Forty years in the making: A sitdown with the man who founded the original Ephrata Firecracker Run

By on June 28, 2017
Ephrata Firecracker Run founder Barry Kachel explains how the annual race got its start during a visit to the Review office recently. Photo by Preston Whitcraft

Ephrata Firecracker Run founder Barry Kachel explains how the annual race got its start during a visit to the Review office recently. Photo by Preston Whitcraft

Next Tuesday will mark the 40th anniversary of the Ephrata Firecracker Run, the annual Fourth-of-July road race through the streets of Ephrata.

The race, which was the brainchild of Ephrata resident Barry Kachel, got its start in 1977, drawing more than 500 runners in its first edition. The original course, designed by Kachel, drew rave reviews from competitive runners for its challenging Pine St. hill and community involvement in those early days.

Today, despite changes in the course which eliminated Pine St., became more “average-runner-friendly,” and in the current edition, features a new starting and ending point in Grater Park, the race still draws hundreds and has become a Fourth-of-July staple for the entire community.

Recently, Ephrata Review Sports Editor Todd Ruth caught up with Kachel, who directed the race for the first 10 years before passing the baton, to get his take on the past, present and future of the Ephrata Firecracker Run.

The following is a transcript of that conversation:

Todd Ruth: You started the Firecracker in 1977. Take me back and tell me exactly how it all began.

Barry Kachel: That year, the War Memorial wanted me to run the evening July 4 program. I said, I’ll do it if I can have a five-mile run with it. They said, “go for it,” never thinking what is going to happen with it. I had my hands full for that day. They used to have local bands play for the July 4th program, an orchestra or a dog show or something…they had all kinds of entertainment. And I expanded on that big time. I called the guys who had all the rides at the farm show and told them what I’d like to do is put something on over at the field for July 4th. They came down and looked it over and showed me how to set up a midway for them. So I had the rides coming in, and we spent $1,000 to have top-notch entertainment. Harold Summers came in and put three flat-bed trucks up to use for the stages. We had a show from 6-7 on one trailer, then we had another trailer set up with the high school orchestra or something, then at 8 we had the main entertainment.

We started planning for the run in January or February. The first thing I did was I went to the Ephrata police chief to see if we could use the roads in the town. I had a course laid out for him and I showed him what I was thinking. We went through the whole course and he said, “I really don’t see any problem with that.” Next we had to go to council to get the approval to run the streets, and they gave us permission so from that point on I started going around, probably to three or four counties and put out fliers. I advertised in running magazines to get runners from out of state. We actually had one of the top female runners in the east come up that first year and run. It just took off, and the Review was really helpful. They really gave us a lot of coverage, and the radio station, do you remember “Live Mic?” I knew Barry Seidel and I asked him if I could put two guys over there with you on your show. He said yes so we went over there and we had that on the radio. He also said I’ll do a little snippet with somebody, so I had my daughter and Bip Vierling talk about it on the radio. We really got a lot of publicity out of it and it paid off. It paid off pretty well because we got over 500 runners that first year.

TR: Why did you decide you’d like to add a race to what was already a jammed-packed day?

BK: I thought it would be another way to keep people home, at that time, for the Fourth-of-July in Ephrata. I never realized it would attract 500 runners the first year. The year before Lancaster started their race, I went in to see what’s going on. That gave me an idea of how they operated, and that’s what I brought back to Ephrata.

TR: How did you come up with the course, which at that time included Pine St. and those dreaded hills?

BK: I walked it. Well, I didn’t walk it, I drove it. Then I got a wheel from PPL, a measuring wheel, and I walked it. Actually the five miles ended up at the goal posts (about 50 yards short of the finish line) but we won’t talk too much about that…that’s really how it all came about.

TR: That must have been a long day for you, starting with the race in the morning and going until late in the night with the fireworks?

BK: When that day was over…my wife and I went back (to War Memorial) after the run, and we were already exhausted. And then I had to get back over for the evening program…it was a big day for me.

TR: How was it to get the results together because today they are made available right away? That had to be a painstaking process.

BK: I didn’t do that part. Well, I guess I did it 10 years and I got Joel Callihan to take over. He was a runner at that time, and when he took it over, he got my son to set up programs to do it all on the computer. When I did it it was all done by hand. After the second year I think I got the timer from Lititz to do it for us, and that was a big help.

TR: Once it got established and once the running community started to become aware of it, the planning and recruiting of runners had to get easier for you, right?

BK: I didn’t have to advertise in the running magazine anymore but I still took fliers around to all of the sporting goods stores, running stores, the big motels to hand them out. But then we started to, any runner who did it in the previous year, they got an application through the mail. That kind of took care of itself after that.

TR: Looking back now it’s been 40 years and the race still draws tons of people. Kids come home from college to run it, family members who moved away from the area come back…Are you surprised by that?

BK: We used to have big families coming in for their picnics, and it drew these people together…families coming to run. I guess you could say it took off pretty well. I think doing the ground work we did the first couple of years really helped it take off. And at that time running was just starting to become popular. That’s kind of what gave it the boost that we needed. What a great idea it would be …but 40 years? It’s hard to believe.

TR: The course has obviously changed several times throughout the years since you’ve been involved. Do you like that or would you prefer to see them go back to the original?

BK: We had changed the course one year because over at Pine St. they took the old bridge down. We had to change it that year but we came back to it. But after I got out of it, they flattened the course. It’s definitely not the same kind of course that it was. I remember we had people come in, in fact one guy from Conestoga Valley who played football, and he played in the NFL, came and ran in it and made the comment to me, “now I know why they call them the Ephrata Mountaineers.”

TR: When you came up with that course, what made you think those Pine St. hills would be good to incorporate in the race?

BK: I wanted the hills in it. I used to read about the different runs and they would always talk about the hills and stuff. I just thought it would add something to the race.

TR: One thing for sure, the community certainly has embraced it. I think it has become the community event to go to every year.

BK: I think too that it is. The run is something that sells itself. I mean, the people plan everything around it. They have the family outing, the whole bit. I’ve received so many letters from people I never even knew. They all love it.

TR: Do you still go?

BK: The last couple years I haven’t gone. I haven’t gone since they went down to the park. I was a little disappointed but I understand why they don’t go up on (War Memorial Field) now. You can’t take the oranges and the watermelons out on the artificial turf. I understand that. It’s progress I guess.

TR: Well, hopefully it will go another 40 years.

BK: As long as somebody wants to do it… It’s a lot of work. We’d start in January to get it organized. It took over 100 volunteers to run it. They wanted to do it, especially after the first year. They came to me to help. It really was a lot of fun.

The 40th Ephrata Firecracker Run begins at 8 a.m. on Tuesday, July 4 with the start located in front of the Ephrata Playhouse in Grater Park. A One-Mile Fun Run will follow at 9:15 a.m.

All race results will appear in the July 5 edition of The Ephrata Review. For more information on the race, contact Jean Wentz at 738-1167 (ext. 105).

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