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White Rock Run Gets Colossal

When Bob Wallace won the 1980 White Rock Marathon, there were few spectators. Now more than 100,000 watch the race.
Brandon Thibodeaux

The White Rock Marathon is all grown up. And all sold out.

For the first time in the race's 37-year history, organizers of Dallas' second-largest participation sporting event were forced to cut off entries. At 15,000 runners.

"Never thought I'd see this day," says Bob Wallace, who won The Rock in 1980. "Just yesterday it was a couple of us running around the lake. No big deal."

Sunday's 26.2-mile race is a colossal event. More than a competition, it's a one-day lifestyle celebration giving the finger to a materialistic urban sprawl obsessed more with fitting in than being fit. Starting at 8 a.m. at American Airlines Center, The Rock will feature 6,000 half-marathoners, 5,000 marathoners and 800 relay teams. There will be live TV coverage on WFAA-Channel 8, almost $200,000 in prize money, more than 100,000 spectators and 40 on-course bands, including that dude (Randy Brooks) who wrote "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer."

Typical of trend-entrenched Dallas, The Rock's new exclusivity will only enhance its popularity.

"It's always been a runner's race," says Wallace. "Now its time has come."

In its infancy, however, The Rock had no role.

Wallace, the Australian-born founder of Dallas' Run On! apparel empire, received only modest rewards for winning the 9-year-old race in '80: a gold medal from Adelstein Jewelry and a futuristic digital watch from Texas Instruments.

"My first wife has the medal," Wallace says with a laugh over a Starbucks coffee just across the parking lot from his buzzing Richardson store. "The watch is in a landfill somewhere."

A long-distance track star at UT-El Paso, Wallace recalls paying $35 for his Republic Airlines flight to Dallas for The Rock. Back then, about 1,000 runners stretched on an elementary school gym floor before embarking on a course that included two laps around the lake, few spectators and zero fanfare.

"After about three miles I was running all by myself," says Wallace. "When I crossed the finish line the official race clock was just sitting on a picnic table. There were about 50 people there, but they were all friends or family or just walking in the park wondering what all of us fools were doing."

Wallace hasn't run The Rock since—"I retired 1 for 1," he jokes—but he has become a relentless motor promoting, nurturing and escalating Dallas' running scene. All from a guy whose roots in Dallas are littered with foot problems.

Prone to blisters, Wallace wrapped his feet in generic white athletic tape for the '80 marathon. But during an unseasonably warm day, the tape loosened and eventually curled into cumbersome, irritating balls. Wallace left White Rock Park with a smile on his face and raw, bloody meat on the bottom of his feet.

"For a whole week I slept with my feet inside a cardboard box," he says, "so the sheets wouldn't touch me."

And this is the guy you trust to sell you running shoes?

It took perseverance, foresight and a timely death for Wallace's vision to blossom into one of Dallas' most successful specialty sports stores. An avid runner since he was a 12-year-old running from the bigger footy players at recess in Australia, he won a couple of Western Athletic Conference titles at UTEP and finished second in the 1976 Australian Olympic qualifying marathon (inexplicably, he didn't get chosen for the team). His running résumé, however, didn't prepare him for the business side of the sport.

Exhibit A: Personal Best.

Opened in Lewisville in 1985, the store face-planted after 18 months because Wallace prematurely expanded into golf shoes, tennis rackets and novelty items.

"I had no idea what I was doing," Wallace says. "It was a disaster."

Living paycheck to paycheck with second and current wife, Rebecca, Wallace got help from his college track coach (who helped him open Personal Best), a Nike rep (who helped him develop a business plan) and, just in time, a buddy's dead dad. Wallace worked at Athletic Supply and had dreams of buying the Phidippides store in Old Town. He had a vision, but no capital.

Until, that is, his longtime running buddy Larry Gingerich lost his father. Gingerich took money from dad's inheritance—$17,000 to be exact—and told Bob to follow his dream.

"I never even met his dad," Wallace admits.

With zero interest in learning to spell Phidippides, Wallace re-christened the joint Run On! via the cunning guile that "the name hadn't been taken." He moved to Mockingbird Lane and soon debuted the second location at Coit and Campbell roads.

"When we opened the doors here there were no customers in the parking lot, just tumbleweeds," says Wallace, staring out the window of Starbucks. "I remember thinking, 'Oh shit, I've screwed up again.'"

But soon the runners sprinted into his store. Through the years Run On! has grown, but its focus hasn't changed.

"We've stuck to what we know," says the 56-year-old Wallace, who finished his competitive career at 40 marathons but still logs 25 miles a week around his North Dallas neighborhood. "We're all about running. That's it."

From a location doing $180,000 in business, Wallace has transformed Run On! into a four-store (Dallas, Richardson, Coppell and McKinney), $6 million a year empire that's winning the race against national chains such as Foot Action, Foot Locker and Just For Feet.

And he's done it despite a serious detour of the running boom.

Evidenced by Sunday's sellout, putting one sneaker in front of the other remains popular. There were a record 30,000 runners in the annual Turkey Trot and 16 races scheduled in and around Dallas during the first nine days of December. But whether it's the social aspect, self-preservation or the fact that entering a 10K is cheaper than liposuction, women are suddenly gaining on men.

The gap between the women's and men's Rock winner in 1998 was 44 minutes. Last year, the margin was down to 17 minutes. Though they likely wouldn't recognize Frank Shorter from Bill Rodgers from Rosie Ruiz, women are flooding Run On! and the streets of Dallas.

"Racing is down," explains Wallace, "but running is up."

I ran The Rock on December 1, 1991. An admitted but cocksure novice, I brought into the race a plain cotton T-shirt and a longest training run of 16 miles. Around mile 22 my rubbed-raw nipples were bleeding, and my feet felt as cold and angry as Hitler's heart. Four miles later, I finished. Over the next two days—sitting motionless in a hot bathtub—I realized The Rock had likewise finished me.

It remains one of the best memories of my life.

"If you haven't run a marathon," Wallace says, "you just can't explain the feeling."

As if that empowerment of personal achievement weren't motivation enough, The Rock is now also chic. It's matured beyond a sweaty run into a see-and-be-seen scene adorned by lean-bodied women, hip musical backbeats and exclusive, velvet-roped membership. So put down your appletinis and get in shape for next year, Dallas.

Before it's too late.


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