Day at the races: Syracuse festival offers opportunities for experienced and first time runners alike
On Sunday, the starting gun will go off to begin the Syracuse Festival of Races, a day filled with competition, fun and, of course, racing. This is the 20th year for the Festival of Races, which takes place in Syracuse University’s backyard near Westcott Street. The races, which begin at 8:50 a.m. with the Men’s 5K, attract local students as well as experienced, competitive runners from across the country.
World-class runners may come to Syracuse for the Festival of Races, but even more impressive than that is Nancy Auster, 86, who runs the race each year.
Auster got into running when she was 51, a later age than most, but that hasn’t kept her from competing. She has run in almost 400 races since then, and has competed in the Festival of Races every year since it began.
“I like to run some of the same races every year so I can try to beat my time from the year before, although that gets harder, particularly now that I’m 86,” Auster said.
Even though Auster has run hundreds of other 5K and 10K races, as well as duathlons, triathlons, a half-marathon and a marathon when she was younger, the Festival of Races is more meaningful.
The runners and spectators are a part of what make this race so special. Auster said that the crowds have given her “amazing support and encouragement,” especially once they hear how old she is.
Auster’s biggest fans, however, are her family members. Her husband, who is now 89, and her daughter will be there to support her this year.
“Having my husband there, who for years ran the men’s race, and more recently having my daughter run [the Festival of Races] with me has made this race very special,” Auster said.
Look for Zoe Johnson at the head of the pack at the Women’s 5K. The competitive and experienced runner, who plans to run the Boston Marathon next year, is looking to win first place in the women’s race.
“I always like to try to win,” Johnson, who will be running in the Festival of Races for the first time this year, said with a laugh. “I am quite competitive in the races.”
She won’t be running alone. Her roommate, Erin Berry, a graduate student in library science, will join her for the race. Johnson said she helped get Berry into running.
Berry, like Johnson, runs most days now and is quickly improving with time and effort.
“Running is something anyone can do, if you really dedicate yourself,” Johnson said. “If you dedicate yourself to training, you can accomplish anything you want.”
Johnson, who is studying for her master’s degree in voice, got into running her freshman year of college at Columbia University to deal with the stress of being away from home. Since then, she has run two marathons and countless other races.
Even though Johnson’s goal is to win, she won’t be too upset if she doesn’t come in first.
Said Johnson: “It doesn’t always happen, but I at least try to win my age group. I’m just very dedicated to the sport. I don’t take any days off.”
Not even a torrential downpour can keep Neal Coffey from running in the Syracuse Festival of Races Men’s 5K.
Last year, despite the rain and mud, Coffey ran the race, which he’s been running on and off for almost 20 years.
“I remember being miserable waiting for the race to start, but as soon as the gun goes off, you forget all about that,” said Coffey, the manager of SU’s video production department and an adjunct S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications instructor.
For Coffey, the race is all about the competition. The race is a championship race for Masters runners, a group sponsored by USA Track and Field that tracks the race times of men and women 40 and older and attracts competitors from all over.
“It’s really neat to compete at that level with my peers,” Coffey said. “You see some of the best runners from around the country, which makes it really exciting.”
Masters runners register through USA Track and Field, but run the same race as all of the other Men’s 5K runners. Coffey described it as “two races going on at once.”
Even though Coffey has run every day for about 38 years, he said the race is for anyone who wants to run, novices and pros alike.
Said Coffey: “It’s a fun day. Families come out and bring their kids. My kids have run it, and it’s just a lot of fun.”
For some, the Festival of Races is about the high level of competition. For others, like members of the SU Running Club and their president, Stephen Rathbun, it’s all about the fun after and before the race.
“They do a really good job with the post-race part, which is a really big deal for our club,” said Rathbun, a junior accounting and sport management dual major.
The Running Club seeks to provide a community of friends through running by training together, having parties and group outings, and by running races like the Festival of Races.
He described the club as a “close-knit group of friends, as opposed to people to just run with.”
Rathbun said that although the Running Club has done other races in the Central New York area, the location of the Festival of Races makes it the perfect race for the club.
“The proximity to campus is unparalleled,” Rathbun said. “It allows a lot of people to get involved.”
The Running Club ran the race last year, and although only eight members entered, they swept the men’s 14-19 category. This year, with the club growing to about 95 members, they have about 25 members entering.
The group, which plans to have a team dinner the night before, is looking forward to the fun and excitement of race day.
Said Rathbun: “There’s always a great, great collection of runners that come to the race.”
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