James Schneider wore high-top basketball shoes when he participated in the first Wo-Zha-Wa Run in 1968, and one of his fellow entrants wore Hush Puppies.
In those days, the running shoe had yet to become an American consumer staple as relatively few people ran long distances for exercise purposes.
“I had no idea what I was getting in to because I had never run more than four miles in my life,” said Schneider, the race’s director for the 34th time this year. “I was a farm boy.”
Of the 42 runners to start the initial 15.5-mile race, 33 runners finished, including Schneider, Dells businessmen Bud and Tom Gussel and Charlie “Jim” Balsmeider, the latter one of this year’s two Wo-Zha-Wa Days Parade Grand Marshals.
Balsmeider wore the aforementioned Hush Puppies, he confirmed recently, and the first race’s winner was Jim Veeter. The race began near the prison in Portage, ran along Wisconsin Road 127 and finished at Highway 16 and State Road WD in Newport.
The former “farm boy” apparently caught the running bug that day, because he has returned to the Dells for the Wo-Zha-Wa Run almost every year since then, as have an increasing number of entrants.
The 50th race will mark Schneider’s final one in the leadership position and his 47th year attending in some capacity, either as a contestant, an organizer or both.
He plans to go out on a high note, with a record 300-plus entrants already registered as of the week before the race and possibly 400 on hand by the start of the race. He will participate in the 4-mile "fun run," he confirmed.
“I’ve done it for 34 years, I’m 69 and it’s time to hand it to somebody else,” he said. “And I want to go out with the biggest damn race they’ve ever seen. That’s what I’m doing to do — and then we are going to party.”
The 13.1-mile half-marathon and 4-mile run will begin at 8 a.m. at Wisconsin Dells High School. Registration begins at 6:30 a.m., and deadline for registering online (http://www.wozhawarun.com/), is 9 p.m. on Sept. 15.
All race entrants will receive a t-shirt and a 16-ounce commemorative glass — perhaps to use at the party, which will take place at Otto’s Supper Club on Highway 16 starting at 1 p.m.. Trophies will be awarded to the top three male and female overall finishers and medals will go to the top two finishers in each age division, according to the race’s website.
Showers and restrooms also will be provided to race participants.
In addition to being the longest-running road race in Wisconsin, the Wo-Zha-Wa run is widely known in running circles for its physically course, due to the numerous hills that punctuate State Road 127, Schneider said.
“It’s not because they are bigger hills, it’s because they never end,” he said, “You drive 127, and its hill after hill after hill after hill after hill.”
As he has done dozens of times before, Schneider will arrive in the Dells at 4 a.m. the day of the race to help set up, and he will be on hand until the last runner completes the race. He does not plan to compete in the actual race, he said.
Schneider’s attention will then shift to the party at Otto’s, he said, which “will run until I’m out of beer.”