FAIRFIELD COUNTY, Conn. – Norwalk resident Jim Gerweck started the Boston Buildup races in 1978 with Tom Nash to help generate content during the slow winter months for a running tabloid the pair had started just a year earlier.
Nash is no longer involved, and the tabloid folded after a few years. But the Buildup, a four-race running series that begins Sunday at Brien McMahon High School in Norwalk, endures. Gerweck, who has missed just one of the 140 previous races, will begin his 36th year as the series director.
“It’s kind of like running a marathon,’’ Gerweck said. “You have to take it one mile at a time. If you think about doing it for 30 years, you’d never start.”
The series progresses to gradually longer distances in each race, starting with a 10k and finishing with a 25k in Norwalk in March. The first race was capped at 100 runners, but the size of the field in the early years was never much of a problem. Over the past few years, interest in the event has swelled. Last year’s 10k, easily the most popular in the series, had 395 finishers.
“It was never a thing to have a whole bunch of runners,’’ Gerweck said. “In some ways, it was easier with less people. The pre-entry people would show up, and I’d have 50 or 60 numbers on my lap for race day entrants. I knew everybody by name. In that sense, it’s something of a loss.”
While the 1970s were considered the boom years nationally for running, running in Fairfield County has surged over the past two decades. “The real big jump came in 1996,’’ Gerweck said. “That was the 100th Boston Marathon, and they had a lottery for runners. A lot of people got in who had never run a marathon. We got a huge jump that year. To be honest, I thought it might be a one-year bump. But we never went back from there.”
By and large, the Series has remained the same as it ever was. Running clubs in Ridgefield, Southport and Norwalk helped support the early races. Most of the races have had multiple starting points. The last change came two years ago when the start of the 20k in Southport was moved because of a cramped parking lot. The closing 25k at Norwalk’s Silvermine School is a hilly gut-check and ventures into Vista, N.Y., before swinging back around.
“That was one of the hardest to get right,’’ Gerweck said. “Some years we had courses with multiple loops. This course is pretty far-flung, but I think it’s the most beautiful of the four courses.”
The field is primarily runners from Fairfield County, with some from New York City, New Haven, Westchester County, New Jersey and Massachusetts. Runners from the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., are frequent entrants at the 25k.
Although the size of the field has mushroomed, Gerweck’s communication tasks have become easier through social media. “The biggest stress over the years is trying to decide whether to hold the thing,’’ he said. “It’s gotten a lot easier with the Internet and email. When we first started I had to get up at 5 a.m. to put a recording on the answering machine.”
Many runners use the series to train for spring marathons, hence the name. Gerweck said “50 or 60” runners have done the series for 10 years or more. Like the swallows to Capistrano, runners return every year to the series to test their fitness and meet friends.
“It’s pretty low-key,’’ he said. “It’s relatively non-competitive. Some people use them as hard training runs, but any one can run it as easy as you want. We get a decent amount of runners who are pretty casual.”
The complete series schedule and registration information is on clubct.org.