Local Road Race Organizers Meet Challenges Created By Pandemic

Jordan's Run in 2019. EXPRESS FILE

Ellen Neipris has always wanted to compete in Ellen’s Run, the annual 5K that has been a staple on the East End road race circuit for years.

There were plenty of reasons she was drawn to it—the race’s namesake, Ellen Hermanson, was her older cousin (as well as Hermanson’s sister, Julie Ratner, who is in charge of the race), although Hermanson died of breast cancer before Neipris, who is several years younger, could really get to know her.

Neipris is also a fitness and nutrition coach, and enjoys running, and supporting women who strive to take care of their health, a tenet that is at the core of the Ellen’s Run mission. The race — which typically draws close to 1,000 runners on race day in Southampton Village in August — raises money to support the Ellen Hermanson Breast Health Center at Southampton Hospital, and also helps fund other local organizations that support women battling breast cancer in a variety of ways. Because she lives in Brooklyn, and had difficulty making the trip to the East End to compete in the race, Neipris never could made it work.

Ironically, a global pandemic finally created the opportunity for Neipris to participate. Like many other road races this summer, Ellen’s Run was held “virtually,” because of social distancing measures required by the coronavirus.

Races that moved to a virtual model typically gave registrants a week to complete a 5K on their own, wherever they were. Many of the organizers still sent bib numbers and T-shirts to participants in an effort to recreate as much of the energy and spirit of race day as possible. While in-person races are the ideal, and draw more participants and thus more money, both organizers and participants found some unexpected silver linings to the changes wrought by the virus. Neipris’s story is a perfect example.

She encouraged a group of 10 women she trains online — most of them in their 40s, 50s and even 60s — to join the race, even those who were inexperienced runners. While they live in different areas of the country, Neipris said it was a good feeling to support Ellen’s Run and feel a spirit of solidarity with the women she trains around a cause they all find meaningful. There was even a breast cancer survivor among their group.

“Part of the reason I do this [fitness] group and like doing coaching is to help women take charge of their health,” she said. “We’re at a time when we’re faced with losing control of being in charge of our health, and Julie has provided such amazing services, so I like supporting her and women’s health in general.”

For her part, Ms. Ratner said she was pleasantly surprised by just how well the community responded to the virtual run, and happier still that it created the kind of opportunity it did for her cousin.

“We reached audiences we’d never reached before,” she said, adding that there were runners from as far away as California who did the race. Ratner said the virtual version drew around 400 registrants, what she considered strong numbers for a virtual event.

The 2019 Ellen’s Run. Express file

Ratner was so pleased, in fact, that she hopes to include a virtual component every year going forward, even when the race returns to its normal form. Having runners compete on their own over courses they measure themselves means there’s no way to provide accurate timing and declare a true order of finish, but that doesn’t matter much to the majority of runners for whom the spirit of the race and the cause it supports is the primary reason they show up. Neipris said the ability level of the women in her group varied, with some running and some simply walking the course, but all sharing the spirit of camaraderie that comes with championing a good cause together.

While the virtual aspect of the race was a revelation for Ratner and Ellen’s Run, other organizers are familiar with the opportunity a virtual component can open for a local road race.

JoAnn Lyles has put together Jordan’s Run in Sag Harbor for the past three years, honoring her son, Lance Corporal Jordan C. Haerter, a native of Sag Harbor and graduate of Pierson High School who was killed in action in Iraq in 2008 at the age of 19. He was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross.

In recent years, Jordan’s Run attracted runners who participated in what they called their “satellite” version, most notably a group of 10 Marines who complete the race at their base in Pendleton, California, each year. With the race going completely virtual this year, there was a drop in participation, which usually is close to or more than 400 runners.

This year, 250 runners registered, and the spirit of the race was still alive, even as far away as Japan. Fellow Marine Machel Burke, who served in Iraq with Haerter in the 1st battalion, 9th Marines, and is now stationed in Japan, completed the race there in under 27 minutes, with a Jordan’s Run bib number affixed to the front of his tank top.

Marine Machel Burke, who did Jordan’s Run virtually from Japan.

Burke completed the run along the seawall at his Marine Corps base in Iwakuni, Japan, right before sunset.

“The scenic view of the sun setting in the distance behind the mountains while running along the seawall is a view from the movies,” he said.

Burke had always wanted to do the race, he said, to honor the life of Haerter, who was his next door neighbor in the barracks while they served together in Bravo Company 3rd Platoon in Iraq.

“When I heard about the virtual race, I signed up quickly,” he said. “It’s the least I can do to run in remembrance of someone who sacrificed his life for others to live.”

There were runners from Wyoming and California who completed the race as well, and Lyles said she will always continue to provide the virtual option for those who can’t make it to Sag Harbor in the summer.

Going virtual worked out well, considering the circumstances, for races like Ellen’s Run and Jordan’s Run, and the Shelter Island 5K — which typically follows the more highly attended Shelter Island 10K — will follow the same model, holding the race on October 17.

Organizers of both the Shelter Island 10K and 5K are still trying to determine the best way forward with the 10K race, which typically takes place in the summer and was canceled.

The Shelter Island 10K stands out from other local road races, not only because of its long tradition and high attendance, but also because the race draws some of the top celebrities in the running world, including former Olympians and many of the most competitive distance runners in the world.

Registration is open for the 5K on October 17, and runners who register will receive both a bib number and a buff, and then will be asked to submit their times online when they complete the 5K. Race organizer Mary Ellen Adipietro said she and her fellow organizers were determined to keep the race on the schedule to support the North Fork Breast Health Coalition and Lucia’s Angels.

“Whatever we can do to keep supporting those organizations is a good thing,” she said. “In our 21st year, we certainly wanted to try to raise funds that can help families. You don’t stop getting sick because of COVID, and unfortunately there’s even more need right now.”

Putting on the 10K in this calendar year is, of course, a battle even more uphill than some of the course’s notorious hills, but according to Adipietro, it hasn’t been ruled out yet.

Elite Feats, the race timing company that the 10K uses and that does road races in the New York City area, has begun experimenting with doing in-person races in New York, sending runners out in small, socially distanced waves, and requiring masks to be on at the start and finish of the race. The possibility remains that something like this could be achieved later this year, but nothing is set yet.

“Right now, we’re not at any level to tell if we’re going to have a race or not,” Adipietro said.

For now, Adipietro is trying to do what everyone is these days—make the best of a tough situation.

“You’ve got to deal with what you have,” she said. “We’d love to be together for sure, but you do what you can do.”

For some races, the answer was to simply cut their losses and wait until next year. That was the case for the Southampton Rotary 8K, the annual race in Southampton Village that draws a high number of runners who enjoy the course that winds through the estate section and along the ocean beaches in the village, and benefits the Southampton Rotary’s Scholarship and Endowment Fund, which has given more than 150 scholarships to Southampton High School seniors over the years.

After the race, typically held on the July Fourth weekend, was canceled, the organizers toyed with the idea of doing a virtual race or holding an in-person race in the fall, but it eventually became clear that neither option was workable.

Organizers Paul Conroy, Fred VanderWerven, Liz Burns, Kevin O’Connell and Scott Rose said they determined that either a virtual version of the race or an in-person version on Columbus Day weekend would not draw enough sponsors and participants to offset the cost of putting it on, and they felt trying to do an in-person race was still too risky. Conroy added that he and his fellow organizers are hopeful that the race can return to its usual form in 2021, to celebrate its 30th year.

Despite the disappointments and setbacks, the efforts of the larger East End community to embrace the philosophy Adipietro alluded to has been a good thing to see for race organizers, and has given them a moral boost during a time when the financial boost they usually see is diminished.

“The thing I’ve learned through this pandemic is how incredibly special our community is,” Ratner said, adding that she greatly appreciates the support people provided even as many are struggling financially. “We’re so lucky to live here in the Hamptons, where we have access to fresh air and water and sun. During a time like this, that can help center us and make us a bit more sane.”