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Wednesday, 15 August 2007 00:00

See you in the Moonlight: Maggie Valley races attract elite runners, tourists, and families looking for a fun evening run

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By Michael Beadle

Maggie Valley’s annual running event is only days away, and it looks to be regaining its reputation as one of Western North Carolina’s biggest races.

As of last week, the number of registrants for the Maggie Valley Moonlight Race was up by more than 100 percent when compared to registrations during the same period last year. Race Director Wendy Johnson and her crew of volunteers are expecting an even larger draw this year.

“Last year we had 930 runners, and I think we’ll easily hit our max this year,” said Johnson.

The 29th year of the Maggie Valley Moonlight races, which includes a kids dash, a one-miler, a 5K and an 8K, will be held Saturday evening, Aug. 18, starting with kids dash at 6:15 p.m. and finishing with the 8K at 8 p.m. The 8K race is designated as a USA Track and Field North Carolina Championship with a $2,800 purse for the top five winners male and female and top masters finishers male and female.

Haywood Regional Medical Center and Mission Hospitals of Asheville have partnered to sponsor a free Health, Fitness and Outdoor Expo Friday, Aug. 17, and Saturday, Aug. 18 at the Maggie Valley Festival Grounds. There will be plenty of product samples, give-aways and prizes from various local businesses. Two regional running shoe and apparel companies — Run In from Greenville, S.C., and Run For Your Life from Charlotte — will be there as well. Proceeds from the races will go to fight childhood obesity in Haywood County.

The 8K race course changed last year, giving runners a little less of a long grueling uphill climb. Instead of starting at the top of the valley at the Ghost Town parking lot and running the first half of the race downhill and the last half uphill, the new race course starts in the middle of the valley going uphill to the Ghost Town parking lot, then heads downhill past the starting line, then turning around at what was previously the half-way point and heading uphill about a mile for the finish. Runners still get the challenge of uphill climbs, but it’s not all in one segment.

Brad Dodson, a speedster from Waynesville who is often in the lead pack in local races, has run the Moonlight Race a few times, including last year. He had to rethink his strategy for the race after the course changed. Instead of going out fast downhill at the start and saving enough energy for the long climb at the end, you get to take on the toughest part of the hill at the start of the race when you’re fresh in the beginning and then pass the starting line on the way down, which is a psychological boost to know you don’t have much more to go. Still, the hill will find a way to tax you.

“You’re going to dread it on the hill anyway,” Dodson said. “You just try to save enough for that last mile uphill.”

The Moonlight Race struggled in recent years to draw runners and keep a steady organization to coordinate the event. Last year, Wendy Johnson and her husband, Al, took over as racing directors, and infused a new energy into the event. Their Motion Sports Management company coordinates large races in the Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg, Fla., area, and the couple splits half the year in Haywood County and half the year in Florida.

“We’ve been putting on races for about five years,” Johnson said.

It’s no small task coordinating a small army of about 125 local volunteers plus food vendors and the police, fire and rescue crews that will be handling traffic and keeping the runners safe on the road.

“The valley is pretty busy right now,” said Johnson, so it’s been a challenge setting up the free meals that will be available for the expected 1,500 runners and volunteers.

The Maggie Valley Moonlight Race was once a top-flight race listed in national running magazines back in the 1980s and ‘90s and was even named a Top 20 event in the country by Runner’s World Magazine. Some of that notoriety is coming back this year. In fact, Runner’s World Magazine is once again listing the Maggie Valley Moonlight Race as its Race of the Month for its August issue.

The Moonlight Race is now owned and operated by the not-for-profit Maggie Valley Moonlight Race, Inc. with a board of directors that includes area business leaders — some of whom are also avid runners.

With increased sponsorship, a steady organization, a bigger winning purse for runners, and even a new race course design from last year, the Moonlight Race is once again attracting runners from all over the Southeast — including elite runners who come for the challenge of setting a course record and taking home cash prizes.

“We’ve got a pretty nice list of top runners coming,” Johnson said.

Among the ones to watch this year will be Joe Driscoll and Judson Cake from the elite racing club Zap Fitness of Blowing Rock, N.C. Driscoll, who has never run the Maggie Valley Moonlight Race, said he was looking forward to the run as he and Cake prepare for the fall marathon season, which includes the Olympic Marathon Trials in New York City on Nov. 3. Driscoll’s personal best for the 8K is 23 minutes and 25 seconds. Last year’s winner, Jesse Norman of Cullowhee, finished in 25 minutes and 30 seconds.

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