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Participants can walk, jog or run a 5K to support the fight against breast cancer.

In 2003, Harrisonburg local Erik Dart had the idea of bringing a running event to the community from which the proceeds would go toward a charitable cause. 

“With it being October and Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we wanted to tie those two together,” Dart, founder and co-director of the Beat Breast Cancer 5K, said. “We also wanted our funds to stay local so the individuals can see where the money they helped raise is going.”

This is the 18th year of the 5K and it’s still happening but, due to COVID-19, it’s virtual. From Oct. 11-31, participants can do the 5K on their own. They can walk, jog or run anywhere they want. 

Although it hasn’t been in person this year, there were some benefits to having a virtual race. Co-director Matt Little said the race is one of the Parks and Recreation Department’s premiere events and, because of the fact that the race is virtual, the founders were able to reach more participants. There are also more out-of-state participants this year since there’s no need to be in person to do the race. 

“We have about half of our normal participation, which we think is pretty good for a virtual race,” Little said. “The fact that it stays local and helps people who can’t afford treatment, it’s really important because pretty much everyone knows someone who has been affected by breast cancer, or they will in their lifetime. As a public entity, we try to serve the community and this is one of the ways for us to do that.”

The funds from the race go to the Rockingham Memorial Hospital Foundation for breast cancer care in the Harrisonburg community, specifically to pay for mammograms for people who may not be able to afford them. 

The Harrisonburg Parks and Recreation Department also works directly with the hospital in regard to the race. Both care manager and breast cancer nurse navigator, Deanna Lam, and senior development consultant, Janet Wendelken, have direct ties to the race. 

Lam and Wendelken work together to plan breast cancer awareness events and increase awareness about the disease  to the community. Lam said she has participated in the race for the last 10 years as the breast cancer nurse navigator and has organized a team within the Sentara Funkhouser Women’s Center and Breast Surgery Clinic. 

“I get to see firsthand what a positive impact these funds have for patients who do not have insurance or who are worried about how they will manage some of the barriers to care,” Lam said. “All patients should have access to items [or] options for making their cancer journey a little easier. Also, it sends a message to our community that we support them and that we have an invested interest in them having positive outcomes.”

Since the funds go to a local hospital, participants can see how their money has helped others. Many of the teams in the race will walk for a special person to support them. 

Wendelken said that in 2019, with the help of the funds raised from the race, the RMH Foundation provided 249 mammograms for women. Forty-four  had abnormal results that required additional imaging studies, five of which were recommended for biopsy and two were positive for cancer. Without the funds from the race, those women wouldn’t have had the opportunity a mammogram and wouldn’t have learned that they had cancer. 

“Finding breast cancer and getting the appropriate treatment will most likely save a woman’s life,” Wendelken said.

The benefits from the race can also be seen each year as participants continue to return. Because Dart’s been part of the race since the very beginning, he said  he’s made connections with individual participants.

He said there’s one individual who sees him every year at the race and always approaches him. The 5K isn’t something participants choose to do, it’s something they want to do. 

“I’ve seen the direct benefit the race has on the participants,” Dart said. “You’ll see a lot of the people with tears of joy, of support and of passion that have come from the race. You can see it in the individuals, in their faces.”

Lam said it’s apparent on race day that each participant cares deeply about the event and the cause. She said she enjoys being able to see complete strangers showing love, care and kindness toward one another while coming together for a common good. 

“That is why this race is important,” Wendelken said. “This race celebrates the lives of breast cancer survivors. It is more about compassion and less about competition.”

Contact Morgan Vuknic at vuknicma@dukes.jmu.edu. For more on the culture, arts, and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Instagram and Twitter @Breeze_Culture.