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Susquehanna Life

Tell Us Your Story: 50 Races for 50 Causes

Nov 23, 2020 09:12AM ● By Susan Ryder

Karen, at race number 27, the 22nd Annual Race Against Racism 5K, in Lancaster

Karen Hendricks embarked on a year-long journey to run road races in support of charitable causes—her unique way of celebrating a milestone birthday—and along the way learned essential pandemic coping mechanisms.  

The sun sparkled off the Susquehanna River on a gorgeous September day as Karen Hendricks gathered, with 25 friends, on City Island in Harrisburg to run a race. She held back tears as she surveyed the group and contemplated the symbolism of the event; this race was the culmination of a year-long journey to run 50 races, to support 50 causes, to celebrate her 50 years on this planet.

“I feel like 50 is one of those milestones that should be celebrated, and I was searching for the right thing to do,” said Hendricks, explaining the impetus behind her odyssey.

Looking back

The final miles of a 20-mile New Year Run Challenge

Over avocado toast and tea at a local coffee shop on another beautiful September morning, a year later, we talked about the evolution of this journey.  Karen said that runners, like her, are always looking for the next challenge, so running to acknowledge her 50th seemed natural. She always had wanted [the running events] to be about others, and she couldn’t settle on just one cause to commit to. It boiled down to, “I felt called to do it and committed to it,” said Hendricks.

Karen also wanted to commemorate this time in her life. “Certain birthdays are especially meaningful milestones,” she said. “If you’re 20-something, 50 sounds old. If you are on the other side of 50, it sounds young. I aspire to live to 100, so I’m at the halfway point. If you apply that to running, I feel like I’m just hitting my stride.”  Some days, she added, she feels spryer than others. 

The races Karen ran benefited cancer treatments and firefighters, and supported families dealing with opioid addiction. The New Year Run Challenge, organized by Fleet Feet Mechanicsburg, challenged runners to set their own mileage goals to launch the new year; all donations benefited a nonprofit that teaches impoverished children in India about setting and reaching goals through a begin-to-run program.  

“If I had to sweat a little, freeze a little or run in the rain, which I did all of those things and more—all of that is momentary compared to some of the challenging situations that the races support,” said Hendricks.

Unexpected encounter

Karen Hendricks (right) and the author at Karen’s final race, to benefit Brave Like Gabe, on City Island, Harrisburg

One of the challenges was COVID. In the middle of March, Hendricks received many emails about cancelled races—so many she had to stop opening them because it became demoralizing. “There were two weeks where I thought I would have to stop [the goal] and pick up after COVID,” she said.

Then, some hope. Race directors started innovating and races began going virtual. Virtual races happen anywhere the runner would like—a local track, neighborhood or along the Susquehanna River, for example. Rather than run in a large group, runners sign up for the race and run alone or have a few friends tag along.

Hendricks said she knew that races would pop up to support current events, like the wild fires in Australia. Little did she know that a major event, the pandemic, was right around the corner. Her longest run, a 500K (311 miles) that took place between May 15 and August 31, supported COVID relief in New York. She finished in July.

“This COVID era has also been intertwined with the cracks that exist in our society; a number of my races benefited societal issues like racism, homelessness and hunger that were exacerbated as a result of COVID-19,” she said. “This year-long adventure was a case study in how we have to be flexible and be able to respond to those in need.”

Running as therapy

Karen, at race number 27, the 22nd Annual Race Against Racism 5K, in Lancaster

COVID also challenged Hendricks personally.  She said she began to have a “greater sense of running as therapy, to help me through the pandemic. 

“There is a lot of hurting and negativity in the world today,” Karen continued, “but I deliberately chose to focus on positive solutions and running is the vehicle that allowed me to do that. For someone else it might be another sort of activity.”  

Hendricks spoke highly of family and friends who supported, encouraged and believed in her during this process. Initially, she admitted, her husband thought she was insane. But he did walk a race with her, and one of her daughters (she has three great kids!) ran with her. Friends joined her in a number of races, as well. This comradery made the cold, rainy, dreary races like the January Indian Rock 10K not only bearable, but enjoyable.

Role model

Hendricks said that she hopes this 50, 50, 50 year “might encourage someone else to take a step out of their comfort zone. That’s the kind of momentum we need to continue to make the world a more positive place,” she said. 

That positive vibe was fully on display at the last race, where finishers were greeted with blueberry-lemon, chocolate-peanut butter, and strawberry-cream cupcakes, piled high with butter cream, and a glass of chilled champagne. 

There was an air of celebration yet solemnity. After all, something was ending. But Hendricks was also looking forward. A question held in the air: “What’s next?” Hendricks used all those miles she logged as a foundation to run the Harrisburg Marathon November 8.

And Hendricks will continue to run for causes and for herself. “I feel like running is an expression of feeling alive and grateful,” she said. 

Susan Ryder is a freelance writer and communications professional, who lives with her family in New Cumberland, Pa.

Learn More

You can read more about Hendricks’ 50 races and 50 causes on her blog

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