As sunlight streaked across Chautauqua early Saturday morning, the scene was quite different from Chautauquans packing their cars to leave after a week at the Institution, or lazy coffee-accompanied walks around the grounds.
They had all assembled for a single purpose: to ring in another Chautauquan milestone with a gallop around the grounds. Nearly 900 men, women and children gathered in front of Sports Club to celebrate Chautauqua’s 140th birthday with the Old First Night Run/Walk.
“The Old First Night race is one of three or four events that, over the last 20 or 30 years, has become one of the key elements of Chautauqua,” said Paul Ritacco, a longtime Chautauquan. “It embodies what this place is all about: tradition, especially family tradition.”
The Old First Night Run/Walk/Swim attracts Chautauquans who love athletics, competition, exercise and T-shirts.
Peggy Ulasewicz, organizer of the OFN race, said she does not take the design of the vibrantly colored T-shirts lightly.
“Every time I’m out on the grounds, I’m looking for the inspiration for next season’s shirts,” she said.
Ulasewicz also takes pictures around the grounds and sends them to her friend, artist Dan Wintermantel, who creates the art for the T-shirts.
The rainbow of different OFN race shirts can be seen throughout the grounds every day of the season. Ulasewicz said seeing people still getting use out of the shirts is a good feeling.
The Old First Night Run/Walk has attracted hundreds of Chautauquans and athletes from across the county.
But there are some Chautauquans who value the third, and sometimes forgotten, aspect to the race: the swim.
The format is the same as the Old First Night walk. Athletes guess their time before they compete, and the contestant who finishes closest to their estimated time wins.
Anne Palomaki, a long-time Chautauquan and avid swimmer, brought the idea of the swim portion of the race to Chautauqua leadership in 2007.
“I stressed the fact that swimmers should be a part of the race,” Palomaki said. Those of us who love to swim would love to swim for the Chautauqua Fund.”