By Scott Meeker
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Having just cruised across the line to finish in first place in the Joplin Memorial Run’s half-marathon, Andrew Webb paused for a moment to catch his breath and take it all in.
“Halfway through the run, the heat and the hills started catching up with me, but other than that it felt great,” said the 22-year-old Joplin resident, who finished in a little under 1 hour and 17 minutes.
“I remember (May 22, 2011) like it was yesterday. It was definitely a sad day, but I’m thankful to be here and my heart is out to all of the families. This means everything.”
A few minutes behind Webb was Jenna Mutz, also a Joplin resident and the first female half-marathon finisher.
“This is my second year for the run. I came in fourth last year and was about four minutes slower,” Mutz said.
“One of my best friends lost her home in the tornado. She was at home with her husband and 7-month-old baby. I’m tearing up just thinking about how much they struggled. (Running a half-marathon) is nothing compared to what they went through.”
In all, nearly 2,300 runners gathered Saturday morning near Memorial Hall to take part in either the half-marathon, 5K or 1-mile kids run. Formerly the Boomtown Half Marathon and 5K Run, the event was turned into a day of volunteer service several weeks after the 2011 tornado and then rechristened as the Joplin Memorial Run for 2012.
Friends and family lined Joplin Avenue to cheer for the runners as they crossed the finish line. While there was a festival-type atmosphere, those gathered for the event kept in mind the solemn reason for being there.
Wearing blue T-shirts that said “Team Wendy,” family members of Wendy Istas were present to show their support for the memory of their loved one, who had just finished directing a play at Stained Glass Theatre. Istas was one of three people killed when the tornado destroyed the theater.
“My sister is running the half-marathon this year,” said Tracy Happs, Istas’ daughter. “We enjoy getting together as a family and coming out to support my mom and the memories that we have of her.”
Donna and Randy Smith made the drive from Tulsa, Okla., to take part in the half-marathon.
“We came through Joplin right after the tornado and witnessed all of the devastation,” Randy Smith said. “We certainly felt like this race is for a good cause.”
Race director Ruth Sawkins said that she was pleased with the turnout for the second year of the run.
“We’re really happy with our numbers and we’ve already had a lot of positive feedback,” she said. “I think we’re here to stay. We’re going to keep getting bigger and better.”
New for this year’s event was the addition of the 161 banners along the race course in remembrance of each of the victims of the tornado.
“We’ve had a lot of emotional responses to the banners,” Sawkins said. “They were a lot of work, and we’re still raising funds to cover the cost of them.”
Traveling to Joplin as a special guest this year was Deena Kastor, who won the bronze medal in the women’s marathon at the 2004 Olympics — becoming the second American to receive a medal in the event in Olympic history.
“It’s just amazing to be able to share this special weekend with Joplin,” said Kastor, of Mammoth Lakes, Calif. “I’m so glad to be a part of it.”
Kastor spoke Friday night during a dinner for race participants, touching on the power of making positive choices, and how experiences can shape a person’s perspective and provide an opportunity to learn and grow.
While she didn’t run in the race, she was on hand Saturday morning to cheer on the runners and have pictures taken with them.
“Any time you can be part of a running event, whether you’re racing to earn a record or title, or just be there to support a community that is embodying health and fitness ... any way that I can be a part of it, I love to do it,” Kastor said.