Mornings in Michigan: Happy runners return to in-person races, but future uncertain
This story is part of Mornings in Michigan, our series about morning rituals from across our state.
The crowd, the cheers, the camaraderie. Runners lost all of those things when road races were cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic. But now, many races are back, including the 47th annual Dexter Ann Arbor Run.
Some 1,400 runners waited in a corral on August 19 in Dexter. Melissa Sundermann, Elizabeth Stehouwer, and Susie Paisley have been running together since the ‘90s. They’ve done this race about 10 times. Last year, there was a virtual, run-on-your-own option, but for Paisley, that didn’t have the same appeal.
“The reason I like races is the people, and the community, and the group and the camaraderie, and the energy you feel,” she says. “You don’t get that energy from doing a virtual race.”
They ran the half marathon. All three also have qualified for the Boston Marathon several times, so they’re serious runners. But Sundermann says this run isn’t about times.
“We’re not trying to push ourselves,” she says. “It’s just to be part of the community on a beautiful day and be able to run again be part of an organized race. So it’s just doing it for the fun and the health and it makes us happy.
The athletes had to present either proof of vaccination, or a negative COVID-19 test. Tong Suh was happy to comply.
“I signed up for it in 2019, and then the pandemic hit. So I’ve just been training for the last almost two years for this half marathon,” he says.
The reason I like races is the people, and the community, and the group and the camaraderie, and the energy you feel. You don’t get that energy from doing a virtual race. - Susie Paisley
In a typical year about 4,500 people run one of the event’s three distances: half marathon, 10k, or 5k. For safety, race organizers limited the number of runners, and just under 2,500 signed up.
From Dexter, the half marathon winds along the scenic, tree-lined, and sometimes, hilly, Huron River Drive and ends in downtown Ann Arbor.
Lew Kidder served as race director for several years. He said there were fewer than 200 runners in the first race in 1974.
“One of them was Karen McKeachie, who ended up being my wife, and she ended up winning that race seven different times.”
McKeachie went on to become an elite triathlete. In 2016, she was killed by a driver while cycling with friends. The aid station just before mile 10 supports a trail project in her honor. Kidder says he and his wife had watched the race grow over the years and it’s nice to have it back in person.
“Well you like to get back to the life that you knew and this was important for the running community in Ann Arbor, Ypsi, Saline, Dexter,” he says. “So this was important for the area.”
I talked to Kidder next to one of the aid stations as runners started to come through. They weren’t wearing masks and many of the volunteers weren’t either.
Runners flew past as volunteers stood by with tiny cups of Gatorade and water. Some of the liquid made it into their mouths. The creative runners minimized spilling by squeezing the top of the cup so only a small stream pours out. Others who bothered to slow down just dumped the water on their heads.
Because of COVID-19, organizers nixed the award ceremony and post-race party but there was still a big crowd of spectators at the finish line. That was energizing for Melissa Sundermann.
“It was awesome,” she says. “It felt so good to be out here again racing with our community. The energy was palpable. It’s a gorgeous day. It feels great to be racing again. Well, I won’t say racing. We didn’t race it – running in a group. It was a blast."
Sundermann, Stehouwer, and Paisley went on to celebrate the moment with one of their traditions: a post-race beer. They’re hoping they can run together again in other races this fall, but a new surge in COVID cases has already canceled some of the big events.