Last Saturday morning at Peterson Park, members of the Lakeland Runners Club got together for only the second time since February 2020. The only other meeting was last November, for the election of officers for this year.
The gathering Saturday was an informal run and a breakfast. Club president Sarah Kozul was there and I asked her to tell me about the previous year and the challenges imposed by the pandemic.
The first challenge was the 2020 Mayfaire 5K. “Race planning was moving forward at full speed when the news of potential lockdowns was issued,” she said. “We had ordered Mayfaire finisher medals and kicked off our 5K training program for Mayfaire, at the beginning of March. We hoped that smaller local events might still happen and the cancellations would be limited to larger events. “Within a few weeks, we realized that wasn’t the case. We temporarily suspended our group runs as well as registration for all LRC events.
“When the Polk Museum of Art cancelled their art festival in early April, we postponed Mayfaire. But we didn’t know when we would have the race. A Mayfaire not in May isn’t really Mayfaire.” Beyond Mayfaire, just getting together was at an unfamiliar level. “We were able to resume our small group runs in June,” Kozul said. “But we successfully held our middle school cross country program, speed workouts, hill run, kids running club and the 5K training program in 2020, with some modifications. It wouldn’t have been possible without the dedication of our volunteer coaches, “LRC races require significant resources. Our purpose as a nonprofit organization is to hold events that are tests of competition and fitness and bring runners together for fellowship. We need from 50 to 70 volunteers and we close streets and neighborhoods to hold our races.
“It was important to us that we balanced the yearning to race with the wellbeing of our volunteers and to hold events that brought the running community together. The running industry had to make changes to survive and individual time trials or virtual events were a means to stay in business. But events like that don’t fulfill our nonprofit mission.”
Decisions had to be made by club leaders to keep or scrap plans for upcoming races.
“We were back and forth, but by May, we’d decided we couldn’t have the Watermelon 5K races live either,” Kozul said. “We were in a bit of shell shock, trying to decide what to do. The board finally chose to convert the Watermelon Series to a virtual summer challenge. It was a way to stay connected to the running community and to raise money for the annual LRC scholarship fund.
“The community was so supportive, joining in the challenge and donating nearly $9,000 to our annual scholarship fund. Due to this generosity, the LRC will award $10,000 in scholarships in 2021. “The board also recognized that the pandemic was challenging for everyone. So we offered full registration refunds for any of our upcoming running events for any reason. We know that many race organizations were not able to offer that option, and we appreciate the runners that donated their entry back to the club.”
The first in-person race was actually four races in 24 hours. The Aching Quad was run on October 9 and 10 at Holloway Park, instead of the usual runs around three downtown lakes.
“We returned to live racing with the Aching Quad Challenge,” Kozul continued.. “Four cross-country style races increased the difficulty of the challenge. We know it’s not everybody’s cup of tea. But it allowed runners to race competitively and together, due to the 300’ wide start line and the wide-open spaces of the Holloway courses. We had 40 runners in each wave and 30 seconds between waves.”
That went pretty well, in my view. Next up was the Lake to Lake 10K on November 7. “We held the 44th Annual Lake to Lake 10K as an in-person race, with the help of 50 wonderful volunteers,” she said. “We had to make some modifications to allow social distancing at the start and on the course. We had corrals of 20 spread out along Rose Street. “There were a lot of other details that were different from prior years. But it was really great to see our running community back together again.
“The thing that made it hard, from the administrative side, was not having awards ceremonies. It creates more logistics on the back end. Normally, races wrap up within in a week. Now, the follow up is still going on three months after a race is over. “The main thing is that it’s made it more complicated for us, as volunteers,” she continued. “I’m sure that’s how every race organization feels.”
The last thing Sarah talked about was the upcoming Mayfaire 5K on May 9.
“Registration is open for the 2021 Mayfaire 5K,” she said. “It will be held in the evening at 7:00. We’ll still need to social distance in the start corrals. And the finish will be different, without the art festival’s Saturday night party. But it’s going to be a great running celebration for the club and community.”