By Braden Hamelin
This April marks the 21st anniversary of University Park’s Azalea Classic, the popular 5K race that raises funds for the University Park Elementary School. Moira Abernathy co-founded the race, in 2002, in hopes that it would prove to be an easy initiative for the school’s PTA to host.
“We had seen other schools that had done it, thinking that it wouldn’t be that much work, but I think it was every bit as much work as the silent auction. But you know, we had so much fun doing it,” Abernethy said.
Sarah Elder, also a co-founder of the race, said that the event was one of several that the organizers considered. She had worked as a fundraiser for the PTA for a number of years and noted that partnerships with a number of local businesses were key to making the race profitable over time.
“I’m pretty sure we made sufficient funds every year. And then once the ball started rolling, then it became easier to cover our [fixed] costs … and then make a profit,” Elder said.
Abernathy and Elder had never organized a race before and realized early on that setting the course might be a good move — they walked through the neighborhood over and over again, even at night.
“We’d be doubled over and laughing because half the time we couldn’t remember how many feet were in a mile or half, you know, our math or math skills were a little bit lacking at times. It seems really simple and really silly, but it was fun,” Abernethy said.
The planners chose a course that would highlight the neighborhood’s gorgeous azaleas, which Abernathy noted are a distinctive feature of the town.
Elder said the founders also aimed to keep the whole course within University Park, and they succeeded — indeed, a portion of the course runs by her own home. Organizers worked to generate community spirit and enthusiasm about the race, too.
“We also tried to encourage everyone we knew who lived along the course to come out, have a little cheer station, and people did,” Abernethy said, “People would put signs up in their yards or come out if they weren’t running.”
Abernethy said that many residents turned out along the course and some even played music to cheer runners on, in step with the musical traditions of D.C.’s popular Rock n’ Roll Half Marathon.
“At the beginning, we wanted to have it be like a music showcase for people that had kids who had garage bands,” Abernethy said. “There were some years … their kids would be on the driveway playing.”
That musical tradition continues to this day, with University Park neighbors blasting tunes to cheer on runners as they pass by. According to current race director Jamie McGaughey, even the Northwestern High School marching band has been known to perform at the race’s starting line.
The community’s enthusiasm and engagement has boosted the race from being just another fundraiser to something incredibly popular among old and young alike throughout University Park, and students at University Park Elementary are some of the race’s biggest fans.
McGaughey said that the race caught her attention shortly after she moved to University Park, in 2009 — she learned about the 5K shortly after her kids started school at University Park Elementary. McGaughey said that the school’s race fervor is driven by the gym teacher, Christy Neff, who works tirelessly to get the students and school staff pumped about the race. Neff coordinates some 500 students and 60 staff members for the race; classrooms even hold competitions to see who can get the most students to register. She hopes that participating in the race will encourage some kids to be more active and even become lifelong runners.
In addition to seeing the race as a great opportunity to promote physical activity, Neff said she treasures the spirit and history associated with the event and how it brings the community together. She described seeing two students who were competing against each other to win. They saw a third classmate who was struggling, and they stopped — all three then walked over the finish line together.
“That to me is at the heart of what we do as a school. We work to build community within our school building by lifting each other up,” Neff wrote in an email, “We believe that we are stronger together and that relationships matter. These students demonstrated this with their actions that day! And in my book, they are winners!”