Race Course

Written by Amy Saunders Category: History Issue: October 2015
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Now in its 40th year, Dr. Art Mollen’s Phoenix 10K is still running strong.

In 1976, a 30-year-old doctor started the first Phoenix 10K with a bang. “On your mark, get set, go!” Dr. Art Mollen called, firing a gunshot into the air before jumping in the race himself.

The runners hustled 6.2 miles up and down the banks of the Arizona Canal, starting and ending the race near 40th Street and Camelback Road. Decades before the advent of embedded computer chips, runners learned their race times via numbered tongue depressors handed out at the finish line – hundreds of them, pilfered from Mollen’s office.

Unsophisticated as it was, the race was something of a novelty in 1976. As running began to take off nationwide, the Valley hosted only a few large, organized races (the Y Race Phoenix half-marathon, Arizona’s oldest race, started seven years earlier). When the Valley’s first running retailer, the Runner’s Den, opened in 1978, employees fielded calls asking if the shop sold carpet runners.

Mollen – an osteopathic family physician then relatively new to Phoenix and to marathon running – started the 10K as an alternative to elite races. It was a community event for the participants in the running group he led and, for his patients, a source of motivation to get active. He hoped to round up 500 runners, which seemed like a lofty goal.

PHM1015PFHIST02Turns out Mollen was onto something. The first race – then known as the North Bank 10K, sponsored by the nearby North Bank restaurant – tripled that goal, with subsequent races attracting as many as 15,000 participants.

As the oldest 10K in the Southwest celebrates its 40th running on November 1, Mollen remains as involved as ever in marketing and organizing the race (shotgun start aside). He keeps a far busier schedule than the average 70-year-old: He continues to lead the Mollen Clinic in Scottsdale, a primary care practice with 5,000 patients; appears weekly on KTVK Channel 3 as a medical correspondent; writes columns for The Arizona Republic and, of course, exercises daily.

But Mollen wouldn’t think of stepping away from the race. The Phoenix 10K epitomizes his passions in life, says Rob Wallack, owner of the Runner’s Den and a longtime friend.

“He does not watch TV; he does not play golf,” Wallack says. “His interests are medical practice and conveying a way to keep people healthy – and this race.”

Says Mollen: “I live it; I breathe it. It’s who I am; it’s what I am.”

Mollen started running as a medical student in Philadelphia, having become interested in exercise as preventive medicine, as compared with the reactionary disease treatment he was studying in class. He picked up the pace after moving to Phoenix to work at Luke Air Force Base, spending his free time running laps around the parking lot in his scrubs.

Inspired to spread the gospel of exercise, he started the 10K in 1976; published the first of his five books, Run for Your Life, in 1978; and gave health and fitness tips in frequent media appearances that made him a public figure in the Valley. “He was known as the ‘Sultan of Sweat,’” says Harvey Beller, a patient of Mollen who 36 years ago was hired as the Phoenix 10K race director. “He was the guy who got Arizona running.”

His name became known nationwide after he launched Mollen Immunization Clinics, once the nation’s largest independent mass immunizer. (Mollen sold the chain in 2008; the company closed in 2013 after losing a contract with Walmart).

In the meantime, the Phoenix 10K had quickly outgrown the canal to become a premier race Downtown. In the early years, Mollen organized pre-race seminars, and invited top runners and doctors to speak about the growing sport. In the 1980s, Runner’s World named the Phoenix 10K a top 10 road race in the country. For the first three decades, Wallack says, “Races would not go anywhere near the Phoenix 10K regarding dates as a matter of respect and honor and just not wanting to compete against it.”

PHM1015PFHIST03Now, the Valley hosts hundreds of races annually, including more than 75 in November alone. Dozens lure recreational runners with novelty themes and giveaways. “There’s the Color Run, the Night Run, the Who Run, the What Run,” Mollen says. “There are so many bells and whistles.”

The Phoenix 10K has struggled to keep up. Last year’s race attracted 5,000 participants, resulting in minimal fundraising for its beneficiary: the Mollen Foundation Preventing Childhood Obesity, a nonprofit led by Mollen’s wife, Paige, that funds community and school programs.

In recent years, Mollen says he has invested more than $100,000 of his personal funds to ensure the race continues. “It’s almost like one of my children. I want it to be successful,” Mollen says. “Whatever it takes to make it a success, I’m willing to do.”

With added attention and sponsorships this year, Mollen hopes the Phoenix 10K will raise $25,000 for the foundation and attract 10,000 entries for events that also include a half-marathon, 5K and kids’ race. Sponsored by 3TV, the 40th anniversary race – which starts and ends at CityScape – includes a few special events, like a ‘70s-inspired costume contest and $1,040 in prize money for the first runners who break the 10K race record for men’s (28:11) and women’s (32:25) divisions.

After completing 34 marathons and 10 triathlons, Mollen has retired from running the race because of a herniated disc in his back. (“I was running so slowly, they were stopping me for loitering,” he jokes.) He now spends race day overseeing the event and doing interviews for 3TV.

In July, facing the mounting administrative challenges of operating an independent practice, Mollen sold his clinic to the Physician Group of Arizona. But he puts his current odds of retiring at “zero.” As long as he can exercise, he’ll practice – and every day, he swims a mile and bikes 12 miles.

The same sentiment applies to his involvement in the Phoenix 10K. Beller, too, has no plans to retire as race director at age 76 (“You need to have a job to retire,” he says, “and I don’t consider this a job.”)

Mollen hopes the event continues for at least another 40 years. In his view, the Phoenix 10K is more than a race, both to him and to the community. “This race is a historical event,” Mollen says. “I always thought it was part of my legacy, really, to have this run extend into perpetuity.”