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Amid a pandemic, the Charlottesville Women's Four Miler finds a creative way to safely continue

Traditionally, the undulating grass surfaces at Foxfield in Albemarle County have been reserved for horses competing in steeplechase races.

That will change next weekend.

Starting Sept. 4, approximately 800 participants are expected to lace up their running shoes to compete in the Charlottesville Women’s Four Miler, which will be held on the Foxfield course over the span of four days.

“We are thrilled with how the event has come together and really excited for Labor Day weekend,” race co-director Audrey Lorenzoni said. ”This is the first time since 1987 — when UVa hosted the NCAA cross country national championships — that people are able to walk and run around the grounds of Foxfield.”

The race, which is recognized as the oldest and largest all-women’s footrace in Virginia, has been a Central Virginia staple for more than 30 years and has raised more than $3.5 million to local charities.

Mark and Cynthia Lorenzoni organized the first race, along with the Charlottesville Track Club, in 1983 and it has grown every year. More than 2,000 women annually take over a two-mile stretch of Garth Road on Labor Day weekend to compete in the event. With the COVID-19 pandemic putting the status of the 2020 race up in the air, race organizers brainstormed to come up with alternatives to keep the tradition alive.

“We knew the race would not be able to be safely held this year in its typical fashion and Foxfield graciously offered its ground for our course,” Audrey Lorenzoni said. “My parents have been working hard on the course to come up with a beautiful four-mile loop. We also wanted to offer a virtual anywhere option for those who wanted to be able to run or walk from home.”

Another unique aspect is this year’s event is that it will be stretched out over four days (Sept. 4-7) to allow participants an opportunity to safely take part in the event. Runners can choose between five 30-minute time slots during the four days and each time slot is restricted to 40 women.

Runners and walkers are able to start anytime during their 30-minute window in order to spread out over the scenic Foxfield course. In addition, runners can take part in the race virtually, giving individuals opportunities to compete anywhere.

“We knew we would always have a virtual option, but when Foxfield approached us about using the grounds, we knew we could do something really special,” Lorenzoni said. “We wanted to do something for all the women who have been a part of this event for years and we are so thankful we are able to do it safely.”

Lorenzoni hopes to have close to 800 women walking and running at Foxfield during the four-day event. She also expects a couple hundred others sign up to take part in the virtual anywhere option.

“Since it’s a self-timed race, we hope everyone who participated will have a lot of fun out at Foxfield,” Lorenzoni said.

The response from competitors has been overwhelming.

Heidi Gillenwater moved to Charlottesville 20 years ago and has participated in the Women’s Four Miler nearly every year since arriving in Central Virginia.

“It did not take long for me to realize that this was not just a race, but an event that is a celebration of women and their health,” she said. “Women of all ages and athletic abilities participate. For some, this is a first step to including regular exercise as part of a healthy lifestyle. For others, it is an opportunity for multiple generations to share an experience.”

The race also benefits the UVa Breast Care Program, Foxfield Races, Legal Aid and Justice Center and Blue Ridge Area Food Bank.

Gillenwater said the event speaks to her on a very personal level. Her mother is an eight-year cancer survivor after receiving treatment at UVa for Stage 3 breast cancer. In addition, Gillenwater is nearly a year removed from completing treatment for Stage 2 breast cancer.

“Both my mother and I are forever grateful for the funds generated by this event and know first-hand the difference that this makes for patients who receive treatment for breast cancer at UVa,” Gillenwater said. “Needless to say, I look forward to the Women’s Four Miler every year and worried that, due to the pandemic, this event would be canceled. Maybe I should not be surprised, but the Lorenzonis got creative and figured out a way to make this happen in a safe way on Labor Day weekend. I am beyond delighted.”

The same story rings true for Roni Jennings, who honors her mother when competing in the event.

“I first ran in 2008, about a month before my mother died after an eight-year battle with breast cancer,” Jennings said. “I ran that year and every race since for my mom. In subsequent years, I’ve added friends and colleagues who are warriors, survivors and victims of breast cancer.”

Jennings is excited to run with others and experience the course at Foxfield and continue to enjoy the camaraderie with all the participants in her group.

“I love being part of this tradition,” she said. “Running with women of all ages, levels of fitness and running for different reasons feeds my soul. I am so thankful that a way to have this event was found in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Audrey, Nicole and their team of volunteers are amazing.”

Jane Jackson is another veteran of the Women’s Four Miler and has experienced it as a runner with friends and family as well as a volunteer.

“No matter how I am involved, it is always a wonderful experience,” Jackson said.

The race has become a family tradition for Jackson. Her daughter and cousin have made the trek to Charlottesville the past couple of years to join her and said it is not only a lovely tradition for her family, but for the entire community.

“I was thrilled to hear that the race would be happening this year,” Jackson said. “I very much appreciate the careful thoughtfulness and creativity of the organizers in finding a way to keep the race going, especially when so many others have needed to cancel. It was welcome news in an era of anxiety.”

Nancy Webber moved to Charlottesville 16 years ago and has participated in the event with her daughters every year since.

“We have had years where we competed. One year, we placed in the top 5 of our age group and my youngest won the 10-and-under [division],” Webber said. “We even went the complete other way and walked the whole thing, the year my oldest daughter was 33 weeks pregnant. Over 15 events, each daughter has only missed once, despite the fact that they both went to college in Utah and my oldest has lived out of state since 2010. In 2019, my sister and her daughter, both my daughters and my two granddaughters all participated.”

Webber always purchases a motivational mile poster in honor of her mother, who died of lung cancer in 2004. In addition, she loves the fact that this is an all-women’s race, organized by women and promoted by women.

“This race is the perfect way to honor her life and her feelings about fitness and women empowerment,” Webber said. “My favorite part is seeing all the men support the women in their lives that they love. I love watching sons at the water stations, husbands help park cars and dads struggle with children while the little ones hold up signs to tell mom to keep going. I get emotional every years as I run by all the men cheering on the women in their lives.”

This year’s race will be a different experience for Webber, who had planned her move from Charlottesville around the Labor Day weekend so she could participate in it virtually

“I am now going to be in Catalina Island on race day and am inviting all the women in our boating group to join me for a four-mile run/walk on the island,” she said. “I can’t want to introduce this very special race to a group of outstanding women.”


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