Who would have imagined that all this would happen?
Who in their right mind knew nearly six years ago that, beginning Friday night and lasting into Saturday morning, there would be more than 10,000 runners and walkers taking to the streets and pathways of Fort Wayne?
And who would have thought that thousands more would show up to watch and volunteer, to offer cheers and water and Gatorade?
Certainly not Brad Kimmel, one of the faces – many will say the face – of this whole Fort4Fitness extravaganza.
He definitely never envisioned what the Fort4Fitness Fall Festival has now become, with kids and senior marathons and three races winding through the city Saturday. He never imagined 10,000 runners.
“I thought 700 or 800 would make a nice-sized event,” he now says.
That initial thought came nearly six years ago, when Kimmel and a man named Tim Kenesey met with then-Mayor Graham Richard about a completely unrelated topic. A magazine had just hit newsstands at the time, one with a list that, like many similar lists before it, ranked Fort Wayne among the fattest in the country.
During the course of the conversation, Kimmel mentioned the idea of a race, one that would get the community involved in physical activity, to get the citizens interested in health and to shed the fat image the city had garnered from the national media.
Richard was interested, and soon enough, Fort4Fitness and plans for a half marathon and 4-mile run/walk were hatched.
Kimmel became the organization’s executive director; Kenesey became the chairman. That first year, the number of race entrants was capped at 3,000. The event sold out.
In the ensuing years, race registries have steadily increased as the organization, and what is now known as its Fall Festival, grew.
“We must be doing something right,” Kimmel jokes these days. “What’s happened is Fort4Fitness has become year around.”
Two years ago, Fort4Fitness added a Spring Cycle bicycle event to go along with the Fall Festival.
More races were added to the Fall Festival in recent years as well.
Children and seniors can participate in a summer-long “marathon” in which they accumulate 25 miles’ worth of walking or running throughout the season. They then complete a marathon’s length by running or walking their final 1.2 miles into Parkview Field on Friday night.
In 2011, a 10-kilometer race was added to the 4-mile run/walk and half marathon.
Charities soon took notice of the races, and Kimmel says this year, his organization is working with 29 organizations in some capacity for the Fall Festival.
Training programs have been set up by Fort4Fitness officials, and this year an online store for merchandise has opened.
The organization has also hired its first full-time staffer, office manager Chris Davis, who Kimmel says was invaluable to the goings on at the organization’s headquarters.
But that’s not all. Kimmel plans to announce more programs at this year’s festival, including the chance for families to take advantage of a new 8,000-square-foot gym at Fort4Fitness’s newly remodeled offices at the Ash Centre off Freeman Road.
These eight-week courses will be designed to get families active, Kimmel says. They’re to give them a taste of what exercise can do for them so they can go out and join a gym of their own or change their lives in a positive way.
Retired from the U.S. Air Force after 30 years of service, Kimmel had been a competitive runner for years. Age and some health issues, though, forced him to make some changes in his own approach to health, so he says he knows how hard it can be.
“A lot of people are intimidated, and then there’s the cost factor (of gyms),” says Kimmel of these new programs. “We’re trying to fill the void, or bridge the gap, of that intimidation and cost factor.”
And there could be more on tap for future Fort4Fitness events.
Talk of new events, including a full-blown marathon, is being bandied about, Kimmel says. A lot of what might come has to do with public feedback, which he says comes in droves.
Which is also what he likes, because it shows him the Fall Festival has truly become a community event.
“It’s really a tribute to Fort Wayne,” Kimmel says. “There are marvelous people in Fort Wayne.”
So, after a year’s worth of planning, after ordering countless boxes of T-shirts for the participants, after going over the various courses over and over again to triple- and quadruple-check the logistics, Kimmel is finally getting settled in and readying himself to enjoy the festivities.
He loves to see the runners at the starting line, a mass of humanity filing through an inflatable archway, and to see them finish at Parkview Field, watching them catch sight of themselves on the giant screen.
And he loves especially those who cheer on participants doing races for the first time, those who are just now getting in shape, which is why he thought of this whole thing years ago.
“In five years, it was taken from a coffee shop conversation to something thousands of people participate in,” Kimmel says with amazement.
Who would have imagined?