SEBRING — Chet Brojek doesn’t know where the time has gone.
Twenty years doesn’t seem all that long ago, he says, which was when he first spearheaded the inaugural Firecracker 5K.
“It was 1994, and I was still teaching at Avon Park High School,“ Brojek said. “I was fairly close to retirement, and I wanted to establish an annual race that could raise money for the Red Devils cross-country program.”
And what started with around 80-100 participants has grown to accommodate crowds of well over 300. It’s easily one of the Heartland’s most popular races.
“At one time it was the second biggest race we put on,” Brojek said. “We hope to have around 300 runners this year.”
The July 4 5K has garnered a reputation as a freewheeling event. With Brojek leading the charge in his trademark red, white, and blue top hat, runners often compete in patriotic garb, and some even don full costumes.
“We want to celebrate the nation’s birthday,” Brojek said. “We’re lucky to live in a country that allows us to do things like this — so why not have a little fun.”
Hosted at Highlands Hammock State Park, the location has served Brojek well during his years as coach, athlete, and race director. This year’s event is set to kickoff at 7:30 a.m.
“I used to run out there all the time,” he said. “And when Avon Park hosted things like district meets, we would hold them there. It’s secluded, away from traffic, and it’s got trails perfect for distance running.”
Like in years past, the proceeds from the 2014 Firecracker 5K will benefit the Devils cross-country program. While financing a sports like cross-country may seem cheap to an outsider, it’s more costly than it appears.
“There’s a lot of primary needs, like uniforms, shoes, and travel costs,” Brojek said, who also served as Avon Park’s athletic director from 1980 to 2003. “Shoes and jerseys that used to cost $80 are now way over $100. And unfortunately, cross-country meets aren’t big revenue generators like basketball and football.”
Even 5Ks have their overhead costs.
“Getting things like T-shirts, refreshments, and trophies for over 100 runners, all of that adds up,” Brojek said. “But we’ve got a great group of sponsors and they really work hard to cover the initial expenses.”
Thanks to the Firecracker’s success, the local running scene has exploded over the last 25 years.
“I think it and the Turkey Trot have done a lot to raise people’s interest in the sport,” Brojek said. “And I see a lot of my former athletes out there, too. What they do is, they run a little bit in college, and then stop running when they graduate. Then when they’re 30, they start thinking that’s old, and they start running again.”
Despite a hectic summer schedule, which includes the Summer Series 5K, Brojek is confident this year’s Firecracker will have another stellar turnout.
“We’ve got a lot of community support,” he said. “And even with the other 5Ks and the Firecracker being held on a Friday, we’re looking forward to another big race.”