Originally Published: May 13, 2011 12:02 a.m.
PRESCOTT - Shortly after moving here permanently in 1972, Tony Ebarb became fast friends with Gheral Brownlow when the former became the latter's bookkeeper for a gift and sporting goods shop he once owned on Whiskey Row downtown.
But the relationship didn't fully blossom until the two ventured outdoors and began running together.
Brownlow, who would go on to become a beloved Yavapai County supervisor before his death three years ago, and Ebarb co-founded the Whiskey Row Marathon in the late '70s.
These days, the Prescott-based marathon remains one of the most popular, albeit grueling, races of its kind in the country.
And although Ebarb has not run in the Whiskey since 1989, he will return for the 33rd annual event, now operated by the Prescott YMCA, on Saturday.
Ebarb will participate in the 10K race with his daughters, Marie and Theresa Ebarb, and granddaughter, University of Arizona sophomore Ashley Giles, by his side - on his 71st birthday, no less.
"I've been training for a year," the 5-foot-7, 154-pound Ebarb said this past week from his longtime tax accounting firm on South Montezuma Street. "I'm fired up and ready to go."
Ebarb and Brownlow initially ran together in the YMCA half-marathon in 1973, which Ebarb says was the first foot race ever conducted in Prescott.
"It brought together a lot of people who didn't know each other," Ebarb said.
After they had developed a friendship, Ebarb said he and Brownlow decided they wanted to start an even bigger race here, with a portion of its proceeds benefiting different Prescott-based organizations.
The pair scoured the city looking for a suitable course. Once Ebarb and Brownlow had set their sights on one, they measured it with a metric wheel.
"Gheral and I spent a lot of time dreaming up how to conduct a race in Prescott," Ebarb said. "We drove all over trying to find a flat course, but there is no place without hills."
They walked every foot of the original route, which included going from Copper Basin Road to Thumb Butte Park, while marking the turnaround points for what would become the event's full marathon, half-marathon and 10K courses.
"We designed it to where we could run all the races on one course," Ebarb said. "It's extremely difficult because you have to go uphill before you can turn around and come home."
Brownlow and Ebarb split the cost for the Whiskey during its first several years until they found a major sponsor.
Ebarb still has vivid memories of the marathon's inaugural running in 1979, which was less than perfect and had its share of problems.
First of all, the race took place on an unseasonably hot day. Ebarb said water station volunteers did the runners no favors when they moved under the trees, sometimes as much as 50 to 75 feet off the road, instead of staying on the course to hand off cups.
"Lots of runners didn't see them and, thus, didn't get any water," Ebarb said. "They got really mad."
In addition, the route, which has since been changed to accommodate easier traffic control, was fairly dangerous.
"We didn't have police escorts or orange cones, like we do now," Ebarb said. "It's beautiful what the city has done. They really protect the runners. We were on our own back then."
Another issue was that both Brownlow and Ebarb woke up at 3 a.m. on the day of the race to fulfill a request from locals Jack Cartier and John Annerino to run in all three races - the half-marathon, the 10K and the full marathon (26.2 miles) - that morning.
Brownlow and Ebarb watched as Cartier and Annerino ran the half-marathon and took a 30-minute break before embarking on the 10K. After the 10K, they had an hour-long respite prior to tackling the marathon. Cartier and Annerino wound up running 45 miles.
Also that day, Ebarb and one of his other close friends, Billy Hicks, ran the full marathon in a 33-member field. Hicks won his ages 40-49 bracket in 3 hours, 21 minutes and 31 seconds. Ebarb, who was in the ages 30-39 category, recalls finishing well behind the pack in 6:47.22. Brownlow ran the 10K and claimed first in his age classification.
Even though Ebarb began running regularly in 1967, Brownlow and Hicks - who died this past year - taught Ebarb how to run.
"When we ran (non-competitively), I was slower than them, so they would run back down to where I was to keep me company," Ebarb said.
Ebarb initially became a runner because he's a diabetic. For the past four decades, running has helped him control his glucose levels and kept his weight down.
One of the reasons Ebarb, Brownlow (a strong short-distance runner) and Hicks (a solid long-distance runner) got along so well is because they were in the same age range.
"I was equally close to these two men," said Ebarb, who is slightly younger than his friends. "We attended all of our family functions together. I have many nice gifts from both of them."
Brownlow and Hicks traveled with Ebarb to run in events across the Southwest. Among other activities, the trio took part in this area's original 60-mile Man vs. Horse race from 1983-85 and several 24-hour marathons sponsored by Prescott College.
One of their most memorable moments came in 1995, when they ran 200 miles of a 250-mile relay from Prescott to Tucson that commemorated the centennial of the University of Arizona.
Brownlow, Ebarb and Hicks, who carried a copper tube that contained a replica of the U of A charter issued in Prescott in 1885, needed less than 24 hours to complete their route to Apache Junction. It was at that point that a group of seasoned U of A runners picked up the charter and completed the rest of the route to Tucson.
The men also ran in dozens of other marathons, including the famed Boston Marathon, as well as 40-plus-mile runs from Prescott to Crown King, and what Ebarb describes as an "untold number of 5K and 10K races."
Ebarb ran the Whiskey Row Marathon in each of its first 11 years until he turned 50 in 1989. Hicks and Ebarb, who met each other in 1972, trained together on the marathon's course for years.
But Ebarb stopped attending the race after he and his Finnish wife, Liisa Raikkonen, went back to school to earn law degrees at the University of Oregon, briefly allowing their colleagues to run their business until 1992.
Last July, when Ebarb was training for the Prescott Senior Olympics' 5K and 10K runs, he said it occurred to him that he had placed third behind Hicks and Brownlow perhaps more than 100 times in all sorts of races - including those three aforementioned 60-mile Man vs. Horse races.
Last October, Ebarb's adult children told him that the Whiskey Row Marathon would fall on his birthday this year. So he started running the 10K (6.2-mile) course once a week.
"I'm ready, but this is the first time I'll run the race without Billy and Gheral," said Ebarb, whose six children and wife have run in at least one of the Whiskey Row Marathon's races through the years. "It's almost humorous because I still have a chance to win in my age bracket, but at the same time I miss my buddies."
Although his two close friends are gone, Ebarb said he's thrilled with the job that the Prescott YMCA has done to keep the tradition of the Whiskey Row Marathon alive.
The marathon opened in 1979 with less than 50 runners. Today, more than 30 years later, thousands participate.
"It's a real source of pride that I did something for the community that will be here when I'm gone," Ebarb said.
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