The seventh annual Sentara Sleighbell 5K Run, the 20th and final road race of the 2015 Colonial Road Runners Grand Prix series, is the third of the "Big Three" holiday season road races in Williamsburg and was held last Saturday morning under very unseasonable weather conditions.
The Sleighbell run, along with the Thanksgiving Day Blue Talon Bistro 5K, and the Dec. 6 Christmas Town Dash at Busch Gardens, had over a thousand combined finishers.
As a mid-December road race, the Sleighbell 5K starts at 10 a.m., later than the usual early morning start time for area road races, but often necessary when a typical frigid morning low in the 20s becomes a comfortable race in the 40s by 10 a.m.
That was not the case last weekend, when the Saturday morning low of 50 degrees rose to the low 60s by the race start, and peaked in the early afternoon, after all had left the Geddy Outpatient Center of the Sentara Hospital race location, to a summer-like 75 degrees under sunny skies.
Despite the warm temperatures, seven race age-group records were broken, including men's winner Roger Hopper, 24, of Williamsburg, the 2015 CRR Grand Prix men's champion.
Hopper ran 12 CRR races in 2015, and lost less than a handful of times.
Hopper finished second by four seconds to Bruton High coach Mark Tompkins at the Jamestown Swamp Run 5K in March (16:47 to 16:51), lost by the same margin to Tompkins at October's Governor's Land 5K (16:21 to 16:25), then was second to William and Mary coach Chris Solinsky (a former American record holder for the track 10,000 meters) at the Christmas Town Dash 8K, 26:38 to 27:57.
Hopper had placed third in 2012 (to Rawls Byrd Elementary physical education teacher Adam Otstot, who holds the men's course record of 15:27 from the inaugural year 2009), then returned this year to break his own men's 20-24 age group record of 16:58 with a winning time of 16:38 on the USATF-certified flat and fast out-and-back course (VA-12066-RT).
Well back in second and third were Warhill High's Spencer Conti, 17, of Williamsburg (17:42) and 2012 CRR Grand Prix champion Greg Dawson, 50, of Williamsburg (17:54). Dawson was runner-up to Hopper in this year's Grand Prix, and broke the men's 50-54 record of Jim Bates (18:21 in 2009) with his 17:54.
The women's winner, Pamela Lovett, 53, of Yorktown also broke an age-group record, her 20:17 just two seconds faster than the previous women's 50-54 mark of 20:19 in 2011 by Mercedes Castillo-D'Amico, then age 54.
Second and third overall for the women were Debbie McLaughlin, 50, of Williamsburg (20:28) and Anne Gilbride, 48, of Providence Forge (21:15). McLaughlin, who placed second in this year's CRR Grand Prix (to Jessica Riggs) has the women's 45-49 record at 20:01 from 2013, when she was runner-up to Jen Quarles. McLaughlin won Sleighbell last year in 20:18.
In the Masters (ages 40-and-over) award category, the top-three men were Jack Lovett, 45, of Yorktown (17:58), Steve Chantry, 60, of Williamsburg (18:36) and Paul Pelletier, 50, of Williamsburg (18:57). Chantry smashed the previous men's 60-64 record of 19:38 by Rick Platt from 2010. The women's Masters top three were Susan Hagel, 42, of Norfolk (22:17), Christine Schaffner, 52, of Yorktown (24:11) and Norma Phillips, 55, of Williamsburg (24:13).
Besides Hopper, Dawson and Chantry, one other Sleighbell men's age group mark was set, by Ernest Schillinger, 84, of Williamsburg in the men's 80-and-over category, with a time of 37:37.
For the women, besides Lovett, age-group marks were broken by Carol Talley, 61, of Toano (24:32 for women 60-64, bettering by seven seconds the previous mark of 24:39 by Linda Whittaker in 2009) and by Judy Stewart, 76, of Williamsburg (35:35 for women 75-79, breaking the previous mark of 36:24 by Ann Manciagli in 2011).
Fast times and records are one thing, but the main focus of the Sleighbell race is the kids. Proceeds from the race benefit area youth in after-school activities provided by the W-JCC School Health Initiative Program
According to race director Jim Elder of Colonial Sports, there were a total of 1,218 entrants, with 1,015 finishers in the 5K and 40 fun run finishers.
Of that total, a huge percentage, 743 were SHIP-associated participants, including 446 students. There were an additional 37 non-SHIP running club students from the Waller Mill, New Kent and Queens Lake schools. In addition there were 260 staff and family members, and seven from the sponsoring Williamsburg Health Foundation.
The award for the highest percentage of student participation went to Rawls Byrd Elementary, where Otstot is the physical education teacher. The award for largest staff participation (exclusive of families) went to J.B. Blayton Elementary.
"The Sleighbell is more than a 5K," Elder said. "It is a community event bringing together our citizens of all ages, race, ability and economic means to achieve together. Four hundred-plus middle school children train for 10 weeks to run a 5K and they more then hold their own with some of the best runners and walkers on the Peninsula.
"This is a community accomplishment where all involved are measured on the exact same standards, distance and time. Finishing is success and the rewards are many; accomplishment of a goal, improved aerobic fitness, stronger heart, lungs and legs but most importantly a stronger sense of self worth. Our community is richer for this event and we will reap the rewards later from the future civic accomplishments of these young participants."
The top SHIP finisher was Matthew Kopfer, 14, of Lanexa (20:15), although the most impressive age performance was from Beckman Dollyhigh, age 9, of Toano (21:11). The race also offered free entries to all over age 70, and besides the record-breaking Schillinger and Stewart, impressive times were turned in by Larry Arata, 71, of Williamsburg (25:18), Ann Hirn, 70, of Portsmouth (29:30) and Pat Eden, 84, of Williamsburg (50:08).
And a comment made to Elder from one of the schools involved: "Again, I can't stress enough that a good portion of these students wouldn't be able to participate if they had to pay a fee. We don't have 'runners' as much as we have a group of students that love being involved in a team, and they work hard to stay on it. In some students we actually see a difference in behaviors both in classrooms and on the bus because they know they don't want to lose their place in the running club. Thank you for making that possible for them."