Running in groups did not come naturally to local runner Janet Gadient, who died of pancreatic cancer last fall.
So it’s ironic and touching that the Live to 100 5K, which celebrated Gadient’s life and spirit and also reflected one of her last wishes, should draw so many runners to the streets of the Meadowmont community last Saturday.
“She was a reluctant group runner,” said Dave Sargent, race director and founder of the Millstriders, a local running group with whom Gadient ran several events.
Members of the Millstriders noticed Gadient running laps on the upstairs lanes of the UNC Wellness Center at Meadowmont while her mom was walking.
“We convinced her to run a relay with us up in Vermont — one of those 24-hour relays — and that was like ‘mission accomplished’ for me,” Sargent said. “She was a reluctant runner, but she was a giver. She was just such a giver, not a taker in any fashion.”
Gadient died “at a young 60 years of age physically fit and a vibrant soul,” the race’s website stated. But “she came up short in her goal to live to see the century mark. Her last wish was to see to it that her friends and fellow runners would celebrate her spirit in a 5K.”
The race’s banner: “Run. Because you can.”
“Run. Because you can,” echoed Gadient’s lifelong friend Pam Wimpling, who worked with Sargent to see the race come to life. “Janet coined that just a couple days before she passed away. She was such a passionate runner, and she just wanted to pass that on.”
Thus, Saturday morning become a sort of runners’ wake: when runners memorialize another respected runner and friend, they run.
“She’s got friends and co-workers here that have come from all over the country,” Sargent said. “She was an attorney for IBM, and a lot of her IBM folks came. She’s touched a lot of lives.”
“People came today from Washington, D.C. … from Minnesota,” Wimpling said. “Some drove in last night.”
Also present were dozens who knew Gadient through the Millstriders.
“I didn’t know Janet that well, but I ran the relay (in Vermont) with her,” Millstrider Kathy Matera said. “Bless her heart, she jumped in feet-first.”
Founded in 2004, the Millstriders offer weekly, organized runs with a dash of spontaneous fun in Carrboro, Chapel Hill, Durham, Pittsboro, Raleigh and the world.
“I didn’t even know all of these friends from different parts of her life,” Sargent added. It’s like she was the hub of a wheel with all of these spokes going out in different directions.”
Sargent said that wheel began turning last fall with Gadient in failing health and nearing the end of her 13-month battle with pancreatic cancer.
“She called me over to her house when she was in hospice care and asked if I would arrange this,” he said.
“Every dime from the entry fees is going to the LiveFit program at the UNC Wellness Center which is helps recovering cancer patients to have an active lifestyle.”
With overhead for the race being funded by Gadient’s estate, entry fees and all additional contributions will flow completely to the LiveFit program.
Sargent explained that, while some might have trouble affording the program, he hoped the race would provide up to $5,000 toward funding scholarships to help cancer survivors claim or reclaim the kind of healthy lifestyle championed by Gadient.
“For pancreatic cancer, 13 months is outstanding, and she ran right up to the end,” he said. “Running was a huge part of her life. ... She’d always had a very healthy lifestyle.”
Also demonstrating the fruits of a healthy lifestyle was overall winner Bart Bechard (19:02), who outpaced second-place finisher Ryan O’Mara (19:29) and third-place finisher Alexander Kenan (20:19).
“The course was hilly, but mostly just toward the end,” Bechard said. “Overall, it was a pretty big comfortable course though.
“I caught up with the leader around halfway through and we ran together for a while, but then he slowed down a little on one of the hills, and I pushed the pace.”
Given somewhat steamy conditions on sunnier portions of the course, however, Bechard was pleased with his race.
“I was happy with it,” he said. “I would like to have run a little faster, but it was actually better than I expected.”
Chapel Hill’s Anna Kenan (22:39) finished first among females, outpacing a trio of Chapel Hill High distance standouts – Elise Matera, Maeve Gualtieri-Reed, and Marija Crook, who crossed the line together in 23:34.
“I’m a runner, but was sick for a month before this,” said Kenan, a College of William and Mary student. “My goal was to finish under 23:00.”
Next up for Bechard will be “some fast 5K’s,” while Kenan envisions running her first half-marathon.
Crook and Gualtieri-Reed will soon begin training for Chapel Hill High cross-country, while Matera will run at Vassar College beginning this fall.
For Sargent and Wimpling, however, the event marked the successful fruition of a much more comprehensive vision.
“(Janet and I) were best friends for 50 years,” Wimpling said, wistfully. “We met at 10 and stayed best friends. ... She was in my kids’ whole lives. I miss her every day, and this race had given me something to work towards. This is the finale.”
While Wimpling said the event most certainly would have made Gadient very happy, the future of the race seems less certain.
“Maybe we’ll do something more,” Sargent said. “People have been asking, but we don’t know.’”
“When people ask, I’ve been like, ‘I don’t know,’” Wimpling echoed. “I don’t even live here. live in Tallahassee. I’ve been here almost as much as I’ve been there since last September though.”
Perhaps the doubt concerning the race’s future, however, just underscores the message Janet Gadient reflected in her life: In the shadow of uncertainty, it’s best to live each day to its fullest, or simply …
“Run. Because You Can.”