On My Way: Community spirit

Running (or walking) the 5K for KJ is a Thanksgiving tradition for our family.


The annual 5K for KJ is a Thanksgiving tradition in my family.

Our first participation in the event was in ’16 or ’17, when my son Peter was first a member of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School cross-country team. We have been represented ever since.

My mother cried out the call for runners Friday night as we ate leftover apple crisp and pumpkin pie topped with homemade whipped cream. The older folks, all of us at least over 50, signed on right away. The younger folks required some cajoling. “Ten am?” they said, “is too early a start.”

My daughter Maggie and I, and our pup Becham arrived at the high school about 9:50 am. I waited outside the open door to the cafeteria in a breezy cold with Becham. Maggie went inside to register and mingle.

As Becham and I waited, a man jogged up the street, stopped and started to stretch. I recognized Todd right away. Twenty years or so ago, we both were starting careers at The Martha’s Vineyard Times. I said hello.

Todd, an enthusiastic runner, told me he and his wife now live in New Bedford. But, he said, they return every year for the 5K for KJ. The effort made sense to me. It is just that kind of race.

The race is the product of a lot of work and commitment.

Inside the cafeteria, I knew from experience, the boosters and parents of current high school runners were doing the work of registration. This in addition to the work of signing up sponsors, and planning and ordering T shirts. Joe Schroeder, the longtime and tireless cross-country coach, and his wife, Marylee, often spend hours late into the evening preparing for such a race.

The runners, some 60 or 70 of us, lined up haphazardly at the start. The race is run on the high school’s cross-country course. Becham and I found our place in the back.

The day was bright, sunny, and cold. I was dressed in a wool sweater, heavy wool Army-style button-down, down vest, and wool hat. The chilled breeze blowing over the open fields was pleasant. All boded well.

Coach Schroeder officiated with his bullhorn. There is no place he would rather be than out on the cross-country course. He congratulated everyone for turning out. The 17th annual 5K for KJ, he said, set a record for low temperature. He then spoke some about the race.

The 5k for KJ is raced annually on the Saturday after Thanksgiving in honor of Kevin H. Johnson. Kevin, a MVRHS cross-country runner, lost his life in an automobile accident. Proceeds from the race fund the Kevin H. Johnson Cross-Country Scholarship, which assists graduating seniors with college tuition.

“We are all running for someone,” Schroeder said.

In a separate conversation, Schroeder told me KJ was the type of kid who ran for the team. He may not have been in the top seven, but he always encouraged others to make their way into that group. He was full of team spirit and camaraderie.

Schroeder asked for a moment of silence. We bowed our heads. Schroeder then called ready. He blew the horn. The runners and walkers took off with excitement. Becham and I hung back. We would have been in the way. The small sea of people flooded forward.

I could not help the nostalgia as I walked the start. For four years, I stood along the side as a fan at the home meets to cheer on Peter. The cross-country program, from the start, provided Peter with the opportunity to thrive. I watched and shared in his growth during his years of racing for the high school. The course holds a special place.

We came to the baseball stadium. By necessity, the crowd of participants begins to string out here. We crossed a path through a line of trees to a field. We soon were on the trail in the woods.

My sister Pammy and I walked together. She and her family come every other year for the Thanksgiving holiday. The visit is always fun — filled with walks, card games, and croquet.

Up ahead, our mother went at a jog/walk. She was hoping to defend her title in the 80-and-overs. We walked amid a few other small groups. Becham insisted on going just a little bit slower than our pace.

We were just making the turn out of the woods onto the fire lane when the first runner pounded back around in the other direction. We stepped out of his way. I felt humility and admiration for his strength and speed. A line of runners making for the finish now came at us. Pammy’s son Alex ran amid them. He wore a hoodie and made effortless strides. He gave us an easy smile.

Our brother Douglas was at the approximate one-mile mark with his camera. He cheered us on as we rounded the fire lane and went back into the woods. Now in the State Forest loop, we would not see any other runners.

There is no hurry in the 5K for KJ. A sense of community fills the trail. The warm vibe of Thanksgiving imbues the spirit. Everyone goes at their chosen pace, fast or slow. I think we run for each other.

Pammy and I chatted aimlessly. We made the next turn not long later, and rounded the meadow. Our mother long since had disappeared from view. Those behind us had fallen back. We had a rare moment of brother and sister to ourselves. The trail was quiet and peaceful.

Becham now changed tactics. He pulled ahead rather than pulling back on the leash. Perhaps he sensed his Grammy — who spoils him to no end — not too far in front.

We went back into the woods. We came back to the mile mark. We walked back up the fire lane. We turned back into the woods. One almost could feel the presence of those who already had passed through. We walked on. We came back past the baseball stadium. The finish was no more than a hundred yards.

A group of Burkes and Rushings and Grillos — some participants and some spectators — stood off to one side of the finish, waiting for us. As we neared, I let go of the leash. Becham sprinted ahead, to the cheers of both family and crowd. Pammy and I crossed the line.

Many compliments and congratulations waited for us. Our mother had a box of chocolates. She had won again in the 80-and-overs. I took the chocolate on the top. No one dawdled. Folks had been standing around in the cold waiting, and were ready to go. We dispersed to various cars. Those of us on the East Coast said goodbye to Pammy, Geoff, Colin, and Alex, who were setting back for San Francisco. We may not see them again until summer.

Spirits were full, though. We are lucky for our family. We will be back for sure next year for the 5K for KJ.