WESTFIELD, NJ — Combine a town with one of New Jersey’s best high school track programs (26 state titles), a midweek midsummer night, live music and pizza and you have the recipe for one of the highlights of the New Jersey running season, aptly named The Downtown Westfield 5K and Pizza Extravaganza. The 17th annual “Pizza Run,” as it’s nicknamed, starts at 7 p.m. on July 25 at the corner of East Broad and Elm Streets.

The race has been drawing north of 2,000 contestants for so many years that it seems difficult to remember that the first race in 2002 drew 883 finishers, thrilling the race directors, who were hopeful that they had a great idea but didn’t know what to expect.

The race is organized by the Downtown Westfield Corporation and was the brainchild of Alan DeRose, a past avid runner and former Chairman of the DWC.

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“He wanted to create an event which would showcase the vibrant downtown and beautiful residential areas,” said DWC Executive Director Sherry Cronin.

The run experienced phenomenal growth in its first three years, going from 893 runners and 250 pizzas for those runners the first year to 1,293 runners and 420 pizzas by its fourth year.

The increases in participation forced the organizers to change the course in 2007 for safety reasons.The original layout had the runners make the sharp left into Mindowaskin Park, but that was changed to the wider area at Euclid Avenue. That caused changes in the course further down the line, and runners who have done both claim the newer and current course is more difficult by about 10 seconds.

Both course records were set in 2004 by Running Company owner and former Villanova star Gene Mitchell (14:50) and his wife at the time, Amanda Mitchell in 17:21.

Race participation first broke the 2,000 mark in 2007, when 2004 finishers ran, and what was gratifying to Cronin was a steady increase since then. In 2017, the race had about 200 fewer runners than the year before, despite pleasant weather. Race organizer Mark Zenobia of On Your Mark Productions attributed the decrease in runners to the rough winter last year, when perhaps fewer people trained for the race.    

Constants of the race over the 17 years has been the ubiquity of Cronin, managing numerous tasks simultaneously, the flawless race organization led by race director Zenobia and a dedicated cadre of volunteers from numerous local organizations.

“This race could not have happened without the great volunteers and our dedicated sponsors,” said Cronin.

This year, the lead Sponsor is again Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey. The Platinum Sponsor is Trinitas Regional Medical Center and the Gold Sponsor is Stop & Shop.

Silver Sponsors are Overlook Medical Center and UBS.

Bronze Sponsors are Columbia Bank; Drew-Rogers; Elizabethtown Gas; Hehl & Hehl, P.C.; JackRabbit Westfield; JAG Physical Therapy; Kessler Rehabilitation Center; Lindabury, McCormick, Estabrook & Cooper; Merrill Lynch; Mosquito Shield; NJBEST New Jersey’s 529 College Savings Plan; RWJBarnabas Health; Spencer Savings Bank; Summit Medical Group; Vine Ripe Markets; Weichert, Realtors; Westfield Braces; and Westfield Pediatric Dental Group.

A Contributing Sponsor is Professional Physical Therapy and a Supporting Sponsor is REDCOM Design & Construction LLC. Money raised is earmarked for Downtown Westfield streetscape improvements such as new street lights, sidewalks, crosswalks and landscaping.

Registration for the race is online only at Practicehard.com with no online processing fee. The race fee is $35, with USATF members saving $3. Registration ends Monday July 23 at midnight. The first 2,500 entries receive a DWC 5K Tech T-shirt and the first 600 get DWC 5K caps.

In recent years, current and former members of the Westfield Track program have dominated the top 50 race finishers — 1997 Westfield High graduate Chris Tafelski was the top Westfield finisher in 2004. A first-year teacher at the time, Tafelski has taught science at Westfield High School for 15 years and has also become one of top cross country coaches in the state.

“It is a nice break from our summer training and a good way for the guys to get some midsummer competition,” said Tafelski, who now has two young children of his own. The young Tafelskis will likely join the huge group of finishers, he said: “They like to run and love pizza, so why not?”