 17-year hiatus, the Great River Road - Road Race  (GRRRR) will return on Saturday, Oct. 5. That date is nearly 40 years after the first event was held at Pikes Peak State Park in 1981.

“I started running in 1977. Herb Collins and I ran together a lot, and we were also members of the Kiwanis Club,” recalled Don Smalley, GRRRR’s original organizer. “The club decided to have a run. It was something new and popular at the time.”

That first event included a 5K, 10K and kid’s run—a format this year’s organizers have retained. Pikes Peak was deemed a good gathering place, especially at the height of the fall leaf season.

“The countryside that time of year is pretty and it’s an enjoyable place to run,” Smalley said. “The Great River Road is fairly flat. It rolls, but there are no big hills and not a lot of corners. There were concrete shoulders, so you didn’t have to run on the roadway. It was an efficient route.”

Around 115 participants showed up the first year, despite little cooperation from Mother Nature.

“The weather was terrible,” shared Smalley. “There was a thunderstorm, so people sat in their cars waiting for it to blow over.”

GRRRR’s first-year success couldn’t persuade the Kiwanis Club to continue the event, though. Smalley said it wasn’t until several years later, in 1987, that the “one-hit wonder” was brought back with the urging and support of the chamber of commerce. It was a good fit, he noted.

“There was an idea there of bringing people into town,” he said, which was one of his goals too. “I always saw a bigger picture. It was leaf season and one more thing to add” to all the activities going on in Marquette and McGregor.

Smalley admitted the time of year also made organizing and holding GRRRR a challenge, “but it helped make the event what it became.”

At its height, GRRRR’s participation reached over 600 people.

“Once we got it going, there was this magical goal of saying there were 500 people,” said Smalley. “One or two years later, we hit 600. When people were all lined up at the start, they filled the whole entry of the park.”

Smalley said GRRRR was a popular family event, but it also catered to runners.

“It was a good experience, a good race in a nice, beautiful setting,” he shared. “The results were accurate and the course was well-marked. [The runners] felt they were treated well.”

GRRRR wasn’t just a race, though. It offered several unique qualities that drew participants year after year. One was the famous breakfast featuring pancakes and chicken gravy—a combination that always elicited skepticism.

“In promoting the event to prospective entrants, the two most often asked questions are ‘How hilly is the course?’ and ‘What’s the deal with the pancakes and chicken gravy?’” Smalley stated in a 1990 edition of the North Iowa Times. “The answers are ‘flat’ and ‘delicious,’ in that order, but convincing someone who has never seen the road, nor tasted the ‘cakes,’ is a challenge to say the least!”

The meal was a GRRRR staple from the start. It was first introduced to the Kiwanis Club by member Delmar Gingerich in the late 1970s.

“He came from a family of eight, and, in those days, you owned chickens and it was easy to make pancakes. They were raised on a lot of pancakes and chicken gravy,” recalled Delmar’s wife, Betty. The gravy was inexpensive to make, could be used in a variety of ways and was easily stored.

Kiwanis Club members were required to serve meals at their weekly meetings, and pancakes and chicken gravy was always Delmar’s go-to dish. According to Betty, the other members always seemed to like it.

“I’m not sure whose idea it was, but we decided we would serve it after [GRRRR],” Smalley said. “It was something different.”

At the time, the pitch was “try it, you’ll like it.”

During GRRRR’s early years, Betty made all the chicken gravy.

“I would boil seven or eight chickens ahead of time, then pick the meat off and freeze it. It was always a busy time of year for us,” said Betty, who owned the Holiday Shores Motel with Delmar. “There were two or three big pans of gravy. I used chicken and broth and thickened it with flour.”

Eventually, GRRRR grew too large and Betty handed over the chicken gravy-making duties to the school cooks.

“We used to have it a lot,” she said of her family, “but now I haven’t made it for a long time.”

With the return of the GRRRR races and breakfast, Betty is happy pancakes and chicken gravy will be introduced to new generations.

“I was really happy to see it coming back. It brings back a lot of memories,” she said.

Over the years, Smalley said other GRRRR attractions included raffle drawings, prizes and runner discounts at local businesses. Entrants also received 100-percent cotton, long-sleeve shirts with three-color imprint on the front, back and sleeves. 

“Many people commented they were the best,” he said.

The design always included a chicken standing atop a plate of pancakes.

“I’m not an artsy person. It was my one attempt at creativity each year,” Smalley joked.

Smalley promoted GRRRR extensively each year, securing sponsorships months in advance, painting storefronts and driving a 120-mile radius to distribute information at sporting goods stores.

“But being a good event, with a beautiful setting and the uniqueness of the breakfast, word spread and it also promoted itself,” he said. “It was different than everyone else’s races.”

Smalley said he was always proud of GRRRR, which ended its run in 2002. 

“It was satisfying that I met the goal of putting on a quality event and doing something that helped the community in some way,” he remarked.

He thinks it’s great that the McGregor-Marquette Chamber of Commerce, with the help of community volunteers, saw value in reviving GRRRR.

“I’m pleased and flattered,” Smalley said. “I hope it’s even more successful, and I hope it picks up where I left off.”

For more information about GRRRR, check out the “GRRRR Great River Road - Road Race 5K and 10K” page and event on Facebook, email greatriverroadroadrace@gmail.com or call the chamber office at (563) 873-2186.

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