AthHalf runners give it their best.
Get ready, Athens! This Sunday morning, a record 2,900-plus participants of the AthHalf Half Marathon could be running (or walking) down your street, and they need encouragement.
“People cheering along the race course definitely helped me enjoy the race more and distracted me from the pain,” says 2011 runner Laura Rhicard.
My first morning as a resident of Athens, I set my alarm and walked out to the street to cheer on the AthHalf runners because a friend who was running in it told me to. I figured if she and a bunch of other people were running 13.1 miles in the cold for a good cause, the least I could do was walk 20 feet and clap my hands for a few minutes. What I walked into was a neighborhood party of upbeat music, hot drinks, warm muffins, festive signs, enthusiastic cheering and the appreciative smiles of exhausted runners as they trod by. I even got a high-five from a smiling Bertis Downs as he ran past me.
What I didn’t know was just how much support these runners were giving the community in return.
“Proceeds go to AthFest Educates!, which supports music education in the region,” says AthFest board member Julie Roth. “Last year our big project was to donate instruments to the UGA/Clarke County School District Strings Program, so we bought cellos and violins and donated them to Clarke County School District for use in their strings program so that children who couldn’t afford them could use the instruments without having to rent or buy them.”
According to Roth, this past fall semester AthFest Educates! also provided teachers with between $10,000 to $12,000 in mini-grants for music and arts programs in schools for anything from classroom instruments to a play at the Morton Theatre. They also pay Athens musicians (another way of directly helping the Athens music scene) to go into the schools for a lunchroom or classroom performance, with discussion and possible student participation.
“Before we hadn’t had a lot of money to give away,” says Roth, “but the half marathon [through runner registration and sponsorships] has helped us raise a lot more money, so we’re now able to have a bigger impact.”
The half marathon has also had an impact on the neighborly festivities along the route as it winds its way through town.
Two years ago, Anna Dondero’s husband and sister were running the AthHalf, so she’d planned to cheer from her porch on the course. “Then it occurred to me that many people had loved ones running, but in order to see them run by, family members and friends would have to go to some impersonal street corner, and stand in the chilly half-morning light,” she explains. “So, I invited friends and neighbors to join us on the porch and in the yard to cheer on the runners. And, in the morning, people want coffee. And coffee goes well with muffins and chocolate croissants. And thus, a party was born.”
Runners Scott Simpson and Eric Vaughn took AthHalf motivation to the next level.
“The first year the half marathon passed by our house, we got up in the dark and dragged out our stereo system on the front lawn, and put out some signs we had quickly made the night before the race,” says Vaughn. “The runners loved the blasting dance music and signs as they ran by, and all our neighbors came out to cheer on all the racers. So, last year we decided to do it again, except we mixed a super-pumped dance mix playlist and constructed huge banners lifted high from cut bamboo stakes from our back yard. We also rented a helium tank and blew up tons of red balloons to greet the half marathoners as they sprinted by. We haven’t decided what we are going to do this year, but we still have time to figure it out!”
“I’ll always remember Cobbham with its live band and hand-painted signs every few feet, and the guy dressed in a tux, sitting on a throne in the front yard of a house on Milledge, toasting us runners with a glass of red wine,” says Rhicard. “Even though I, unfortunately, am not running this year, I’ll be out there cheering at the end of my street, returning the favor.”
“It’s just so uplifting and entertaining to see all those signs,” says runner Julie Darnell. “It’s so much fun to see everyone out having a good time, cheering on the runners. Last year, as we approached Cobb Street on Milledge, you could hear a band playing, and they had a whole line of people giving high-fives as you rounded the bend going onto Cobb Street. It’s fun to see the turnouts in the various neighborhoods. And I always love the music along the course. The first year as we hit one of the last hills coming into downtown from the river, there was this lone guy with a boom box playing ‘Sweet Home Alabama.’ Loved it!”
This year, the half marathon committee arranged music throughout the route, ensuring the runners will keep the beat from DJ Ted Kuhn, Red Ravine, Old Smokey, Kate Wright, Death of the Peanut King and the Cedar Shoals Marching Band. After a final lap around the Sanford Stadium hedges, they’ll end up at the finish line in a party with celebrity starter and award presenter Olympic medalist Reese Hoffa and the funky, indie-soul band—appropriately named—The HEAP.
“After running for so long and trotting along, I know how much that means to the runners, and how it makes people want to come back the next year and bring their friends,” says Roth. “So, having that support along the way really makes the race successful.”
For the good of our schools’ music and arts programs, whether it’s a neighborhood party or a lone cheerer on an empty stretch of course where the runners need it the most, it appears Athenians are ready to meet these runners more than half way.
For more information, visit www.athfest.com. At 6:30 a.m. on Sunday, runners, volunteers and spectators are also invited to come to First Presbyterian Church downtown prior to the race for a brief service and a warm place to enjoy coffee and hospitality.