From The Vault: 1999's inaugural Flying Pig was a huge success -- and it's been soaring ever since
Marathon's off-beat nature was a big draw
Shannon Russell | WCPO contributor
5:00 AM, May 2, 2017
10:42 AM, May 5, 2018
WATCH how the Flying Pig Marathon got its name in the video above.
CINCINNATI -- Long before the Flying Pig Marathon evolved into a weekend-long running festival with events for all ages and abilities, it started as a marquee race with big plans for the future.
Paycor founder and CEO Bob Coughlin brought the Pig to life in 1999 with current Paycor president Stacey Browning, and it was an immediate hit. The timing was right, as running events were growing in popularity nationwide, and the Pig's playful homage to the city's Porkopolis ties provided an instant personality.
WATCH WCPO Sports Director John Popovich reminisce about the first Flying Pig Marathon below:
Longtime executive director Iris Simpson Bush was the general sales manager at WCPO when she read about plans for the marathon in a newspaper article.
"I felt very strongly that it was awesome. I had run a few marathons so I was personally excited, too, but I really felt that the station should get involved," Simpson Bush said.
She joined the Pig's board, ran a relay leg in the inaugural marathon and has been involved ever since.
WATCH highlights from the first Flying Pig Marathon below:
The popularity of the Flying Pig hit new heights this year when registration for the May 6 marathon was already full by Jan. 31. At the time, Simpson Bush said she expected around 42,000 people to participate in the Pig's various runs and races.
In 1999, there was no 5K, no 10K, no Flying Fur Dog Run and no Flying Piglet Kids' Fun Run. The first race day featured the marathon, and relays within the marathon, with a pre-race expo so small that it fit in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Cincinnati.
Race organizers weren't sure what turnout to expect.
"As registration was happening, I remember the board reports. It was so exciting," Simpson Bush said. "It was like, 'Oh my gosh, they believe us!' We were worried because it was a first-time event and it calls itself the Flying Pig. Will people take it seriously? But all that seemed to be falling into place. The excitement was there."
Organizers hoped for 3,000 entrants. They got 6,163. Participants from 13 countries underscored the second-largest debut marathon in the United States at that time. Runner's World magazine called it a textbook example of how to put on a first-time marathon.
WATCH preparations for the first Flying Pig Marathon below:
Looking back now, Simpson Bush said the Pig's off-beat nature was a big draw.
"We were a new kind of niche. Running marathons had always been for serious athletes, serious runners. And here's this race that's talking about this fun stuff and anybody can do it," Simpson Bush said. "I just think the different approach to doing a marathon helped us. We had serious runners, but I think the numbers grew because it seemed possible for more want-to-be marathoners."
Many aspects of the current Pig, from robust entertainment acts to ubiquitous volunteer stations, are inflated versions of the inaugural Pig. The first Pig also was a pioneer for paying its volunteer groups, a feature that remains part of its dedication to service and community involvement.
The Pig took flight on a sweltering Mother's Day morning in 1999. The course started and ended at Union Terminal for the only time in event history, after seating limitations became a post-race issue. The expanse of asphalt and concrete onsite was another problem, because the surfaces exacerbated the hot conditions.
"We were fine and it all worked out, but that's one of those times you say, 'It looked perfect … but it wasn't so practical,'" Simpson Bush said.
The Pig offered $1,500 prizes that year to the top male and female marathon finishers. Elly Rono, a 29-year-old Kenyan living in Evansville, Indiana, won the 26.2-mile run in 2:21:15 while 22-year-old University of Cincinnati student Sommer Settall was the first female finisher in 2:58:10.
Although prize money was awarded through 2001 -- and Russian Tatyana Pozdnyakova claimed $10,000 in 2002 after breaking the women's course record -- cash incentives fell by the wayside to align with the Pig's principles. That change may have limited the number of elite runners in the field, but it paved the way for local winners and more competitors in general.
The growth of the Pig has been exponential since 1999 due to its expanded offerings. Organizers added a 5K in 2001 and a half-marathon in 2003, and Saturday's events now attract nearly as many participants as Sunday's.
Race-day mascots at the "finish swine" and coveted post-race medals are among the Pig's staples. They're microcosms of a 20-year event that has never lost sight of its participants.
"We've tried to keep the emphasis on the everyday person and whoever wanted to cross it off their bucket list," Simpson Bush said. "If you wanted to do the training, we'll get you from start to finish."