Run like the wind

My reading habits have been ridiculed for featuring lightweight magazines, but let it be known I recently perused a medical journal called Cerebral Cortex.

In the February issue, I found a complex study confirming what legions of people in Western North Carolina and elsewhere already know: Running makes you feel good.

And they’re off: Last year’s Sunset Stampede rumbles up College Street in downtown Asheville. Courtesy Asheville Parks And Recreation

Using brain scans, researchers in Germany ascertained that during an active run the mood-changing chemicals known as endorphins flood the parts of the brain tied to emotions, producing the long-hypothesized “runner’s high.”

Area runners and residents looking for good vibrations of all sorts can test these results for themselves on Saturday, May 31, during the annual Mission Hospitals Sunset Stampede, which returns this year as part of the Mountain Sports Festival.

A highlight of the region’s running scene, the Stampede’s 10-mile course takes participants on a view-filled and fitness-testing tour from Martin Luther King Jr. Park to the summit of Sunset Mountain and back. This year the Stampede’s start time has been moved to the morning, with a 1-mile kids’ run kicking off at 8:15 a.m., and 10-mile and 5K events setting out at 9 a.m.

“It’s beautiful and challenging,” says race director and running coach Randy Ashley about the event, which is part of the Asheville Track Club’s Grand Prix series.

This year, those looking to go lighter on endorphin production have a new option—the Wondergirl 5K. While the course is flatter and shorter than the Stampede’s, it promises to trigger its own uplifting feelings. Open to everyone, the event will feature a field of about 500 8- to 14-year-old girls plus an equal number of adult “running buddies” participating as race chaperones.

The 5K is organized by the Western North Carolina chapter of Girls on the Run, a nonprofit whose after-school program blends fitness and character education for young women. Launched 12 years ago in Charlotte, the organization has grown to about 160 chapters throughout the country and in Canada.

“Our mission is to prepare girls for a lifetime of self-respect and healthy living,” says Molly Peeples, director of Girls on the Run of WNC, which formed in 2002 and reaches about 21 schools in six counties. The Wondergirl run, which began last year, is a semester-capping event that brings together the hundreds of program participants from across WNC.

“It’s a very powerful emotional experience,” Peeples says of the bonding that occurs at the race gathering. “It’s honestly jaw-dropping.”

In order to heighten and share that sense of empowerment, Peeples says, the Wondergirl race was included in the Sunset Stampede this year and opened to the public. As a result, about 1,500 total entrants are expected to toe the starting line, making the combined Stampede one of the largest local races this year.

“We wanted not only for our girls to be empowered by these runners, but for the runners to be empowered by these girls,” Peeples says, referring to the mix of participants. “To be sharing the course—that will be a pretty incredible experience for them.”

Ready, set, go

Running is that rare sport where novices and elite athletes, men and women, young and old, all line up together, whatever their eventual finishing times.

“Someone who’s a four-hour marathoner can be in the same event as a two-hour world-record holder—they have the same starting line and same finish line,” says race organizer Ashley. “Running is such a great participation sport.”

Fittingly, this year’s Stampede is focused on participation as much as winning, with recognition planned for the 10-mile winners but no official awards for the 5K event. Race sponsor Mission Hospitals hopes the opportunity to get active will attract beginning runners and many others to the 5K event, which heads north from the park along Charlotte Street and back.

“It’s not a hard race—you can run it or walk it,” Mission spokeswoman Becky Brown says. “It’s a whole-family event.”

Registration runs right up until 8:30 a.m. on race morning, allowing procrastinators the opportunity to jump in. The sign-up period to be a “running buddy” to accompany a Girls on the Run participant ended May 15, to allow time for the required background check. But other would-be race-day volunteers are encouraged to contact WNC’s Girls on the Run via the group’s Web site, Peeples says.

Want to run?

What: 6th annual Mission Hospitals Sunset Stampede
Includes: 10-mile race, Wondergirl 5K and children’s event
When: 9 a.m. Saturday, May 31, with the Kids Stampede at 8:15 a.m.
Starts: Martin Luther King Jr. Park
Cost: $25 for the 10-miler and $15 for the 5K (plus $10 after May 23) and $5 for Kids Stampede
Registration and more: www.sunsetstampede.org
Girls on the Run: www.gotrwnc.org

I plan to be part of the 5K pack, smiling as I soak in an early morning endorphin rush. Some casual runners, including myself from time to time, may question this “runner’s high” phenomenon. Hugging trees for support during the final stretches of the Shut-In Trail Run two years ago, I didn’t notice a blissful euphoria, only a prayer the pain would soon end.

But top-flight competitor Randy Ashley—a running coach and two-time qualifier for the Olympic marathon trials—is on board.

“I definitely believe it,” he says about the mood-elevation that a good run can spark. “I just feel better.” Ashley would like to see researchers move on to another runner’s theory: the elusive “second wind.”

“I’m not sure I believe it,” he says about the theory of a late-race boost. “I’d like to bottle that.”

[Writer and sometimes-runner Michael Flynn lives in Asheville.]

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