A running race that takes the cake

Sep. 05, 2013 @ 11:15 AM

Get ready for the running season.
There will be a chance for us to run a 5K or some other distance in Chapel Hill or a nearby town almost every weekend this fall.
When did this running craze hit North Carolina? Sometime in the early 1970s?
The other day I started trying to find out which of the hundreds of annual races in our state has been around the longest.
Then I got a note about an annual running race that could be the state’s oldest. It started in 1930 in Davidson and has been held every year since, except during war years. About 250 incoming Davidson College students ran the almost two-mile course. The first 150 or so finishers got to choose a cake baked by local people, most of whom came out to see if their offering would be picked by a top runner.
According to Chapel Hill native Bill Giduz, Davidson’s director of media relations, this Cake Race “has been a tradition since its inception in 1930 by Pete Whittle, the Davidson track coach from 1930-1971. The first race, run in 1930, was intended to help Whittle identify promising runners among incoming students to recruit for his team. Over the years, cake-crafting by community members who contribute them to the race has evolved as a competition of its own. Just as the first year students have competed for the ‘sweetness’ of victory, many contributors compete to offer the cake that will be selected first.”
In 1958, as a college freshman, I competed in that Cake Race event. Having grown up in the town, I knew how it worked. As an observer, I had seen lots of out-of-shape freshmen fall by the wayside. I knew that some folks would be watching how I did. I also knew that my new roommate, David Gilmour, was a state champion miler and cross country runner who would probably win the race and get first pick of the cakes. Finally, knowing that Coach Whittle would be recruiting the top finishers for his teams, I secretly hoped that I could finish somewhere near the top.
So I trained. I ran several miles along the course every day in my Converse basketball shoes for weeks before the race.
I came in seventh.
As we passed the finish line, Coach Whittle waved his arms and shouted, “Alright all you top-10 finishers, come over here, I want to talk to you."
When he saw me approaching, he waved me off and said, "That's all right, D.G., we won't need you."
He had known me most of my life and knew I would never make a distance runner.
David Gilmour won the race. And he won my mother’s heart when he picked her cake. She treasured her “victory” the rest of her life.
David has not forgotten either, writing the other day, “It was a pineapple upside down cake, my favorite then and now.  I hope I gave you just a little piece.”
Whether or not the Davidson Cake Race is the state’s oldest, it was my first, and the one I will always remember.
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch.