His contributions to the sport of running are immeasurable.
According to the great English poet and writer John Ruskin, “The first test of a truly great man is his humility.”
The late Dennis Ikenberry easily passes Ruskin’s famous test: he was both great and humble.
Many in the running world aren’t familiar with Ikenberry and his extensive work at the forefront of race-timing technology, but they have surely benefitted from it. Sadly, Ikenberry passed away earlier this week at 72 years old after nine-month struggle with pancreatic cancer. According to his doctors, it was a struggle that was only to last a matter of weeks, but Dennis refused to give up.
He was a quiet fighter until the end.
In 1979, back before there were things like chips fastened to running shoes, Ikenberry founded Race Central, a company whose mission was to completely change the way road races were conducted — from registration all the way to timing and results. But Ikenberry was more than just a successful entrepreneur who appeared on the scene at the right moment in time; he had running in his veins.
Before discovering his passion for race organization and timing, Ikenberry was a running coach — and a very good one. While attending the University of California at Riverside as a graduate student, he coached his eventual wife of 48 years, Judy, who eventually went on to win the national marathon championship. “These were the days when women weren’t really supposed to be running long distances,” recalls Judy, who survives her husband along with their three children, Richard, Shelly, and Becky. “It was supposedly not safe. But when Dennis first started with me, he watched me run on the track. My first lap was like 60 seconds and my second lap was nearly 90 seconds. I was so nervous. His only advice to me afterwards was, ‘don’t run so fast in your first lap.’ Dennis was that kind of guy; he cut right to the chase.”
Ikenberry simply liked to help runners, no matter their gender, shape, or size. All were welcome in his eyes. In 1962, he started the Rialto Roadrunners, a youth running program in Southern California. It was by assisting and mentoring these children that Dennis met nine-year-old Marie Albert, who would eventually become one of Race Central’s partners nearly thirty years later. In fact, many of the Rialto Roadrunners went on to work for Ikenberry.
“He took a huge family approach to things,” recalls Competitor Group Senior Vice President Tracy Sundlun, one of the founders of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series and a close friend of Ikenberry’s. “And that’s why it was so great to work with him. In my opinion, there was no better person to partner with.”
In 1979, a golden opportunity was presented to Dennis — an opportunity that eventually changed his life and led him down the path of revolutionizing the way races would be recorded. Ikenberry was asked to time and score the Sun Run Race in San Bernardino. With the assistance of members from the Rialto Roadrunners, Dennis got the job done, but it was a manual and tedious affair from start to finish. An analytical person by nature, this inefficiency bothered Ikenberry. He figured there had to be a better way to manage races; he saw computers fitting into the equation.
And so Dennis bought an Apple II and wrote a computer program. By 1984, the Los Angeles Olympics had been a huge success and corporate-sponsored road races were springing up everywhere.
“The President of Shell Oil wanted to stand on the stage with results that could be trusted,” recalls Judy Ikenberry. “That’s where we came in.”
Race Central was born.
Judy says the company began to expand after that point. They rented an old, orange-painted packing warehouse complete with showers to accommodate the working runners. They hired programmers and invested in computers, printers, and first-generation modems.
Race Central’s first big break came at the 1990 edition of the Bay to Breakers road race in San Francisco. The local newspapers printed top finishers in exclusive editions, so the need for trustworthy results was greater than ever before. Thanks to the ingenuity of a 15-year-old Race Central employee named Henry, Dennis was able to manipulate the assembly language in a store-bought Radio Shack clock in order to accurately time that race.
“This is what was so great about him,” Judy says of her late husband. “He listened to the suggestions of everyone—kids like Henry. He didn’t judge you by what kind of degrees you had, how many letters you had after your name, how you looked, or how old you were. The qualities of your ideas were what mattered to him.”
Sundlun echoes these sentiments. “Dennis was so matter-of-fact. He was creative and humble—a “can-do” kind of guy. The man was impeccably honest and innovative,” he says.
Sundlun says that if there were a Competitor Group Hall of Fame, Ikenberry would be in it. “I wish more people knew him and what he did. He was a role model in the industry and in our shared sport. We have lost a great friend and a true asset.”
About The Author:
Duncan Larkin is a freelance journalist who’s been covering the sport of running for over five years. He’s run 2:32 in the marathon and won the Himalayan 100-Mile Stage Race in 2007. His first running book, RUN SIMPLE, was released in June.