Inaugural 5k Run brings out sweat, grit and inspiration

The runners, more than one hundred of us, gathered at the starting line on the LifeTown campus for the inaugural 5K run on Sunday, October 30. The horn sounded, and we were off! Feet pounding, finding a rhythm, we would make two giant loops, up and down gentle hills, winding around a school building, under the canopy of trees in brilliant fall colors. Among the throng, longtime Friendship Circle supporters mixed with those drawn by the run.

“Races are fun, especially with the number of people we’re going to have here today,” said Ari Wise of Livingston, a longtime Friendship Circle volunteer and a runner who helped organize the 5K. “You can always run on a Sunday morning by yourself. When you run with this kind of excitement, it makes it that much more fun.”

Some, like Ryan Teicher, came to support their children. A runner with marathons and half-marathons under his belt, Teicher’s son Jonah is a Friendship Circle participant. 

Others came to support the organization. Robin Amster, whose grown children volunteered for Friendship Circle as teenagers said, “My heart is still with this organization…If I’m going to be running today anyway, I might as well do it for Friendship Circle!” 

Bryson and Mackenzie Fonnville of Randolph have been running 5ks through the fall around the area. This week, they chose the Friendship Circle inaugural 5K because Mackenzie’s older brother has autism. “We like to run 5Ks, but we also like to support amazing programs that help people. So when I saw the opportunity to do this, I thought, ‘This is perfect.’” 

Jack Thompson, a 14-year-old athlete from Morristown Beard School came after his school suggested it. He was so excited learning about the organization that he decided on the spot to become a volunteer once the race was done.

More than a few were running their first 5K. Susan Schaechter of Cedar Grove decided she wanted to run a 5K before her upcoming 70th birthday. Shira Stein decided to take on the run “to stand tall with volunteers and the Friendship Circle families.” She trained in the weeks leading up to the run with Friendship Circle founders, Rabbi Zalman and Toba Grossbaum, and Rabbi Yisroel Rosenblum, who also ran for the first time. Katelyn Wang, 11, and her brother Dennis (14) saw a flyer and thought it looked like fun.

They were not the youngest in the crowd: At least one runner had not even reached double digits. Eli Sobel of Roseland, just seven years old (“I’m almost eight!”) ran with his mother, Melissa Sobel. They have been running together through the fall, and completed another 5K already. “I’m not waiting for you this time, mom!” he warned his mother just before the race started. She just laughed. They were running in memory of Eli’s grandfather, Ivan Sobel, a longtime Friendship Circle supporter. 

The athletes shot out in front, chests high, with long strides; the experienced and longtime casual runners, and those who had trained with focus filled out the middle; those of us in the rear included some just making friends with the idea of running, some getting back into shape after years on the sofa, and at least one, Glenn Saunders, who was running as part of a physical training regimen following knee surgery. 

Dov Gardin and his daughter Thea signed up together. He was confident but she wasn’t so sure. “How are we going to do this?” wondered Thea. “We’re going to die halfway through!” she sighed with a toss of her head. “It’s just 3 miles. We’ll be fine,” he assured her.

As we rounded the first corner, Israeli music blared and, already at the back, I felt a shot of adrenaline. Some teen volunteers cheered us on. “You can do this!” The grade grew steeper. We pressed on, and rounded another corner. Thea had found her friend Hannah Babich and they were walking up the inclines and running down the hills together, listening to music, keeping each other company, giggling, singing, sighing, and pushing themselves onward.

Yitz Flynn, who decided to run, put the date on the calendar, and didn’t give it another thought until setting his alarm for the morning, stayed positive and stayed the course, shouting, “We’ll get there!”

As I continued on the route circling behind the school, I passed a table where volunteers offered water, and a Friendship Circle participant shook some pompoms and shouted “Woo Hoo!” as I passed. I kept running, its own quiet miracle. A little more haphazard in my training than most others, I was surprised. My body was not doing exactly what I wanted, yet so much more than I had expected. 

Nearing the area for the first turnaround, someone coming in the other direction cheered me on. “You’ve got this! Keep going!” 

I was still running. And I started to think, “This is the Friendship Circle: Feeling empowered to do something amazing. Feeling the adrenaline rush of accomplishment. Sometimes, sheer willpower drives the achievement. Sometimes, it takes just a little encouragement from a peer.” And all of a sudden, look at that! I had already run nearly the whole first loop. How about that! 

And then I too shouted words of encouragement to the people ahead and behind.

Coming into the first turn of the second loop, I found myself just a few steps behind Roopa Datla, a woman from Berkeley Heights who ran half marathons at an earlier moment in her life. The years had caught up with her. Now, one year after bariatric surgery and 55 pounds lighter, she was trying to get back into shape. Persistence, determination, and grit showed on her face. She inspired me. We fell into step together. She offered a tip when we were tired: 150 steps running, then 150 steps walking. We kept each other going. Up the inclines and down, past the folks still cheering us on. 

Up ahead, the top runners were finishing. Kellyn Amozoqueno came in at just under 20 minutes. I am told he was shivering from the effort when he passed the finish line. Jay Murnick of Short Hills, a longtime Friendship Circle and seasoned runner, came in fifth. “I love when you can take a fun run and make it something worthwhile,” he said.

Teens Jack Thompson and Dennis Wang both finished in the top 16.

Shira Stein, finishing respectably, said, “It was amazing. I felt prepared. I was ready! I would definitely do it again!”

Slowly, even Roopa and I approached the final hill. It didn’t matter that we were among the last to arrive. She surged up the hill; I fell behind. Then she slowed; I caught up. We turned into the LifeTown campus and together approached, then crossed the finish line. We hugged. If someone had asked at that moment, “Did you win?” We would have said, “Yes.” (Technically, we were 99 and 100 out of 112 runners that day.)

“It’s always such a high at the end!” Roopa said, smiling widely. She is amazing, I thought. I looked around at all the families getting ready for FCwalk, the last few runners still coming in, the volunteers ensuring everything was running smoothly, the organizers, arranging all the details.  Everyone here is amazing, I finally understood.

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