By Dan Guttenplan
NEWBURYPORT — Jon Pearson has spent the last 28 years directing the Yankee Homecoming 10-mile Road Race, an annual Newburyport tradition that offers a course filled with challenges, seemingly endless climbs, and every once in a while, a feeling of personal triumph.
In a way, the course personifies Pearson, a man who first started directing the race for 400 runners in 1982 and has overseen the race's growth to the point that he is now expecting 3,000 runners split between a 10-mile and 5K races at the 50th annual running on Tuesday evening. The race has brought Pearson the highest of highs and, perhaps, its own share of lows, too.
Pearson met his wife, Victoria, at one of the first Yankee Homecoming Races he directed in the early 1980s. They were married for 20 years and became one of the most popular couples in town, culminating when Victoria was the top vote-getter in her election bid for the Newburyport School Committee in 2004. Victoria never got a chance to pursue her dream of completing her four-year term. She died after a three-month battle with cancer in March 2004.
Jon Pearson, a past district governor of the Newburyport Lions Club, never took a break from running a race that continues to grow in participation numbers and popularity. He said the race director responsibility becomes what amounts to a full-time job roughly five months prior to the race. Ask him why the race has been so successful for so long, and he'll cite the course, the water stops, the endless stream of spectators, the prize money for the winners, the family atmosphere — really anything other than the hard work he puts in as race director.
"I enjoy working on the race," Pearson said. "We do things to show how serious we are about the race, like the prize money and the water stops, but a large part of the success comes from the families that come together."
The Yankee Homecoming Race also brings Pearson's family together each year. His former wife, Victoria's first husband, Carlton Brown, volunteers to help, as do many on the Brown side of the family who travel up from the South Shore.
Provident Bank president Charlie Cullen, whose company sponsors the race, said dozens of volunteers return to the race every year for the sole purpose of helping Pearson.
"Jon is such a steady force behind this, and he's identified with the race at this point," Cullen said. "Volunteers come back year after year, partly because of his temperament and ease."
Perhaps the largest key to the race's success is Pearson's ability to adapt as a race director. In the early years, only the area's most competitive runners participated, and many beer companies set up tents around the finish line with complimentary beverages. Pearson estimated that he added the 5K roughly 17 years ago, and with it came a more family friendly environment.
But the key is not losing the ultra-competitive aspect of the race, Pearson said. The 10-mile course has been approved by USA Track and Field as a marathon qualifying course. The top finishers in that race are often among the top runners on the road race circuit in New England. Both the 10-mile race and 5K offer chip timing, as is now the standard in competitive races. There are still always more runners who finish the 10-mile course faster than an hour than there are who finish it slower than two.
"At one time, everyone who ran this race wanted to be a runner," Pearson said. "They were concerned about their times. It's not as big a deal for many as it was at one time. Friendship and camaraderie are most important now. A lot has changed over the years."
One thing that hasn't changed is the community's collective commitment to Pearson. Amesbury Lions Club member Joan Baptiste helps Pearson stuff envelopes with race promotional materials months before the race each year. She will continue to do so as long as Pearson is in charge.
"I think people see his commitment and excitement about the race," Baptiste said. "I don't run the race, and I don't even watch the race, but I'll help as long as he needs it. You don't mind helping a person who would go the extra mile for you. There isn't anything he would ask me to do that he wouldn't do himself."
In the spirit of continual improvement, Pearson makes one subtle change to the race each year. Some years, he has moved the finish line. Others, he has implemented the chip timing. This year, he has decided to distribute Popsicles to all finishers at the finish line.
"The fact that this is the best race in the region is a testimonial to Jon and the great work that he does," Cullen said. "I don't know what the race would be without Jon Pearson front and center. So many people do this for him, and we'll continue to do so as long as he asks."