Under a new name and with slightly different courses, competitive running made a return to Bethlehem with the inaugural Bethlehem Running Festival.
For the first time in four years, runners crossed a start line at Bethlehem’s Steel Stacks at 7:30 a.m. on Oct. 21. They then crossed the Fahy Bridge into North Bethlehem’s residential neighborhoods, where they were greeted by cheering residents lining the course.
Over the weekend, approximately 2,500 runners participated in three race courses designed by Bethlehem native Bart Yasso, widely known as the “mayor of running.”
Many of the participating runners believed Bethlehem wouldn’t have another local race following the discontinuation of the Runner’s World Half and Festival, previously hosted by Runner’s World magazine from 2011 to 2019.
Yasso, the chief running officer at Runner’s World for 31 years, said the festival had been a way for the magazine to connect with their readers face-to-face, as well as take advantage of the Steel Stacks and ArtsQuest properties, which were new at the time.
The Bethlehem Running Festival was hosted by the Pennsylvania Running Company and the RUNegades Running Club, two organizations that partner together to manage and direct paid events. According to their website, the RUNegades strive to promote healthy living and community engagement by hosting weekly runs and directing events to raise money for local charities and nonprofit organizations.
“Every time we would run in the Lehigh Valley, we would hear, ‘Oh gosh, I wish Runner’s World would come back,’” said Michael Ragozzino, owner of the Pennsylvania Running Company and the executive director of RUNegades.
Ragozzino reached out to Yasso in March 2022 to explore the possibility of establishing a race of similar caliber to the Runner’s World Half and Festival.
Yasso then connected Ragozzino to the Bethlehem Mayor’s Office, the Bethlehem police and other city officials.
While designing the Bethlehem Running Festival, Ragozzino and Yasso decided to replicate the Runner’s World Festival’s three course distances — 5K, 10K, and half-marathon — with a start and finish line at the Steel Stacks.
The Bethlehem Running Festival was presented by the Lehigh Valley Health Network and had 11 sponsorships with organizations including the American Cancer Society, Aardvark Sports Shop and Wind Creek Bethlehem.
The weekend of the races, streets were closed in both North and South Bethlehem. Yasso said he worked with the Bethlehem police to design the race courses so traffic wasn’t cut off.
“You want to showcase the city, but you have to do it in a methodical way that doesn’t lock everyone from traveling around,” Yasso said.
Each course traversed the Fahy Bridge, beginning and ending at the SteelStacks, where the race’s expo was held and featured a variety of sponsor booths. The 10K and half-marathon courses extended down Main Street and ventured through residential neighborhoods on the North Side.
Yasso said people who have never visited Bethlehem often question why he organizes races to start and finish at an abandoned steel company.
“They just think it must look like a junkyard,” Yasso said. “But runners love where we start and finish — it’s the Industrial Revolution, it’s history.”
Yasso said the festival provided a significant economic boost to the city, as hotels and restaurants were packed with runners over the weekend. He believes that the Running Festival will increase tourism in Bethlehem, as visiting runners continuously told him they wanted to return to explore the city.
Yasso said Bethlehem’s running community is very vibrant, which he credited in part to the Aardvark Sports Shop, located in North Bethlehem.
Aardvark Sports Shop hosts several events, including weekly group runs and a training program called “Team Vark.”
Chris Luck is a Bethlehem resident and a member of Team Vark. He said the group originally worked toward the Runner’s World Half-Marathon but continued training during its hiatus and was excited to have a running festival return to Bethlehem. Luck competed in all three of the festival’s races.
“Most of the team have become my friends,” Luck said. “A couple of weeks ago, 10-12 members were in a marathon up in Corning, New York, and a few of us got in the car at four o’clock in the morning and drove up there to cheer them on. We’re always there for each other. It’s become a big part of my life.”
Alex Price and Eileen Cody, the winners of the running festival’s men’s and women’s half-marathons, respectively, both train with Team Vark.
Other groups at the running festival were Team Red, White & Blue, a health and wellness community for veterans, and the Sub-30 Club, a Facebook group for Lehigh Valley runners training to run a 5K in under 30 minutes.
Yasso said the Bethlehem Running Festival is set to continue and plans to open registration for the 2024 races shortly. When it’s not race weekend, Yasso said his favorite places to run in the Lehigh Valley are the Saucon Rail Train, the D&L Trail and Mountain Drive.
“This was really a fun weekend for me, and I didn’t run a single step all weekend,” Yasso said. “But I was involved in every aspect of the race, so it was a fun way to be connected to the running community.”