Fun -- 27 Summers Running

What started out as a short race through the neighborhood has become a weekly tradition in Ellicott City.

Maryland Journal

August 15, 2005|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

An unusual mix of athletes is warming up in front of Arleen Dinneen's split-level suburban Ellicott City home.

Young children and their parents, teens, college students and older adults are stretching on Dinneen's lawn, in her driveway and in the middle of the street.

The runners -- about 120 of them -- take their marks, eyes on the slim, gray-haired grandmother dressed in shorts, a T-shirt and running shoes.

"Set! Go!" Dinneen yells as she starts the timer.

And with that, the pack begins the mile-long "fun run" that begins and ends in front of Dinneen's home on Colonial Drive, a Tuesday evening affair that has grown into a weekly tradition in this neighborhood over 27 summers.

It started with a small group of neighborhood children and has gone on for so long that those children are coming back with their children. They're joined by dozens of other runners whose abilities range from competitive to casual.

Some come sporting $100 shoes and expensive athletic attire, ready to clock a 4:45 mile on a steamy summer night with no glory attached. Others wear no-name attire and might take 20 minutes to complete the mile-long loop.

Parents push strollers or slowly jog alongside children as young as 5. Cars pause to let the runners pass.

"We have families who tell me they sit around their dinner table and talk about their fun-run strategy," says Dinneen, 62, who has been running for 28 years and ran three marathons -- but doesn't participate in her own race because there's too much work to do. Dinneen, director of the Florence Bain Senior Center in Columbia, never expected this neighborhood activity to turn into an event that has, on occasion, drawn nearly 300 participants. Had she known, she would have labeled it something a bit more chic than the "fun run."

Her daughter, 34-year-old Shelly Kvech, laughs and groans as Dinneen tells the story of how the race was born. It turns out Kvech was the cause of it all.

When Kvech was 7, her mother said, she would tag along for two-mile runs with the Howard County Striders running group, which seemed like anything but fun for the little girl.

So, Dinneen made her daughter a deal: If she and her three friends ran a mile once a week during the summer, Dinneen would give them a prize at the end. They did, and Dinneen gave them tiny trophies.

The event snowballed.

Dinneen started giving the runners' names and times to the local newspaper, drawing more people. Kvech now publishes a weekly newsletter, called Milestones, to remind runners about coming races and to mark memorable accomplishments, such as a runner who had his best time, even with a shoe untied.

The event's family flavor continues.

Laura Overstreet, 36, was one of the original runners. She started when she was 8 years old and was Dinneen's neighbor. Now she lives in Elizabeth City, N.C., but comes back as often as possible to visit her parents, who still live on Dinneen's street -- and to run the race.

Overstreet, who still calls Dinneen "Miss Arleen," is accompanied on a humid Tuesday night by her 5-year-old twins, Jack and Rob. She once ran the race with the twins in a stroller when they were 2 months old. She came in last.

Overstreet's father, Dave Fitzpatrick, has been in charge of traffic control for the race for 25 years. He took a two-year break about 10 years ago after a stroke, but Dinneen held his spot until he could return.

"The night he came back, Miss Arleen told all the runners," Overstreet says. "So they all shouted words of encouragement" as they passed him.

This last race of the year is a two-person relay, an arrangement that seems to ensure a good time all around.

Roger Demaree, 44, of Marriottsville is nostalgic about running. "There's always fond memories because I met a really cute girl running," he says.

He's talking about his wife, Marsha, who is running the first leg of the relay. They met at a 10-mile race in Blacksburg, Va. "Marsha was a varsity runner in college," Demaree says. "And I was fast enough to keep up."

As he raves about his wife, the first group of runners finish their miles. Dinneen yells out their times and offers encouragement -- "5:15. ... 5:53. ... 5:57. ... Good job!"

Demaree's 13-year-old son, Grant, finishes his mile and runs up to his father, out of breath, asking eagerly, "What [time] was I?"

His father tells him, "5:53."

"Yes!" Grant shouts. "A PR [personal record] for street running!"

The team of Brian Bonn, 22, and Lindsay Burns, 20, won the relay race with a combined time of 11:44.

Bonn is a serious runner who competes on the track and cross-country teams at Frostburg State University. He typically runs miles under 5 minutes -- and he's not above running with a bunch of families.

"I'm addicted," he says, explaining that he usually runs the races for fun. "It's a great little run."

Burns says she has been doing the runs since before she was born -- her expectant mother was a runner. She competed on her own when she was 5, and she said it's a treat to see everyone grow up through the years.

"Out of any running, I'd rather come here and do this," she says.

The event isn't over when the racing is done. There's usually an activity focused on the kids.

On this final night of the season, the participants gather in Dinneen's front yard as she gives out prizes, which are partially funded by the 50 cents she charges each runner.

Every child younger than 5 gets a medal. Runners with the best time in their age group receive small trophies. The winners take their turns on a tiered podium that Dinneen found in an antique shop in Ellicott City. Parents snap photos and applaud.

Dinneen then goes back into her house for what has become her family's post-run ritual -- dinner with her mother, three children and five grandchildren. And she promises to do it all again next year.

"It's so rewarding, how could you not do something this wonderful?" Dinneen says.

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