Montana Women’s Run continues tradition by going virtual amid pandemic
The Montana Women’s Run has never been canceled in its 39-year history, and in the wake of COVID-19, event organizers and participants still took to the streets and celebrated virtually.
While the virus kept families and friends from gathering in downtown Billings, Montana Women’s Run board members decided to take advantage of its virtual platform, which has been used for out-of-state runners in previous years.
They encouraged registered participants to walk or run 2 or 5 miles around their neighborhoods either on Saturday or whenever they had time.
“You can’t have a year where you don’t have the race,” said Ekkie Wedul, coordinator for Montana Women’s Run. “So we switched it to the virtual race where they can do it wherever and whenever they want to.”
Friends and families who completed the run posted a photo of where they were walking or running on the Montana Women’s Run Facebook page and Instagram page.
To keep up the spirit of the run, the organization held contests with prizes that encouraged women to send photos of where they were training and where they ran for the event.
Normally, about 7,000 or so people participate in the event every year. This year about 4,700 people registered, but Wedul said she was grateful for how many wanted to continue the tradition.
Wedul hopes to bring 10,000 runners to the 40th annual Montana Women’s Run next year, if the public health department allows by then.
Event participants Sarah Lord and Bonnie Ayre decided to plan 2-mile and 5-mile routes for people to take in their neighborhoods while maintaining social distancing guidelines. Lord placed a route around Pioneer Park on Saturday, decorated with balloons and sidewalk chalk messages encouraging runners to get to the finish line.
Ayre and her neighbor Sue Dow coordinated and made a route through Josephine Crossing and Norm’s Island. The routes were not affiliated with the Montana Women’s Run nonprofit or event.
Near Pioneer Park, runners dressed in red Montana Women’s Run T-shirts dotted along Virginia Lane and Poly Drive in the sunny, spring-like weather on Saturday.
“Just getting our Women’s Run T-shirts and knowing that we’re still going to be able to go do this and that there’s sort of an energy around it, is actually kind of giving us a small sense of normalcy,” Lord said. “This is what we always do the Saturday before Mother’s Day.”
Other than not being able to meet in downtown Billings, Wedul said that the organization has had to pivot and change things last minute due to the virus. Rather than having participants pick up their T-shirts and race numbers, all of the packages had to be mailed, and some women weren’t able to get their shirts in time for Saturday.
The organization’s ‘getting started’ clinics, which are designated days for women to train for the run on Rocky Mountain College’s track, were also canceled this year.
The event is a long time coming, since planning for the Montana Women’s Run starts in the fall every year, Wedul said.
However, Wedul believed that more people out of state registered this year so they could participate at home.
“We’re kind of amazed at how many people have stayed with us,” Wedul said.
Tricia Jansen, of Billings, walked the 2-mile trek around Pioneer Park with her two young daughters, Rylee and Addison. Jansen has participated in almost all of the runs since 2007 and loves getting her daughters involved.
Jansen said she misses being a part of a large group of women runners.
“It’s bittersweet,” Jansen said. “I’m super blessed that they’re still doing it, even though we’re all not together.”
Debbie Sundberg, who’s participated in the run since 1983, walked with her sister-in-law and a few other friends on Saturday while keeping their distance.
“The reason the race ever started was to get people to enjoy a healthy lifestyle and to get out,” Sundberg said. “The virtual race allows that to happen too. I think Montanans are pretty determined to make life real.”
Despite all the changes, Chelsea Dana was named the winner of the annual Pat Jaffray Inspiration Award. The award is named after Jaffray, a long-time Montana Women’s Run participant and board member, who died in 2017.
Dana is a founding member of the Yellowstone Valley Distance Project and was the motivation behind the 2019 Billings to Boston push that saw eight women from Billings qualify for and compete together in the Boston Marathon.
“(Pat Jaffray) loved the Women’s Run for all the right reasons and she was such a special and positive person,” Dana said. “She was a woman that I looked up to.”
Wedul said that the organization still plans on donating money raised for local programs that focus on women’s and children’s health and fitness, like the YWCA, the Billings Clinic Foundation, Billings YMCA and more. In 2019, the nonprofit donated over $100,000.