“I came in ninth in my age group!” Melanie Anchukaitis announced excitedly as she crossed the finish line of The Saratoga Palio: Melanie Merola O’Donnell Memorial Race Sunday morning.
The 64-year-old Schenectady resident is the godmother of Melanie Merola O’Donnell, the race’s namesake.
“I walked most of it. I can’t run it anymore, but I do it every year for Melanie. What a girl. She was a giver. There wasn’t anything she wouldn’t do,” Anchukaitis reminisced.
In 2006, at the age of 33, O’Donnell, a city resident, lost her life in an auto accident. At the time of her death, she was working toward a doctorate in clinical psychology.
This is the seventh year the race has been run in her name. In addition to honoring her, it supports local charities and raises funds to provide scholarships to graduate students pursuing a degree in the field of mental health.
This year’s race, which included a 5k run, a children’s run and a half-marathon, is expected to raise about $30,000.
O’Donnell’s college friend, Kate Morrissey of Burlington, Vt., who volunteered at Sunday’s race, remembers O’Donnell fondly.
“She was so many things, but such a loving, compassionate, wonderful, funny, giving young woman,” she said.
O’Donnell worked with crisis response teams to help counsel families after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. She volunteered with and later became a staff member of the National Organization for Victim Assistance, and also provided assistance to individuals affected by traumatic life events such as natural disasters and school violence.
O’Donnell’s giving spirit was what inspired race director Maria “Mimi” Maurer to organize an event in her name. It started with about 350 runners and has grown to a massive community movement that had downtown Saratoga Springs overflowing with participants, spectators, music and excitement on Sunday, well before most people usually even think about getting out of bed on a weekend.
Nearly 1,700 runners from 21 states and two countries registered for Sunday’s races.
O’Donnell would have found the event very gratifying, said her sister, Michelle Merola, as she surveyed the throng of about 1,200 half-marathon runners milling restlessly behind the starting line on Broadway in front of the City Center.
“She would be so honored to see the small grassroots event has developed into such a community event,” she said. “It’s the kind of thing she would really have wanted to support on her own and now we’re doing it in her name.”
Lots of energy
The energy of the athletes was palpable as the seconds counted down to race time. Participants were jumping in place, clapping, and chattering enthusiastically with other racers.
At High Rock Park, where the races finished, the mood was much the same.
Marie Arrao of Clifton Park was beaming after she completed the 5k in 27 minutes and 33 seconds.
“I beat my time from last year, so I’m really thrilled. And I really trained. I felt better this year, stronger. I love this race. The neighborhoods are so beautiful, the people are so nice, and I’m always looking for a house here, so it gives me a chance to look down the streets,” she said.
Rob Szmarz of Ballston Spa ran the 5k in 23 minutes and 4 seconds. “You can see all the support all along the race course. We have a lot of water, a lot of cheering fans and it’s inspiring to be at,” he said.
Tommy O’Brien, 12, of Saratoga Springs, came across the finish line in 23 minutes and 40 seconds, his fastest time ever for a 5k. He said he liked running on the cool morning, but planned to spend the rest of the day sleeping.
Beth Smisloff of Saratoga Springs ran the half-marathon (13.1 miles) with her three daughters.
“It’s a great race,” she said. “You get to run through all of the city and see all of the beautiful sights of Saratoga and it’s for a great cause.”
Even participants who didn’t know the race’s namesake feel a connection to O’Donnell and the things she stood for, said O’Donnell’s childhood friend Courtney Huff, who travels from Florida every year to volunteer at the event.
“To see this many people coming together, all of us who knew her and loved her so much, really, our hearts are warmed,” she said.
O’Donnell’s father, Steve Merola, stood alone, watching the racers cross the finish line, the pain caused by the loss of his daughter evident in his demeanor.
“Nothing makes you feel better, but you’ve got to do something,” he said. “We were very depressed for a while and Mimi came up with the idea that maybe we should have a race, and we got behind it. We gave away quite a bit of money last year. We’ll probably give away at least $20,000 this year. For the little family that we are, we’re kind of happy that we can give away that much money,” he said.