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Natural Awakenings Lehigh Valley

The Women’s 5K Classic: : 20 Years Racing Against Breast Cancer

Jun 27, 2012 07:05PM ● By Mark Will-Weber

At the end of The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote: “It eluded us then, but that’s no matter. Tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther … And one fine morning …”

In many ways, those words mirror the war against cancer. We are far from declaring victory, but—undeniably—we have gained valuable ground. We are enticingly closer to a cure for some forms of cancer and we have improved the length and quality of life for many whom endure other types of the disease. Perhaps our greatest strides have occurred in the form of prevention; the distribution of knowledge about overall health—and we know that exercise and healthy lifestyle choices can be valuable and crucial allies in this war. And make no mistake; it is a war.

 And so we keep on—eyes fixed on the horizon, brows knitted in deep concentration and somber (and, yes, sometimes, even celebratory) purpose. The participants have vowed to never give up, and they clutch their message of hope and defiance like a runner on a championship relay team grasps a baton, rounding the last turn, finish line in sight, heart pounding and legs churning.

In the Lehigh Valley, no event has carried the promise of hope, knowledge and support with more aplomb than the Women’s 5K Classic, a race that is first and foremost against breast cancer. The Classic’s banners are proudly pink, its legion ever-growing in numbers. We have no idea how many lives this event has saved or may currently be saving—think early detection, lifestyle changes and funds raised in the fight against breast cancer—and we can be positive that this event has counted for a great good. Not only for women, but also for their spouses, children, friends and relatives who know and love them.

Twenty years is a major milestone worthy of celebration. However, the enemy is a most formidable foe. Breast cancer—the most common form of the disease for women and one that trails only lung cancer in the dubious distinction as the leading cause of death among females—inflicts its potentially terminal reality upon one of every eight women that live to age 85.

The Classic’s parkway 3.1-mile course (there is also a companion 10K event as part of the event), winding along the Little Lehigh is serenely picturesque—as if to match the beauty and worthiness of its cause. A few rolling hills are also involved, but this is a race that embraces challenges. The pioneers of this happening first gathered here in 1993 and established instant success and credibility. There were 250 participants and, one must confess, a few intrepid organizers that felt slightly overwhelmed. One was Wendy Body, a race organizer and board member for the Women’s 5K Classic, Inc.

“On the night before the first Women’s 5K Classic, I remember writing out the 250 participants names on the numbers on my kitchen table and crying myself to sleep because I was so stressed out and had no clue what I was doing,” recalls Body. “I was amazed the next morning when the people and all the Lehigh Valley Road Runner volunteers showed up and we actually pulled it off and even netted $2,500. I told everyone to come back next year and bring a friend.”

The Women’s 5K Classic, as one might expect, nearly needs an equally large army of volunteers and sponsors to make it the top-notch event that it has become. Sometimes it requires some multi-tasking. Ingrid Gerber, for example, not only serves on the board of directors and the race committee, but she belts out the National Anthem on race day morning.  The yearlong planning is organized by an all- volunteer race committee and supported by an all- volunteer board of directors.

Those first-year participants must have listened when Body told them to bring a friend. By 1994, the field had nearly doubled in size. Last year, the event drew 5,400 runners and walkers and poured in $250,000 in fund-raising whereby all funds are distributed within the Greater Lehigh Valley to non-profits sharing the Classic’s mission.  in the Greater Lehigh Valley This year’s event, scheduled for the morning of October 13, will be capped at 5,600 participants. Men are asked not to run or walk, but are certainly welcome to cheer from the sidelines, help with traffic (or kid) control or chip in as course marshals.

Each year, the Women’s 5K Classic derives some participants from First Strides, which is a 12-week run/walk training program leading up to the week prior to the event.  Although this is certainly not an event overly focused on the winner of the actual race, it’s nevertheless noteworthy that the Classic has consistently attracted some of the top female flyers from eastern Pennsylvania.

The real stars of the Classic are the cancer survivors that have been front and center since the early days of the race. They are honored with a special moment just prior to the start of the race—The Parade of Champions—begun in 2006. More than 400 survivors took part in the Parade of Championships last year.

Although more than a few of the survivors are serious runners, it is their very presence that rings with courage. The survivors bring a message of hope and camaraderie to the day. Admittedly, there is also a touch of somber remembrance for those whom have lost the fight to cancer: the first survivor in the 5K run is awarded the Sandy Christman Award, which honors the memory of one of the first survivors to take part in the event. The Parade of Champions is also an acknowledgment, a keep-up-the-fight salute to those women presently suffering through challenging treatments and procedures such as chemotherapy or mastectomy.

In Romans, 5:3-4, it is written, “We rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us.” Or as one of the catch phrases of The Classic likes to word it, “Some races are for kicks, some are for glory, this race is for life!”

Certainly there are kicks—and even some glory—to be pursued in the Women’s 5K Classic. But it is this battle for life—and the courage, the hope, and the defiance that it takes—that matters most. And so we charge on—our strides unbroken—toward something called the future.

Mark Will-Weber is a lifelong runner, coach and writer. For more information about the Women’s 5K Classic, visit

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