At 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, the Great American Relay to commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11 begins in Boston.
Before it ends on Oct. 19 in Santa Monica, Calif., the 38-day coast-to-coast relay will have covered more than 3,500 miles broken down into 415 stages across 18 states.
That includes a local presence on Sept. 20 with just a handful of runners signed up in lead and support positions to see the baton handed off from one leg to the next.
There’s still time to get on board, however, as a runner or as a contributor to the first responders and military charities the event is benefiting, according to race director Vince Varallo, who lives outside Philadelphia.
To sign up, donate or for information, visit the website www.greatamericanrelay.com or the Facebook page at The Great American Relay.
Each day of the relay starts at 6 a.m., and each stage of it has a designated start and end time with a baton passed from lead runner to lead runner. Each stage has one lead runner who carries the baton and up to 10 support runners. Runners can pick one or more stages to run.
Locally, there are five stages, each with the lead runner position filled. Two have no support runners registered; the others have one or two each.
Varallo explained the Great American Relay originated as an event out of the Boston Buddies Run Club he established in 2016 when a small group of runners needed motivation to start training for the Boston Marathon.
“I founded a running club, and it kind of gave birth to this event,” Varallo said in a recent phone interview. “It really was founded as a Facebook group for runners who ran the Boston Marathon, and it just evolved over the last four years. We have 13,000 members from all over the world — from Australia, Israel, Brazil, everywhere. It’s really amazing,” he said of the club that has raised more than $50,000 for charity in its brief history.
“The bulk of the runners are in the United States, and obviously last year we had the pandemic, and last year the idea to get people out there running and having fun and enjoying it again was to create this relay,” he said, noting 2020 was actually the first year for the Great American Relay. It, too, started in Boston and ended in California.
This year, however, the route is tweaked and the focus remembers an historic event while generating donations for three charities — the Green Beret Foundation; C.O.P.S., an acronym for Concerns of Police Survivors; and the Firefighter Five Foundation, founded by Steve Bender, a runner who designed the route. “It’s almost firehouse to firehouse. Every hand-off is either a fire house or police department or some public building,” Varallo said.
“We did switch it up a little bit this year. I decided to change it because of the 20-year anniversary of 9-11, we’re more focused on that, that’s why we’re starting on 9-11, and we’re going past the three main areas that were affected by 9-11,” Varallo explained. “We’re going by the World Trade Center, we’re running down to the Pentagon and then we run to Shanksville, Pa., so we changed the route a little bit so it went through there.”
The relay went through northern Ohio last year on a route from Pittsburgh to Cleveland to Chicago.
“This year we’re doing a southern route,” he said of the relay that goes through Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.
There are two ways that the relay generates money, according to Varallo. “A percentage of the registration fee ($45) goes toward the charities and then people can also fund-raise on social media themselves. There are separate pages for each charity, and you can have your friends donate directly to that page rather than register. If you don’t want to run, people can just donate.”
Ideally, a lead runner would have the company of up to 10 support runners, Varallo said.
“The support runners are there to make it more of a group activity. It’s funner when you run in a group. Support runners are there just to help with the lead runners with logistics, and it’s easier to have one or two people to drive back to the start, bringing water, etc. It’s more just for camaraderie,” he said.
Runners registering will discover how many miles a stage involves and the suggested pace.
“This was a big topic last year,” he said. “The pace is more there for scheduling purposes. We were pretty much never on time,” he laughed. “Some people ran faster. Some people ran slower. But we don’t run overnight so it’s like every night we stop, and then we start up at 6 o’clock the next morning so it resets every day. We’re not too far off the designated times that are listed on the website,” he added.
All runners get a Great American Relay running singlet, and instead of medals, lead runners get red batons while support runners get green batons.
“If you sign up, depending on what distance you’re running, I recommend going out there to the route you’re going to run and at least run it once just to get familiar with the area and the streets and the location you’re at,” Varallo advised. “We send out e-mails, we’re communicating with the runners but if you sign up as a lead, we connect you with the person before you and after you so that typically this worked out really well,” he said. “The runners exchanged phone numbers so they would say where they were and about what time they expected to hand the baton off, and the support runners we would send individual e-mails out to the support and lead and connect them together so they coordinate rides and water and some of them would hang out afterward. A lot of them really bonded with each other and became friends after that. It was really fun to see,” he said.
Varallo, who works for a software company, said he’ll be part of this year’s relay as he was last year.
“I follow the course in my car from Boston to California so I kind of help with logistics, and I have everyone’s contact information so I am making sure the next runners know when the hand-off is expected. I will call them,” Varallo said, noting he has water and Gatorade for the runners and that he takes pictures and makes posts on social media.
A runner for 11 years, Varallo said the relay last year and this year have emotional value.
“Last year when the pandemic hit, I just thought the mental health was being affected by a lot of people in my group, and I could see people becoming disappointed. It seemed like a very low spot in their life last year because they were used to having events, and getting together and all that kind of shut down so I really put this together for the runners to get back together and do something at least safe from the pandemic level. I did it for my group just because we needed something to get ourselves through this pandemic, and it really blossomed into something I didn’t think it was going to turn out to be,” he continued.
“As I went through the entire country last year so many people were just so excited to be able to get out there and do a run so a lot of them said it was their first time to be around people in six months. It was just really exciting, and it brought out their families cheering for them, and they had cowbells and some of the people had fire engines lined up and were blowing their sirens for us. It was just really uniting, and it wasn’t necessarily doing anything other than having a good time, and it gave people a little break from reality,” he said.
While this year is a mental health initiative also, it’s an opportunity to appreciate first responders.
“We’ve got a lot going on in this country right now. It’s the 20-year anniversary of 9-11, and I have family members who are police officers, family members in the military, so I wanted to do something for them and friends as well on the front lines for us. It just tied together nicely, supporting the police, the firefighters and the military,” Varallo said.
Asked what his goal was for the relay, Varallo responded, “I don’t necessarily have a goal for the numbers per se but more for having a good time and having a great experience. I would love to see all the spots have a lead runner. My No. 1 goal is to make sure we don’t break the chain. When we broke the chain last year, I would get out there and run it myself. I did seven legs last year.
“It’s just a fun event trying to unite people across the country,” he said.
Three of the local runners reflected on their upcoming participation in the once-in-a-lifetime event.
Annie Wolfe, the daughter of Roger and Linda Hilty of Steubenville, found out about the Great American Relay from her mother.
“We both enjoy fitness challenges and recently completed the Oregon Trail challenge to walk/run 2,000 miles, divided between us as a team,” explained Wolfe, who lives outside Cleveland with her husband of nearly 15 years, Justin, and their three children, Ryan, Allison and Emily.
“When I read about the relay, I thought the idea was neat, and the backing of our first responders and military was a great reason to run for a cause,” she said.
“It was also cool to see that the race goes right through Wintersville/Steubenville,” she said. “I love coming back to the ‘Ville and being with my family, so I get to do that and participate in a fun race.”
Wolfe will be running 7.9 miles from Wintersville United Methodist Church to the Bloomingdale Fire Department, tackling Reeds Mill and passing the Jefferson County Joint Vocational School along the way.
“The route seems a bit challenging as there are a lot of hills, but I’m always up for a good challenge,” she said. “I’m going to try and hold the suggested pace (9-minute miles), but I might fall a bit short due to the hills, and I’ve been struggling with a knee issue.”
Wolfe intends to check out the route ahead of time. “I’ll probably just drive it and maybe walk a bit but in general I’m familiar with the route since I’ve driven it so many times in my life,” she said.
A 2001 graduate of Indian Creek High School, Wolfe graduated from the University of Akron in 2006 with a bachelor’s of science degree in biomedical engineering. She works as a quality assurance manager at a contract manufacturer of medical devices and med device components.
Running has been a big part of her life, from track during high school — the longer distances (800, 1600, and 3200) — and throughout college.
“In 2009 and 2010 I really got back into running and ran the Cleveland half marathon in the spring of 2010,” she said. “After that I took a break, and life happened — a full-time job, home ownership and all the projects that come with it and three kids. In late 2019, I decided to make me a priority again and started working on my nutrition and activity to lose weight and get back into shape.”
She started running again in July 2020, her ultimate goal to run the Cleveland half marathon again in 2021, but COVID-19 nixed that since the race was postponed.
“So instead, I signed up for the Disney half in February since it was virtual (and had cool medals),” Wolfe explained. “I ran a few shorter races in the late fall/winter and then ran the half marathon on my treadmill. It was cool but not as fun as live racing. I’ve run three half marathons so far this year with plans to conquer at least one more,” she said, speculating that a full marathon is likely on the horizon for 2022.
Wolfe said she tries to run 20 to 30 miles per week and stay consistent.
“Running is my escape. I run not only to stay in shape, but because I really enjoy it. When I run trails I love to listen to loud music and enjoy the scenery. When I run on the treadmill, which is often with my schedule, I like to watch movies to pass the time. I try to sign up for a race every month or so just to be amongst fellow runners and to push myself to get better and improve with each race. It gives me something to work toward,” Wolfe said.
“My oldest daughter, Allison, 7, has also taken a liking to running and wants to run with me. We have run two 5Ks together as I pushed my youngest daughter, Emily, 4, in a stroller. We have plans to run a few more 5Ks before the year is over,” commented Wolfe, who is looking forward to the relay.
“The setup of the relay is quite neat and well planned. I hope it goes smoothly for us Steubenville/Wintersville/Bloomingdale runners. I’ve asked a few friends, but no one is keen on the mileage and pace for my leg.”
If no support runners sign up for her stage, Wolfe won’t sweat it.
“I don’t mind running solo, and I know my parents will show up along the way to cheer me on. This run is for all the first responders and military personnel who show up every day to help, serve and protect us. Thank you to all of them for all they have done and continue to do every day.”
Melanie Wherry Owen of Cincinnati, formerly of Toronto, is the lead runner for stage 106, 11.6 miles from the Bloomingdale Fire Department to the Cadiz Fire Department.
She learned about the relay through a Facebook post, noticing that the course runs through Jefferson County where she was born and raised.
She felt motivated to participate.
“It’s been 20 years since that terrifying day of 9/11/2001,” Owen commented. “I’m running to pay tribute to the military for our freedoms and to remember those people who died that day as well as the first responders. It is a way to unite our country.”
Owen has driven the course, believing “it will be a bit challenging with some hills and the humidity to run a 10-minute-per-mile pace, but I’m going to give it my best effort to stay on pace.” She plans to run part of the beginning and end of the course. “I don’t know this particular area as well as Steubenville and Wintersville,” she said.
“I am dedicating my portion of the relay to the local first responders in Bloomingdale and Cadiz,” said Owen, the daughter of John Wherry and the late Frances Wherry.
She is a 1988 Toronto High School graduate, 1992 West Liberty State College graduate with a bachelor’s of science degree in medical technology and a 2006 Northern Kentucky graduate with a master’s of science degree in technology management. She and her husband, Scott Owen, a 1983 THS graduate, have one daughter, Lauren Brooke Owen.
Owen started her career working as a toxicology specialist in Pittsburgh prior to relocating to Philadelphia to work at Roxborough Memorial Hospital as a medical technologist for four years. With her husband’s job transfer, the family moved to Cincinnati where she found her way into pharmaceutical research. She has spent more than 24 years dedicating her work to finding a better treatment or cure for many different therapeutic indications. Over the past seven years, her focus has been in oncology and hematology.
Owen currently serves as a senior director in the Early Phase Oncology Group at PPD where she is leading the way with implementing new innovative approaches to conducting clinical trials and bringing new therapies and hope to cancer patients. In 2018, she was nominated for the Healthcare Businesswoman of the year Luminary Award in Oncology through her employer. She credits her education she has received from Toronto City Schools as providing the knowledge base and discipline to further elevate her education and advancement in such a rewarding career.
When Owen isn’t working, she spends time doing what she loves — running.
She ran track during the Toronto school days as well as cross country at West Liberty State College. Owen has run more than 50 marathons and in the past six years has switched to ultra running, which is any distance beyond 26.2 miles, which is a marathon.
In 2019, she was selected to be part of the 100 elite runners from around the world to compete in the Badwater 135 ultramarathon, which is deemed to be the “world’s toughest foot race,” covering 135 miles nonstop from Death Valley to Mount Whitney, Calif., in the middle of July.
She finished the race in 44 hours, 56 minutes and 33 seconds and became one of the 200 women from around the world to complete the course. Her favorite motivating quote is “Baby Steps can Move Mountains.”
Everyone should be patient and take those baby steps when going after their goals, according to Owen.
On her 51st birthday this past October, she ran a 100-mile virtual race in her neighborhood to raise funds for the Toronto Helping Hands Food Bank.
She said the gesture was her way of giving back to the community that has given so much to her and her family, the place she still calls home.
Bruce Harris of Weirton read about the Great American Relay in the Weirton Daily Times and the Herald-Star and decided it was something he wouldn’t mind doing. His wife signed him up.
The retiree of Weirton Steel will be a support runner on stage 103, leaving the Hanover (Pa.) Fire Department, at 6 a.m. His destination is the Steubenville Fire Department on North Street, an 11.9-mile leg. The lead runner, Michael Moran, he doesn’t know.
Harris is no stranger to competitive running and has been a familiar face on the running circuit for decades.
He’s participated in 63 marathons, and has done 42 of what was originally the Elby’s Distance Run turned Big Boy 20K Classic, now the Ogden Newspapers Half Marathon in Wheeling, a racing tradition of the Memorial Day holiday weekend.
The inaugural one was held in 1977 and won by Bill Rodgers, an American runner and former American record holder in the marathon who is best known for his victories in the Boston Marathon and the New York City Marathon in the late 1970s.
“I have done 42 of the Elby’s Ogden race, and I’m actually in the Hall of Fame in the Class of 2011,” Harris said, noting he missed the first one.
In 1978, though, that would be his first first race ever.
“I missed the very first year and another one,” Harris said. “Our daughter was graduating from Boston College School of Law and she had called and said, ‘I got a problem,’ and I said, ‘What could that be?’ because she was graduating top of her class but she goes, ‘The commencement is the same day as the Elby race,’ and I said, ‘That is a problem,’” he said with a laugh. “But that’s the second time I missed it.”
The Wheeling race is always a challenging one with its hilly course, but Harris singled out the Ultimate Road Test, a 14.9-mile run from Cadiz to Hopedale and back as another memorable one.
“What a race that is,” he said.
Harris runs other race distances, too, including 5Ks.
“If there’s a race, I’m usually trying to get to it unless something else is going on,” he said.
The relay leg will be unique in its own way, because it will be dark when it starts for one thing. And it involves crossing a bridge.
Harris is interested to run the stage in observance of 9/11.
“It’s something I just remember like it happened yesterday,” he said, noting he was on afternoon turn that day at the mill. “I was watching the ‘Today Show’ with Matt Lauer and he was outside and they started looking down from the road and then they flashed those cameras over and you saw the smoke starting to come up,” he said.
“It’s something to do,” he said of the relay, “and it’s a good cause, to raise some money. I figure what the heck.
“It’s going to be interesting.”
“It’s kind of hard for the older runners. I am 68 and as you get older, your times slow down a little bit and I know some people train for Boston and they have canceled Boston a couple years and it is harder as you get older to do a decent marathon.”