It was the first week of January 2001 and Martin Loftus was celebrating his birthday.
Mr. Loftus and a friend, Gary Nine, headed to Garfield Sports Lounge, a now-defunct sports bar just outside Apache Junction. Sometime during the evening the two men, both of whom were runners, bemoaned the fact most of the organized races in the Valley were in Phoenix or the West Valley.
“That’s a lot of travel for those living in the East Valley,” said Mr. Loftus, a psychologist at The Learning Center. “I said, ‘It’d be nice to have something out here.’”
“Let’s put something on,’” Mr. Nine responded.
Mr. Loftus thought Mr. Nine, a former Apache Junction Unified School District administrator, meant a 5K. Mr. Nine was thinking of something bigger.
Bigger came 13 months later with the inaugural Lost Dutchman Marathon. The marathon will celebrate its 20th anniversary this year and while it might look different than it has in the past – it will be held virtually – its impact on the city of Apache Junction and AJUSD will continue to resonate.
Since 2002 the Lost Dutchman Marathon has donated more than $708,000 to various organizations. AJUSD has received $321,000, with $200,000 of that earmarked for college scholarships and more than $73,000 going to the track-and-field and cross country programs, allowing student athletes to participate while not having to pay.
“The marathon has helped students throughout the district,” said AJUSD superintendent Dr. Krista Anderson. “Not just in sports but for ROTC, band and the National Honor Society. We’re very thankful for their support.”
Normally, the event, which includes the marathon, half-marathon, 10K and 8K, is run on a single day over President’s Day weekend. But COVID-19 has changed the dynamic. This year’s events will be run virtually and held over 10 days, from Feb. 6 to Feb. 15.
Race director Kristie Falb said runners will have to complete their distance over a 24-hour period.
“They’re going to be on the honor system,” Ms. Falb said, noting that the race will not be qualifier for the Boston Marathon because it’s a virtual event. “Obviously this is not the way we wanted to celebrate our 20th anniversary but it’s better to have the event this way rather than missing out this year.”
Ms. Falb said that when the decision was made last September to run the race virtually this year, organizers didn’t know how many people would sign up. In 2020, nearly 3,000 participated in the various runs. Ms. Falb, hoping for the best but knowing other runs around the Valley had experienced a huge drop in participation for their virtual event, purchased 1,000 medals and T-shirts.
As it turns out, nearly 1,200 have signed up.
“We ordered extra medals at the very end, but we don’t have T-shirts to compensate everyone,” Ms. Falb said. “But people are happy to do it just for the experience.”
Jodi Ehrlich, treasurer for the event since its inception, said the amount of money the marathon will be able to give back to the community “will be definitely less” this year. But, in a wise move, organizers held back $20,000 last year knowing there was a possibility the 2021 race might be canceled. Ms. Ehrlich said she’s hopeful the marathon can continue to give this year.
Whatever the amount, it’s far more than Loftus and Nine thought was possible 20 years ago. It’s the birthday gift that keeps on giving.
Editor’s note: Scott Bordow is Apache Junction Unified School District’s director of communications and community engagement.