Ross Pearce had to fudge the figures to get from Prince George to the Boston Marathon.
Having finished fourth overall in the fourth annual running of the 17-mile race through the city to Spruceland Mall in 1977, Pearce had never run a full marathon distance in a race when it came time to register for the Boston Marathon.
In the early years of its history, the Prince George race at Labour Day was the only annual road race in the province and local organizers convinced Trans-Canada Airlines to provide two return air tickets to Boston to the top two finishers, one of the perks of being fast in Prince George.
Pearce got to that stage after the second- and third-place finishers in the local race, now known as the Labour Day Classic, turned down one of the two grand prizes, which also included free accommodation and meals in Boston.
Pearce, then a 42-year-old Prince George math/science teacher, sat down with Tom Masich, one of the founding organizers of the Prince George to Boston race, and cooked up a phantom time to fill in the Boston Marathon entry form.
"Tom and I cheated a bit because you need a qualifying time to go to Boston and we just made up a time because I''d never run a marathon before," said Pearce, now 77.
Pearce was part of the first Labour Day Classic in 1974 and admits he suffered the consequences of running in tennis shoes lacking in arch support, not having raced any distance that long previously.
"I just went out and trained hard and overdid it and I finished up with sore legs and sore hips," he said. "There weren't too many people running distance in those days, so there wasn't the kind of advice that's available now."
Racing in Boston in April 1978 was a career highlight for the native Australian, a former rugby player. He finished in three hours 10 minutes, 758th overall.
"That was an event I'll never forget, running that race was amazing," said Pearce. "There was no time when there weren't people lining the road. Some of them had taken the trouble to read the entry list and I even had the odd cheer as I came along and somebody actually knew who I was."
Masich came up with the idea for the Labour Day race based on his experience organizing a shorter race in Prince Rupert. For the first two years of the Prince George race, until they were forced to move the route into the city to accommodate widening of the Hart Highway, the top runners would run from the Salmon River bridge to the mall, while the women and junior runners ran half that distance, starting at a spot on the highway near where the Husky gas station now stands.
"As soon as the expert runners came into sight we'd fire the gun and the women and junior mixed group would start heading down the highway," said Masich. "The idea was it would give the elite group something to run at to try to catch the other group, and the other group would have to try to stay ahead of the elite group."
The 1975 Classic was the last year runners were bussed to Salmon Valley for the start. Highway construction and discourteous drivers prompted a route change. The original city course was 18.5 miles long and included the steep staircase leading up to Connaught Hill Park. The route was reduced to 17 miles in 1979 to avoid the steps, a fortunate decision that allowed the first wheelchair athlete to enter the race that year.
The 1974 Classic had 39 runners, including a group of top athletes from the Hickory Wing Ski Club, and Tom Howard, the Canadian marathon champion from Vancouver, who claimed the overall title the first two years. Howard stopped the clock in 1:23:46 that first year and he went on to finish fourth in the 1975 Boston Marathon. Howard's connection to the city was through his wife, a cousin of Pat Day, the wife of 1976 Olympic nordic skier Ed Day, one of the best distance runners in Prince George at that time.
"There was no fixed road race in British Columbia at that time, we were the first ones and we still stand by that," said Masich. "What they liked about it was they could compete in an event that was the equivalent to the distance of a good training run for a marathon."
The 1979 Labour Day Classic was special because two men bound for later greatness took part -- Terry Fox and Rick Hansen. Fox used the Prince George race as a test event to determine if he'd be able to tackle his cross-Canada Marathon of Hope, which he began the following April. It was also a preparation event for Hansen's Man in Motion world tour from 1985-87. Hansen came from his home in Williams Lake to raced in Prince George in his wheelchair in 1979, 1980 and 1981.
"Little did we know that the day the race took place in 1979 that this would become historic across Canada in Terry's Marathon of Hope and Rick's Man in Motion tour," said Masich.
Before the organizing of the race was taken over by the Prince George Road Runners club, which has always focused on building local participation, Masich always envisioned a much larger event, which has never come to fruition.
"With running established the way it is, I was always looking for a number like maybe a thousand people participating, but I don't know if we've ever reached 400," said Masich. "It was my ambition to always bring in some top runners so people could see what real running was all about.
"A lot more towns got established in running road races and consequently there are more than 50 events a year in British Columbia."
The post-race banquet continues to attract big crowds and it's now a catered event. But in the early days, most of that meal catering took place in the Masich household kitchen. While Masich was out arranging plaques and trophies or collecting watches and gift certificates from local businesses to offer as prizes to the racers, his wife Anne and daughter Laura and a small army of volunteers were preparing meat and vegetable trays or carving up beef roasts and turkeys donated and cooked by Super Valu Foods.
"Labour Day weekend was labour alright, it was 24 hours of labour for three or four days," Masich said. "You'd be going day and night to make sure you had your ducks lined in a row and everything would turn out as perfect as we could get it down at the old Civic Centre."
The Labour Day race has evolved from only two categories -- 17-mile and 8.5-mile -- to now include a three-mile, three-person relay, a five-kilometre race, a one-kilometre kids' race, and separate categories for race walkers, wheelchair athletes and parents pushing baby strollers.
Sunday's 40th anniversary race starts at 9 a.m., for the 17-milers, 9:15 for the kids race, and 9:45 for all the other categories. It starts and finishes at the Civic Centre.
Anyone who still wants to sign up can do so today from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Civic Centre.