Union Democrat staff

The Old Mill Run is hitting its stride. Again.

A Columbia State Historic Park fixture since 1978, the 30th Old Mill Run is set for Saturday. As it has since 2004, its races will benefit the Tuolumne County Community Christmas Eve Dinner.

A new course that premiered last year is popular, challenging and, as it is on quiet roads west of Columbia, a lot safer than original route along busy Sawmill Flat and Parrotts Ferry roads.

What's more, runners can now, at least figuratively, take flight as they cross a stretch of Columbia Airport's grass runway about halfway through the 10,000-meter main event.

As the 2009 run includes a two-mile fun run and two kids' races - all of which start and finish on Columbia's Main Street - it has something for everyone. Except for dogs, which are not allowed.

Registration, including a T-shirt (donated by Country Sun Tanning), is $35. Entry for kids is cheaper, as is registration for families of three or more. For procrastinators, race-day registration begins at 7 a.m., with runs to start an hour later. Entry forms are available at The Union Democrat, KVML and the Tuolumne County Recreation Department, all in downtown Sonora.

"The Old Mill gives us a jump start on the Christmas Eve Dinner," said Cathie Peacock, who doubles as race director and chairwoman of the free holiday dinner, enjoyed by hundreds each year at the Mother Lode Fairgrounds. "We generally raise about $2,000, which can go to food purchases or toward rent at the fairgrounds."

So think of the Old Mill as a little bit of Christmas in April, a way to extend the spirit of giving throughout the years and help the less fortunate while you help yourself to great spring scenery and good exercise.

Unless, of course, you're a proofreader and are still hung up on the second paragraph of this editorial. Fixture in Columbia since 1978? Thirtieth run set for April 18? It doesn't add up.

That's because the Old Mill, for lack of a sponsor, took a break in 2002 and 2003. But, after its obituaries were written, Peacock and her colleagues from the Kiwanis Club of Greater Sonora revived the race and, on April 17, 2004, celebrated a belated 25th edition.

A brief history: The Old Mill Run was founded amid the 1970s running boom - marathoners Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers were icons and Jim Fixx's "Complete Book of Running" was, pardon the expression, a runaway best seller. The Union Democrat and the Tuolumne County Recreation Department charted a rolling, loop course around Columbia and, in what proved a hit with local runners, set the entry fee at zero (although T-shirts were $5).

The free run thrived. The nearly 300 who showed up for the debut Old Mill in 1978 had more than doubled by the mid-1980s. But by the mid-1990s, costs and logistics had mounted and the popularity of running was down. Rather than charging a fee, The Union Democrat withdrew as prime sponsor after the 1995 race.

A volunteer committee of runners took over in 1996, with Richardson's Family Fitness as key sponsor, and put on the race through 1999. The Sonora Lions Club, at the helm for two years, guided the Old Mill into the 21st Century. But when the Lions withdrew, nobody took the baton and the race took a two-year vacation.

But now the Old Mill is back, with a worthy goal, a blend of competition, camaraderie and community that's persevered through three decades, and a new course awaiting new records.

Not a runner? Cathie Peacock says the Old Mill can use volunteers (call 532-0905 or 586-4802), welcomes Christmas Eve Dinner contributions and, even if you're not running, just might sell you a T-shirt.