It was a virtual race, but an utter success.
The 42nd annual Freihofer's 5k Run for Women, scheduled for last Saturday, was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but a virtual option was offered for nine days through Sunday, and the Freihofer's Run drew 2,022 participants from 29 states and Canada and France.
The race is known for drawing an elite field chasing a substantial prize purse, but in the absence of that, the Freihofer's Run turned into a vehicle for charity fundraising to a level it doesn't typically reach.
And as runners posted their "results" on courses of their own choosing, they were encouraged to include comments and photos that appear in the final tabulation of the 5k times. From that, race organizers could see clearly that the spirit of the event did not waver a bit.
"I thought that was super-neat, how many women were posting good times, and how much fun they were having and how much of a celebration it was," race co-director Kristen Hislop said. "And how many families were showing up with a box of cookies at the finish line, and signs, and making it an event. That makes it so special."
UAlbany star Hannah Reinhardt, who is transferring to Oregon, posted the fastest time, 16:51, after having run the Mohawk-Hudson Bike-Hike Trail in Niskayuna, while observing physical distancing with runners from Colonie High.
Her comment on the results page reads:
"Ran a straight 5k down the Nisky bike path with the Colonie Girl’s XC team! We did a staggered start starting at 8am and I went off 7min later at 8:07am and had to catch the girls! It was low key, fun and beautiful weather! I did take a wrong turn and came to a full stop (yes, on a straight course lol!) So much fun & my first "work out" since January when I got diagnosed with a stress fracture!"
The group of Cindy Kelly, Bernadette LaManna, Linda Campbell and Denise Herman, who have run every Freihofer's Run since the first one in 1979, each submitted a virtual result.
The weekend fell on the birthday of the fifth member of their group, Ellen Picotte, who last ran Freihofer's in 2016 and died of cancer in March of 2017.
Another long-time Freihofer's devotee, Carmen Troncoso, an elite masters runner, ran the virtual race in her home of Austin, Texas, posting a fifth-fastest 20:14 along with the comment "Can't believe I did this SOLO in Texas. Hot and humid, but very happy I decided to keep the goal on my calendar, has helped me to stay in shape and happy. Congratulations to everybody who got out there."
"Carmen Troncoso said it was great, because she didn't have anything else going. So it gave her that reason of 'I'm going to train, I'm going to keep this going,'" Hislop said. "So she pushed through and was really pleased with her time.
"And it pained her, because this was her 30th. That's one of the reasons we knew we had to have something, because we needed to make sure that the four that have now done it 42 times had that chance. There are people with streaks going."
For her part, Hislop discovered that the competitive juices got flowing even without a huge crowd led by an elite field, cheered on by thousands of spectators in downtown Albany.
She actually got to run it this year, covering the Shenendehowa campus course used for the Veterans Day Dash in 20:46 Saturday morning before heading down to the Freihofer's starting line for some Facebook Live posting at what would've been the 9 a.m. start of the race if it hadn't been canceled.
"It was really fun for me because I got to actually do a 5k on a technical race day, but I also felt like I was doing it with all these other women," she said. "And it does push you, even if you're not surrounded by a bunch of other women.
"I knew most people are not going to go into the results to see what I did, time-wise, but I kind of put that on myself. Like, what if people see what I did? I wanted to do as well as I possibly could."
She said some out-of-town runners who used to run Freihofer's were thrilled to jump into the virtual race, and the vast majority of pre-registered runners chose not to ask for a refund once the race was canceled.
And generally the finish times were strong, from what she saw, despite the fact that anyone training these days doesn't have a concrete race goal to target.
"They're not running on the same course, so you can't say, oh, it's a PR, or a PR for Freihofer's, because it's not on the exact same course," she said. "But most of them who were doing these quick times were saying 'I ran better than I've run in a long time.'
"That's really awesome to me, because what it says is I think it's that boost. Personally, I ran Saturday morning and put up a great time. Part of it is we don't have the pressure of racing, for those people who do race a lot, and maybe a little rest and recovery has been good for people."
"Overall we were delighted with this year’s participation,” race co-director Patrick Lynskey said in a Freihofer's release. "Despite not to be able to gather on Washington Avenue for the event’s memorable start and finish, our virtual event gave women of all ages and abilities the chance to stay active, celebrate their strength and resilience and support local charities.
"We’re considering keeping the virtual component as an option in 2021 and beyond. The Freihofer’s Run for Women clearly means so much to so many women!"
Race organizers have also begun to brainstorm how to pull of the race next year, as planning and logistical guidelines start to emerge from organizations like USA Track & Field.
One possibility is to send groups out in staggered waves to thin the crowd at the start.
"Luckily for us, it'll be enough time before next year so that we''ll have some pretty good ideas about what we can do," Hislop said. "Because definitely a lot of the comments were 'I can't wait for next year.'"
Donations from the Freihofer's amounted to $7,600 each to Albany Medical Center's COVID-19 Response Fund, The Community Foundation For the Greater Capital Region and the United Way of the Greater Capital Region’s COVID-19 Response Fund, and Girls on the Run Capital Region. Funds came from event registration and donations made by participants during online registration.