St. Michaels residents build friendship, start a running festival

It is a story about faith, friendship — and perhaps a little fantasy. It is about three people whose ages span 30 years, but whose careers and experiences led them to find this historic town on Maryland's Eastern Shore as the perfect spot to start the next phase of their lives.

Ultimately, they also found one another.

Given the size of St. Michaels, with a little more than 1,000 full-time residents according to the 2010 census, it's not unusual that Mike Kerrigan met Peter Paris. Or that when the two decided last November to establish the first St. Michaels Running Festival, they would bring Sparrow Mahoney Rogers, whom Kerrigan knew from church, on board.

A running festival seemed like a logical fit for a town that hosted thousands for a wooden boat festival years ago and 2,000 people this year for the Carpenter Street Saloon's annualSt. Patrick's Dayshopping-cart race down the main drag.

"I haven't heard any negatives," Town Manager Jean Weisman said . "You certainly have people here who want to continue the local heritage and they're very proud of it. But an event that brings people to fill the hotel rooms and restaurant, the town welcomes that. I've been here 28 years and it's always been that way."

Six months after Paris mentioned a running festival to Kerrigan — first while they were parking cars at a benefit event and later while they worked out together at the local YMCA — the inaugural festival will take place May 19.

Kerrigan credits Paris, a 44-year-old former real estate developer who grew up around Baltimore , with pulling all the details together so quickly.

The details included obtaining permits from the State Highway Administration to briefly close a portion of the state road that runs through town to gaining trust from and cooperation with local officials. They also had to work with police and other emergency responders and had to find some 800, 20-inch traffic cones to line the course.

What started out as a "small event" has grown more rapidly than Paris and Kerrigan anticipated. Though they won't say how many runners they expect, they would not be surprised to get as many as 2,000 for the 8 a.m. start. More than 200 volunteers will work the festival, which begins the night before the race.

"If we have a ... beautiful sunny day, people will get up at 4:30 in the morning and drive down here and we can have hundreds and hundreds of people do registration [that day]," Kerrigan said. "They'll have plenty of time to sign up."

The event, which also will include a concert with two well-known local bands, a private dinner for the first 100 half-marathoners who sign up and a silent auction, will cost more than $100,000 to $150,000 to put on.

"It's going to be a fairly major event for this community," Kerrigan said . "We want to do this every year. We want this to be an annual event and we can grow it every year."

While a majority of the runners will be participating in the 5K and 10K races, there should be a sizable number who will run a half-marathon certified by the American Track and Field Association , meaning their times could be used to qualify for marathons across the country.

There is competition from similar events — last year's inaugural Annapolis Half-Marathon drew 4,000 runners — but Rogers and her partners see a day when their event will become as big a destination for runners as their adopted hometown is for the tourists who come from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

"From what we've heard from some of the runners, we believe this will become the definitive qualifying race for major marathons up and down the East Coast and other places in the U.S.," Rogers said. "This is a serious opportunity for very competitive runners to get the best time they can get."

Paris said the combination of the ATF certification and a flat, mostly straight route has helped attract runners up and down the Eastern seaboard, and from as far away as California. Smiling, Paris is quick to point out that the highest point of the route "is a footbridge with 15-feet elevation."

"A lot of these runners want to establish new [personal records] on this course," Paris said.

Peyton Hoyal, a 23-year-old teacher from outside Atlanta, read about the St. Michaels Running Festival online and signed up with his girlfriend.

Hoyal, who took first place in an NAIA marathon while competing at Berry College in Rome, Ga., said he and his girlfriend, Taylor Gupton, were attracted to the "fast track" he expects and said "we were enchanted by the area."

Having run in "six or seven" other half-marathons over the past couple of years, Hoyal looks forward to his first inaugural event.

"I'm excited by someone taking on that pioneer spirit," he said.

Though the half-marathon is what these three kindred spirits hope will build the event, the community aspect should not be undervalued. The local YMCA is the event's organizer, but Eastern Shore Endurance Events — formed by Paris and Kerrigan — will manage the festival.

A portion of the proceeds will go to the YMCA and more than a dozen other local nonprofits, but Kerrigan said "we wanted to make it very clear from the beginning that we are not a not-for-profit. It's a win-win for everybody.

"If you're successful, the charities will receive some funds, the business community … will hopefully have thousands of people spending the weekend here and for Peter, Sparrow and myself, we'll have a little company that we can take to the next level."

As much as those like Hoyal — who can run a half-marathon (a little more than 13 miles) in 70 minutes — will add legitimacy to the event, Paris and his partners are just as excited about a local woman in her 70s who plans to walk the half-marathon during the 31/2 hours that the course will be opened.

"We're trying to promote community health and wellness," Paris said. "We have a 5K that's being offered as a run and a walk. We're really trying to hit the bookends here. We think it's important to get parents, families, everyone in the community out there. ... We think there's a healthy balance between being competitive and having fun in sports."

Said Rogers, "It's just a very different approach to athletics to making your community healthy as well."

Of the three, Kerrigan has the most experience in running.

A former high school pitcher outside Boston, Kerrigan played hockey at Ohio State and later turned to running while working on Wall Street for 28 years.

Kerrigan wound up running dozens of marathons, clocking several sub-three-hour marathons and eventually making it to New York and Boston. But he was forced to give up running after having his hips replaced five years ago.

"This is a great opportunity for me to get back into the sport," said Kerrigan, now 65.

For Rogers, this event strikes an even more personal note. In Croatia on vacation in 2004, the then-27-year-old was hit by a drunken driver, breaking her left leg in more than a dozen places. Doctors there considered amputation, but after extensive knee reconstruction and rehabilitation, Rogers celebrated the first anniversary of the accident by climbing a flight of stairs.

Told then "that I would never walk or run again," Rogers is now an avid runner herself. Calling herself a "serial entrepreneur who bought and sold three companies," Rogers moved here three years ago and recently got married. The running festival is not her latest business venture but an event that helps in her recovery from the horrific accident.

"I'm a recovering athlete," said Rogers, who grew up playing all sports in Wasilla, Alaska. "I never took it seriously because I thought I could do it forever. Now I cherish being able to do it."

Paris has become the most serious runner of the three. He got the bug after getting tired of simply being a cheerleader for his wife when she ran a variety of races in the region. Paris went out to run the 10K course. On Saturday, Paris planned to run his first half-marathon on nearby Kent Island.

Paris and Kerrigan have spent a good part of the spring going to other races in the area, handing out fliers and talking up their event. They know there are skeptics, particularly in the running community, who will wait to see how the first year goes before committing.

"A lot of people won't run a first-year event. They want to make sure it's run properly," Kerrigan said.

If the St. Michaels Running Festival becomes what they envision it will, Kerrigan said "we want to transition this into bigger events," including full marathons, ironman (and woman) competitions that "involve major corporate sponsors and branding."

Which is where their adopted hometown comes in. Rogers said what attracted her here from Washington and New York was people like Kerrigan and Paris.

"What you have here is a very inspiring group who have moved mountains, and at varying stages could have retired, but we missed building something," Rogers said. "So we sort of found each other. We have this chemistry. All of us wanted build something new. It was not just a business plan, it was a business purpose to transform communities. We want to help individuals get excited, and feel empowered and start changing something."

don.markus.baltsun.com

St. Michaels Running Festival

When: May 19, starts with 10K at 8 a.m., half-marathon at 8:30 a.m., 5K at 9 a.m.

Where: Starts at St. Michaels High School, 200 Seymour Ave., St. Michaels

What: Certified half-marathon, 10K, 5K fun run/walk

Cost: $75 for half-marathon, $40 for 10K, $35 for 5K

Registration: Online at info@stmichaelsrunningfestival.com or runningintheusa.com. Registration and packet pickup on-site at The Big Pickle, May 17, noon-6 p.m. and May 18 noon-5 p.m., or at the high school gymnasium May 18 at 6 p.m.

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