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The path to the 34th annual Subaru 4-Mile Chase, which will be held at 7 tonight in Buffalo, began on a softball field.

“I was involved in putting together a tournament at Houghton Park on Labor Day weekend,” said Jim Nowicki, the race director for all 34 years of the race. “The tournament got to be 72 teams.”

Nowicki was a basketball referee during the winter, and he did some running to get in shape before the season began. Nowicki ran a couple of races and enjoyed himself, although he remembers in hindsight how primitive everything was back then.

“There weren’t cones at the finish lines. There were bar stools in the chutes,” he said with a laugh. “The races didn’t start on time, and there was little traffic control and no water.”

Nowicki thought he could do better. He used to spend some time at Casey’s Nickelodeon in Buffalo, and convinced the owners to sponsor a race in the summer of 1981.

“We came up with a (4-mile) course that started at Casey’s and finished on Bidwell Parkway on the grass,” Nowicki said. “I got information from Emery Fisher on how to do things. ... There were no T-shirts or apparel, but every entrant got a bottle of champagne.”

The Casey’s Nickelodeon Champagne Chase was a hit. If you’ve ever wondered why entry fee checks for the Subaru Run are made out to “CNCC,” that’s the story – the account name was never changed. Kim Wettlauter and Barbara Halm were the first winners.

The plan was to only stage the race for a year. According to Nowicki, “Emery said, ‘This is good. This is fun. We should do it again.’ We had almost 300 people. Then it evolved into the Black Tower Wine Chase.”

For the next few years, wine and shirts were given to the runners. By 1985, the financial landscape for road racing was just starting to change, as prize money started to appear.

“I could never get Ralph Zimmerman and Nancy Mieszczak to the Black Tower. I didn’t know they were going out of town for money. They were good,” Nowicki said. “So I said, let’s put together a race that will offer prize money.

“In the history of Buffalo racing then, no one had ever offered prize money. We offered a grand total of $1,000 – $300 to the overall male and female winners.”

Black Tower opted to discontinue its sponsorship that year, and Nowicki found a replacement in Subaru starting in 1986. The promise of prize money turned into quite a lure for Olympic-caliber runners over the years, as well as the top local runners who opted to stay in Western New York to compete.

That’s still the case today. Some very good international runners turn out, year after year, in pursuit of winning a share of the more than $10,000 in available prize money. The Chase has become a great way for Western New York’s best to see how they measure up against some world-class athletes at a relatively uncommon distance.

Certainly plenty of attention will be placed on a pair of Africans for tonight’srace. Sammy Kiplagat and Yonas Mebrahtu couldn’t get much closer when they took part in the Kansas City Trolly, a 4-mile race in April. Kiplagat of Kenya won in 18 minutes and 18 seconds. Mebrahtu of Eritea was a second back.

At the age of 40, Kiplagat only needs to come close to duplicating his performance in Kansas City to break the Chase course record for Masters of 18:31, set in 1990 by John Campbell of New Zealand. Kiplagat would earn a $1,000 bonus for doing that.

Julius Koskei of Kenya has won several races in the Midwest lately, including a 10-kilometer win in Cleveland in May in 29:05. Nelson Oyugi of Kenya won a half-marathon in Indianapolis in May in a course-record time of 1:01:53.

In the women’s field, Cynthia Limo of Kenya won an 8-kilometer race in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, less than two weeks ago. Her record time was 25:46. She might have a chance to break the women’s course record of 20:18, set by Ann Hare of New Zealand in 1994.

The event starts and ends around Elmwood Avenue and Bidwell Parkway in Buffalo, with the course going through Forest Avenue, Delaware Avenue and Summer Street. Drivers in that area may face slight delays.

Thirty-four years is quite a ride, and Nowicki takes a lot of pride in that. He just hopes he can find someone to take over once he’s ready to ease away from the duties of race director.

“I can’t last forever,” he said. “This is my child. Who do you trust with your child? But I have a great supporting cast, and hopefully I’ll step aside a bit and still be involved. I’d like to see it continue for another 34 years.”

email bbailey@buffnews.com