Runners to your marks, get set, go!
This has become a beloved sentiment among people young and old throughout Michiana who look forward to lacing up their shoes and completing a 3.1-mile feat during one of the area’s many 5K races. However, this spring, as several organizations were in the final planning stages of their signature events, an unknown competitor entered the race making the finish line seem all but out of reach.
Girls on the Run of Southwest Michigan, whose mission is to inspire girls in third through eighth grade to be joyful, healthy and confident using a curriculum which creatively integrates running, was four weeks into their season when schools closed with little to no notice.
“We were moving full speed ahead into our season and had to make a hard pivot when we learned of the many shutdowns happening across the state,” says Tess Carragher, executive director of Girls on the Run of Southwest Michigan. “We held out hope for a while that our race would still happen, but in mid-April we realized we needed to come up with a new plan. When we began looking at alternative options for our 5K, we quickly realized that Girls on the Run already had a good foundation which would morph well into the virtual space as our races aren’t timed and emphasize completion over competition.”
Similarly, Domestic and Sexual Abuse Services were just weeks away from what would have been their fifth annual 5K when they were forced to make the same difficult decision — cancel the event or find another way to engage runners.
“One of our team members who ran at both the collegiate and olympic trial level suggested a virtual 5K event,” says Deborah Hackworth, interim executive director of DASAS. “We didn’t know exactly what it would look like but we knew we didn’t have much to lose. Either we canceled the event all together and raised no money to support our organization, or we tried to do things differently.”
Planning a virtual event of this size certainly provided its fair share of hurdles to overcome, but it also opened the door for runners from across the country, and even the globe, to join in on the fun. Girls on the Run of Southwest Michigan had participants from 11 different states, spanning the country from Maine to California, cross their virtual finish line. DASAS’ virtual 5K stretched all the way to Alaska with one participant who submitted a photo with her running buddy, an Alaskan sled dog. Both races were also extended over the course of several days.
“By not hosting the race on a single day like we have in years past, it helped broaden our reach and people were able to join in at a time that was convenient for them,” Deb says.
While so many aspects of the race looked different this year, organizers still sought ways to foster connection among participants and supporters. Turning to social media, they asked runners to submit photos during their run or after they crossed the finish line.
“Being able to see so many people on social media having fun and enjoying themselves was very uplifting and a real bright spot for our girls,” Tess says. “It helped remind us what we will all come back to eventually.”
In an effort to keep with the other time honored traditions that make 5K races such a memorable event, Girls on the Run mailed all 800 girls and 200 community members the iconic number one race bib and asked participants to wear it while out running in the community.
“It was really neat to hear stories of people who saw someone wearing the race bib and cheered them on from a distance,” Tess says. “I think we were all on a bit of a digital overload, so these small, tangible interactions between participants really helped lift the girls up and connect everyone.”
DASAS sent medals and plaques to the top finishers in each age category and Girls on the Run also mailed certificates to everyone who completed the race.
At a time in the nation’s history which was difficult for so many, race organizers were overwhelmed by the amount of support they received from runners, community members, and local sponsors — all of whom helped raise money in support of the important work these nonprofits do throughout the community.
“We were very impressed with all of our sponsors who understood the circumstances and still wanted to participate and support us,” Deb says. “This experience reminded me about the power of community and not giving up. When people are committed to a cause, and not just an event, they will still come together in support. Knowing we had community members both locally and across the county using their feet to stomp out sexual assault sent a very powerful message.”

Submitted photography