In the summer of 1999, a few members of the Northport Running Club were out training on the route of the Great Cow Harbor 10k -- the popular, 6.2-mile race that attracts 5,000 runners every September.

"We were talking about how helpful it is to run the course before you do the race," recalled Will Fodor of East Northport, one of the runners. "I said, 'Maybe we should help other people get ready for it.' "

Fodor approached the club with the idea of holding group training runs, open to anyone, on the Cow Harbor course in the weeks leading up to the race. (This year it's on Sept. 20). They decided to offer these "prep" runs on six consecutive Wednesday evenings leading up to the race, starting at the Laurel Avenue School in Northport, where the 10k begins.

The first night, 63 people showed up. The next week it was up to 150. "I said, 'Wow, we may be on to something here," Fodor recalls.

Fifteen years later, the Northport Running Club's Great Cow Harbor 10k Training Assistance Program has become a must-do series for those planning to compete in the race. Averaging about 200 participants per run, the six-week program, which is free, begins with a brief talk by organizer Mike Roux before the participants -- organized into 10 pace groups, based on ability levels -- tackle the course.

The first mile is downhill; the second mile includes the brutal James Street Hill. The middle miles undulate, before one more sharp uphill onto Main Street and a gradual downhill finish into the Village of Northport.

Runners now come for the training assistance even if they're not planning to race. Gabe Hickey, a veteran marathoner from Bethpage, makes a point of running at least a few of the six Cow Harbor Assistance Runs every summer, regardless of whether he's racing Cow Harbor in September (which, this year, he is planning to do).

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"Running that course will help you for anything," he says. He also admits the training runs are a good excuse for socializing: Hickey and his training partner, Jack Hanley of Babylon, often grab a burger and a beer in the village afterward. "It's a lovely summer evening," Hickey says. "It satisfies so many things. You get a good workout, you feel like you've accomplished something. Then you have a nice night out. And it's all in a beautiful setting."

The six-week 2014 Great Cow Harbor 10k Training Assistance Program starts tomorrow at 6:15 p.m. at the Laurel Avenue School in Northport. See:

For info on the 37th Great Cow Harbor 10k: