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Jim Thorpe running festival benefits Turn To Us

Last weekend, runners and spectators came to town for a socially distanced version of the second annual Jim Thorpe Area Running Festival. Directed by the RUNegades to help raise money for Jim Thorpe’s Turn To Us, the festival featured a half marathon on Saturday and a full marathon and 7-mile race on Sunday.

Not even the added precautions against COVID-19 could dampen the anticipation and excitement of the inaugural marathon, as participants took the scenic Reading and Northern Railroad to the starting line in White Haven. The brand-new, USA Track and Field certified course down the D&L and Lehigh Gorge Trails drew rave reviews from runners, who loved the scenery and appreciated the steady slight downhill of the last 25 miles.

“It was fantastic!” said Sarah Wiliarty, who ran the marathon. “Absolutely beautiful course. Incredible organization. I love the RUNegades! I felt safe and comfortable and I will definitely be back.”

Even an uninvited race pirate enjoyed the event as a volunteer snapped a picture of a black bear at one of the water stations.

“The bear definitely didn’t have a race bib,” said RUNegade director Michael Ragozzino. “Even though he inspired a few Boston qualifying times, we had to disqualify him.”

The festival was one of only a handful of running events during what is usually one of the busiest weekends of the fall racing season. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, most of the in-person fall running schedule has been canceled.

“We were really fortunate,” Ragozzino said. “We’re a smaller boutique race and we were able to spread the participants out over two days. And the runners were just great, very respectful and understanding of our strict social distancing guidelines.”

The festival, originally scheduled for mid-May, nearly didn’t happen at all. “We had less than 60 days to get everyone on board,” Ragozzino said. “But everyone came through - the county, the two boroughs, the park, the train, even Penn­DOT.”

Making the festival happen, even a few months later than planned, was particularly important for the RUNegades’ team because of what it meant for their charitable partners.

“2020 has been a hard year for everyone, but it’s been really hard for charities,” said co-race director Tristan Edwards-Wright. “Turn To Us does so much good for the people here. They never let anyone down. We didn’t want to let them down.”

While they are still working out the final details, the RUNegades plan to bring the 2021 festival back in May.

“We hope we’re back to normal by then,” said Ragozzino. “But if we’re not quite there yet, we’re still going to have a great event for a fantastic cause.”

Turn To Us is a grassroots, 501c(3) nonprofit organization serving Carbon County. Their mission is to advocate for individuals and their families who are impacted by major or chronic illnesses by offering personalized assistance and connection to resources in a hopeful and compassionate environment. They offer gas gift cards, utility assistance, medical bill assistance, food, emotional support, and activities/events for children with autism and special needs. Learn more at www.TurnToUsInc.org or 570-732-4220.

Meng Zhao finished first in the marathon with a time of 2:35:38, followed by Benjamin Kassel (2:43:27) and Lyle Stauffer (2:51:07).

In an incredibly close race, Brenda Hodge finished as the top female competitor in 3:24:11, followed by Kim Sundling (3:25:39) and Danielle Hopko (3:26:02).

John Ciccone and Kelly Trabosh were the first male and female finishers in the half marathon, and Craig Paff and Renee Gavason took home the top honors in the 7-miler.

Marathon winner Meng Zhao, third from left, with RUNegades members, from left, Tristan Edwards-Wright, Michael Ragozzino, Amon Gibson, and Turn To Us members Alicia Kline and Keri Markley. COURTESY PAT HENDRICK PHOTOGRAPHY