Few events in Evansville have been as iconic and beloved as the Arts Fest River Run. Organized as a promotional vehicle for the annual Arts Festival, participants would set out on a 12K course that began at Audubon State Park in Henderson, Kentucky, crossed the U.S. Highway 41 bridge, and wound its way to Downtown Evansville. And while the clock may have stopped on the race 20 years ago this summer, River Run founder and director Pat Shoulders remembers it as if it were yesterday.
“It truly became kind of a local, big event,” he says. “I was always very proud of the fact that we became a kind of iconic, local thing.”
A large draw to the River Run was the portion crossing the Ohio River.
“I was running marathons at that time, and I had 20-mile courses all over town. I thought, I would love to be able torun across that bridge; why can’t we do that here?” Shoulders says. “[The idea] was born simply as a notion that I wanted to do something unique.”
Also noteworthy was the distance.
“We had 5Ks in this town, we had 10Ks in this town, we had half-marathons, but there was no race around here that did [a 12K],” Shoulders says. “By that time, I had run the Pittsburgh marathon, the New York marathon, the Chicago marathon,” he adds. “I borrowed ideas from those races and brought them back with me and decided we would give runners a bang for their registrations like they’d never seen.”
That “bang” included awarding medals — a rarity at the time for races less than marathon distance — and a substantial prize purse paid to the top five finishers in both the men’s and women’s races. T-shirts, sponsored gift bags, television broadcasts, celebrity guests, costume contests — no novelty was off the table, and all were trendsetting.
“We introduced a lot of ideas that have gone on to help other races,” Shoulders says. “We taught the Tri-State about what a road race could be.” Despite the Arts Fest River Run concluding two decades ago, it continues making history: The 33-minute, 31-second finish set by Kenyan runner Joseph Kimani in the 1997 race still stands as the men’s 12K world record.