In 1980, his first year as director of the River Run, Clark Ensz estimates he needed around 120 people at the finish line to clock times and tally the results from the 2,800 competitors that ran that day.
Saturday, with somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000 runners expected for the Kansas Health Foundation River Run’s 10K, 2-mile and wheelchair races, he’ll need five.
“Technology is just amazing, isn’t it?” said Ensz, who began his career installing and writing code for bank computer systems in the late 1960s. “It really makes things easier.”
Over the past three decades, Ensz, still the race director, has continually pushed the envelope for running in Wichita with an eye to technology, with most of his efforts focused on improving the running experience.
It’s a far cry from the Saturday before Mother’s Day in 1980, when the race exploded into Wichita’s public consciousness, going from a small gathering of several hundred dedicated runners thanks to an aggressive marketing campaign from Bob Lida on behalf of Fourth National Bank.
At its peak of popularity in the late 1980s, the River Run had more than 14,000 participants.
“(In 1980) we had so many people, we ran out of bibs, so we just started taking 8-by-10 note cards and pinning them to people,” Ensz said, laughing. “And then we ran out of pins.
“And as far as tallying the results, if you had even one person off … you had problems.”
Now, racers carry a disposable computer chip in their numbered bibs, the information from which shoots into a computer program the moment they cross an electronic finish line. Later, they can go online to check their results.
It’s a process that Ensz, 64, envisions becoming even more streamlined in years to come.
“What I’d like to see is a race where you cross the finish line, and the next time you pick up your phone you’ve got a text message telling you exactly where you finished,” Ensz said. “I think that’s where we’re headed pretty quickly.”
Wednesday morning, he was in downtown Wichita for a meeting to discuss creating a central database where runners can go to register for races without having to re-input all of their personal information to sign up for individual races.
“It’s just ridiculous to have to keep going online to fill out these huge forms every time you want to race,” Ensz said. “You go to our database and your information is already there.”
Think of it like an Amazon.com for the racing set — once you sign up for a race, you’re always in there. Want to sign up for another? Simply log in, go to your profile, pick the race you want, pay your fee and you’re good to go.
“We really need to think about the future, about what younger people want,” Ensz said. “The new generation coming up is very active, and they’re connecting through social media, in groups, to train for these races and to get themselves involved in having a healthy lifestyle.
“That’s where the future of racing is, with the younger crowd. You have to cater to them.”
Another part of what racers want — not just younger people — is a growing list of amenities that go with signing up for a race. This year, the River Run will feature a runner’s village for the first time — set up in close proximity to the finish line in front of the water wall at the Hyatt Regency.
At the first race Ensz was in charge of 32 years ago, the big prize was River Run T-shirts.
“The River Festival folks thought it would be a good idea to do something different,” said Kevin Swinicky, co-owner of GoRun Wichita, which sponsors the River Run’s 10K race. “They’re trying to grow the race again and the runner’s village is something that you see across the country at the larger races. It’s a great marriage between what runners want and where vendors that cater to that crowd can meet.”