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The race must go on for Fort Collins athletes

The muscles in their legs are on fire with exhaustion, their lungs burning as they take in gulps of air and, as the finish line appears on the horizon, they pour everything they have into closing the distance. This moment captures only a portion of a 5K, 10K, half-marathon or marathon race.

For years, people have come together to participate in a widely shared passion: running. In these events, people come from all different walks of life to achieve a similar goal.

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Stephanie Acajabon was never one to hold a special place in her heart for running until she participated in the Fort Collins Turkey Trot 5K in 2017.

“I was really nervous that I wouldn’t be able to finish,” Acajabon said. “Then, when I did finish, that was probably one of the biggest accomplishments I’ve ever felt for myself.”

Acajabon decided to join the Fort Collins Running Club where, before COVID-19, she participated in training races offered by the club from October to April to prepare for the Horsetooth-Half Marathon.

“When people ask me what the longest race distance I’ve run (is) and I tell them a marathon, they don’t ask me, ‘Oh, well, what’s your time’ — they don’t care,” Acajabon said. “I don’t have to be exceptionally fast and exceptionally good at it. I get to do something that I love, and just finishing the race is my accomplishment.”

After the Turkey Trot, Acajabon pursued the sport and participated in 5Ks and half-marathons. She urged her friend Katie Higashi to train for a half-marathon in Denver with her.

“I was really surprised, … when I got to the finish line, (by) how almost emotional I felt and … that sense of accomplishment, like, ‘wow, that was a big deal, I can’t believe I just did that.'” -Katie Higashi, local runner

Higashi has harbored a passion for running since she began cross country in middle school. She participated in many of races from high school competition races to organized 5K runs and the half-marathon with Acajabon.

Higashi described training as a vital part of running marathons.

“It’s kind of nice to come up with a training plan and to stick with it because … I was like, ‘If I don’t train, I’m gonna die, I kind of have no choice,’” Higashi said. She felt to give the race her all, she had to stay consistent with her training.

Higashi and Acajabon ran the Colfax Half-Marathon together.

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“I was really surprised, … when I got to the finish line, (by) how almost emotional I felt and … that sense of accomplishment, like, ‘Wow, that was a big deal, I can’t believe I just did that,'” Higashi said.

The races not only offer a place where one can feel a unique sense of accomplishment but also provides an atmosphere like no other. At these events, there are all kinds of people that come to cheer on each runner, generating encouragement. Megan Woodruff began running 5Ks in 2012 and noticed the support.

“Quite a few people … will stand on the sides of the street, and they’ll have big signs with like, ‘You can do it’ and they’ll have little noisemakers, and it’s really, it’s … really cool how people really come out,” Woodruff said.

Woodruff appreciates the encouraging atmosphere in the middle of a race. Similar to Acajabon, Woodruff was also not a fan of running before trying out 5Ks. The unique feeling of the event pulled her in. Woodruff and her husband ran the Peach Festival 5K in the summer of 2019 as they pushed their two children in strollers. 

“(It) is so good for our kids to see us running and doing a fun activity like this — maybe even as they grow, they might look at running in that positive, fun way,” Woodruff said.

These races gather all kinds of people; lifelong runners like Highashi, recent finders of the sport like Acajabon and families like Woodruff’s. However, COVID-19 altered what these races would look like in the coming months.  

Nativity Miller was working on getting back into races when COVID-19 struck. She ran races in the past, but after years as an elementary school principal and completing her doctoral degree in educational equity, she lost focus of her passion for running.

In May, she ran her first half-marathon in five years, Crush the Corona. The event was virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so she ran her own course and remembers the support from her loved ones. Miller ran past her parents’ house, where they held signs for her, and some of her friends stood on the course to cheer her on. Her husband and daughter stood at the end with their own finish line.

“It was probably the most emotional race,” Miller said. “They came and they made this virtual … race kind of memorable.”

While not an ordinary race, Miller’s experience was one she will never forget. Miller continues to do more virtual races, creating courses she runs on her own, sometimes meeting up with friends to do the same race. She has used running apps like Medal Dash to keep herself training and motivated.

Although people like Miller continue to run races, the feeling is not quite the same.

“I mean, you really just have to be self-motivated to do it because you’re not actually going to an event.”

In Fort Collins, the Colorado Brewery Run Series took place on Oct. 10, and The Blue Sky Trail Marathon on Oct. 17 and the Resolution Run 5K will take place on Dec. 31. The races will have virtual options. 

Kailey Pickering can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @PickeringKailey.

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