During the holiday season of 2008, Dr. Mark Cucuzzella, a Professor of Family Medicine, and Lois Turco, an advocate for a heritage area in Jefferson County, met by chance in Shepherdstown. Their conversation that day sparked an idea that would eventually catch alight and one day become West Virginia’s largest marathon, the Freedom’s Run.
Their goal was to promote healthy lifestyles, walking and biking paths, and more involvement in the nearby national parks.
Eight years since the first Freedom’s Run and the event is now widely recognized as being one of the best marathons and half-marathons in the country.
Runners pass through a beautiful, and deeply historic, landscape: the battlefields, the towns, the river and the canal towpath. Running through this historical landscape the runners are prompted to think of the people who lived and died during Civil War. As one runner said after passing alongside Antietam Battlefield, “You can’t worry about your own suffering when you know what happened out there.”
The most unique feature of this race is that it takes runners through three National Parks that marked pivotal moments in the American Revolution and Civil War. Freedom’s Run, “the race for health and heritage,” is a living museum for runners who come from all over America, and military veterans who are ready to show their reverence for the battles fought on this hallowed ground.
The race has grown immensely in it’s short existence.
“There’s a lot of appeal to this area,” Turco said, explaining the rapid growth of Freedom’s Run. “You get to enjoy two states at once. There are five National Parks in this area.”
She also noted Mark Cucuzzella’s connections in the running world.
“Word of mouth is a huge part of this,” she said. “We’ve gotten in running magazines across the country. We have an expo the night before which starts to create a sense of community among runners who have come from all over. It’s also a big draw for veterans.”
Also pivotal to the race’s success is coordinating with town officials and tourism, sponsors, like WVU Allied Health Education Center and Shepherd University, and the three national parks the race runs through: Harper’s Ferry NHP, Chesapeake and Ohio Canal NHP, and Antietam Battlefield NHP.
Since the inaugural race new businesses have popped up to cater to tourists interested in running and cycling, sustained by a definite spike in recreation and leisure tourism. Turco says that cyclists now come off of the C&O Canal to stay in Shepherdstown, which didn’t happen before.
Partly inspired by this new asset and the subsequent spike in tourism, in 2011 the Canal Towns Partnership formed. The Canal Towns Partnership brings together nine towns in Maryland and West Virginia that border the C&O Canal National Historical Park to work together on generating mutually beneficial economic activity in their region. The goal is to create amenities and business to cater to visitors that are hiking or bicycling through on the towpath.
Since the first race in 2009, proceeds from the race go into the Freedom’s Run Community Grant Funds.
Some of the projects that have been funded through Freedom’s Run Community Grant Funds include:
- Eastern Panhandle Indigo Children’s Blue Ribbon Recreation Program
- For love of Children’s Leaders in Action Program
- Antietam Battlefield’s Civil War Day Camp
- James Hite Park Fitness Trail
- North Martinsburg Middle School Trail
- SNAP Double Value Coupon Farm Market Program (in progress)
- T.A. Lowery Elementary School Green House Project
- South Jefferson Elementary School Outdoor Classroom & Trail
- Page Jackson Elementary School Trail
- C&O Canal Classrooms Education Program
- C.W. Shipley Elementary School Fitness Trail
- Shepherdstown Cullison Fitness Park
“The most priceless component to all of this is the sense of pride in place that has happened in Jefferson County, West Virginia, and Washington County, Maryland,” Turco says. “In pulling together all of these components – the National Parks, the Freedom’s Run, and the Community Fund – the area has promoted its historic and cultural assets to support projects that bring an increased sense of pride and community health.”
Once you cultivate that sense of pride and passion, you turn the tide for the better and community health starts to look a lot brighter and more tangible.
There are a lot of moving pieces to the Freedom’s Run, but I think it’s important to note that in pulling all of these pieces together the outcomes are more impactful and multilayered.
Everything is working in synergy; health and wellness, economic development, creating a sense of pride in place.
Creating healthier communities can’t just be about the clinical setting. You have to pull everyone into an all hands on deck approach. Involve the department of transportation, the city, involve schools and small businesses. The challenges we face in creating a culture of health are multi-faceted, so our solutions need to be too.
Now go register for the 2016 Freedom’s Run and see what all the buzz is about! Race date is October 1, 2016. There is something for the whole family and all fitness levels. Races include a 1 mile Kids Fun Run, a 5K, a 10K, a half marathon, and a full marathon.
To learn more about the systematic/sectoral approach to increasing physical activity in West Virginia refer to the West Virginia Physical Activity Plan. If you have some fire under you to get things like this done in your community and would like assistance or someone to bounce ideas off of reach out to me.
And to learn more about the connection between fitness activity and economic development, check out the Try This, WV website.
Happy running, cycling, exploring!