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Rachel Ward prepares to cross the finish line during the 34th annual Charlottesville Women's 4-Miler running race Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016, at Foxfield in Charlottesville, Va. Photo/The Daily Progress/Andrew Shurtleff

It’s been said many times over the years that the Charlottesville Women’s Four Miler is so much more than a footrace.

From eight-year-old school girl runners to 80-year-old great grandmother walkers, this iconic event has been billed as the largest and most diverse all-female celebration of health and community and no one exemplifies that any better than Olympic Trials finalist Rachel Ward, who notched her seventh victory on Saturday morning. She led over 3,000 fellow female runners over the rolling and scenic Garth Road course along the beautiful grounds of Foxfield.

“This is my very favorite day of the year,” gushed Ward, the former Albemarle cross country state champion, who, like the past five years, led from start to finish. “There is so much excitement throughout the community in the weeks leading up to the race and for me, the day before always feels like Christmas Eve, as I can’t wait to join all of the other participants in this special celebration for such a wonderful cause!”

This year’s 34th edition was even that much more special than all of the previous races. It was not only the coolest morning of the summer but it also topped the record books as the coolest in the race’s long and illustrious history. With temperatures in the low 60’s, under cloudy skies, the participants were treated to excellent racing conditions.

There were more than 300 volunteers helping longtime co-directors Audrey and Cynthia Lorenzoni and one early morning veteran parker was overheard saying, “It feel like it’s a Men’s, not Women’s, Four Miler race morning!” The men’s race is run in November, usually under much cooler conditions.

Many took advantage of the unseasonably cool conditions by notching personal bests, with many scoring anywhere from two- to 10-minute improvements over this challenging country course.

Out front and at the top of the age groups, it was also one of the deepest and most competitive fields ever at this beloved Charlottesville Track Club event.

After Ward blazed the course in 22:02, Ann Dunn, who just recently moved to town with her husband (former UVa distance coach Jason Dunn), followed in a stellar 22:41, with Carly Hamilton finishing at 22:56 and Rachel Booth quickly on her heels, two seconds back, in 22:58.

This speedy foursome represented only the second time in race history that four women broke the 23 minute mark.

“This was my first time running in an all-women’s race and I thought the fan support along the entire course was awesome,” beamed the runner-up. “I had a lot of fun out there today and I’m also very pleased with my time.”

Locals dominated the top of the age groups, with Charlottesville runners taking a record 16 of the 17 overall categories. Blue Ribbon winners were: Reese Dalton, Ashleigh Nordt, Nayiri Krzysztofowicz, Ali Cobb, Lindsey Graybill, Caroline Bauer, Rachel Booth, Meg Crook, Nicola Ratclifffe, Susan Heald, Hosni Haghighian, Peggy Mowbray, Linda Scandore, Connie Friend and Nancy Fraser.

Dalton (26:43), Mowbray (29:30) and Scandore (33:46) rewrote the record book, with new course records in their respective age groups.

Close to 50 groups competed in the team category, from “Bosom Blasters” to “Moms Run this Town” with “Ragged Mountain Racing” taking the top spot. Susan and Erin Heald were the first of a record 92 mother-daughter teams to cross the finish line.

In addition to the athletic aspect of the event, many of the participants were racing in honor or in in memory of a loved one with cancer. Several hundred women in the field have been raising funds for the UVa Breast Care Center, with many still asking friends for support in reaching the race’s $300,000 goal.

Dozens of teams had the cause at their core, like Raising Cain, which had 22 members running in memory of Susan Cain, including eight Breast Cancer survivors, and “Crazy Strong”, whose 16 members, including two daughters and a grandchild, were running in honor of their dear friend Brenda Purcell.

“We are so appreciative of the support of all the women, in today’s race, with their battle to help us beat the beast,” said Dr. Robert Wilder, this years’ honorary race starter and longtime volunteer race medical director.

“This special event has now raised close to $3.5 million to help our wonderful cancer docs fight this disease and we thank the community for so generously supporting our participants,” said co-director Audrey Lorenzoni. “We’re still fundraising through September, so please read the race results and send a donation to the race in honor of someone you know.”

The most decorated Women’s Four Miler of all time may have summed it up for everyone.

“The support, the cheering, the countless volunteers and, above all else, the emotion and passion of all my fellow participants, makes it impossible to give anything less than 100% to this race,” Ward said. “I truly wish this special morning would last forever.” 

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Mark Lorenzoni is a correspondent for The Daily Progress.

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