Sports

Runners Put Flint In The Spotlight For All The Right Reasons

Annual race aims to uplift city dogged by water crisis by Patrick Hayes

September 2, 2016

Nearly 15,000 runners are gathered in the heart of a city. They are there to compete in a famous 10-mile race, celebrating its 40th anniversary, that attracts professional runners from all over the world. The participants are cheered on by thousands of supportive community members lining the streets of the course, hosting yard parties, playing live music, hosing down sweaty runners, and—in one case—handing out free Jell-O shots.

In short, it’s a giant, city-wide party whose citizens have one goal: welcoming visitors to their beautiful community.

That was the scene last weekend in Flint, Mich., for the Crim Festival of Races.

Over the past year Flint has received international attention for a public health crisis caused by lead leaching into the city’s water system. The problem stemmed from the government-mandated cost-cutting decision to switch the city’s water source from lake water to more corrosive and improperly treated river water.

The fallout? Widespread mistrust of and anger toward local, state, and federal government, exacerbating Flint’s already serious issues of widespread crimepoverty, crumbling schools, dwindling resources, and population decline.

(Photo courtesy Wystan)

Increased focus on the city’s problems has resulted in a largely accurate portrayal of the frustration held and dire daily circumstances often faced by many of Flint’s residents. But what largely has been missed is that Flint is filled with incredibly resilient people who have pride in what their city—one of the birthplaces of the American auto industry—represents historically, and also hope for what the city could become.

They see Flint continuing to evolve from a one-industry town into a place with significant higher education and healthcare resources, a growing downtown, and a micro-entrepreneurial ecosystem resulting in the creation of several new and unique small businesses in the city. And race festival organizers and members of the running community want to help Flint achieve those goals.

The community

The Crim Festival of Races has been held in Flint since 1977. Spearheaded by then-state Speaker of the House Bobby Crim, the event originally was founded to raise money for the Special Olympics, but expanded to support even more charities as the event grew bigger.

And now the mission is critical to Flint’s future.

(Image via Crim Fitness Foundation.)

“We understood early on that the water crisis was really a long-term health and wellness crisis for those who were impacted,” says Andy Younger, race director for the Crim Festival of Races and Crim Fitness Foundation. “As we learned more about what can be done to mitigate the impact of lead exposure—things like exercise, proper nutrition and mindfulness—we realized that those are core components of programs we were already doing.

“So we began looking at how we could tweak those programs so that we can help as many people as possible.”

(Image via Crim Fitness Foundation.)

Though historically known for the signature Festival of Races, the Crim Fitness Foundation has steadily grown throughout its existence, with a focus on promoting health and wellness within the extended Flint community. Thousands of people participate in the foundation’s running training program, which takes runners through locations in Flint and surrounding areas. There also is a yearly, non-competitive bike race along the Crim course each spring. And, most notably, the foundation has been tasked with reinvigorating community education, particularly among youth in Flint.

Flint had a longstanding history of robust community education programs that included neighborhood community centers, parks, and a wide range of youth sports and activities that many residents benefited from over a number of generations, starting in the 1930s. As the city’s population has declined and funding and facilities to support those programs have dwindled over the years, free or affordable community education also suffered or disappeared entirely for most of the city’s residents.

In 2015, the Crim Fitness Foundation, in partnership with AmeriCorps, the C.S. Mott Foundation, and Flint Community Schools, began reintroducing those programs through Flint schools. After piloting programs in several schools last school year, all Flint elementary and middle schools will have pilot community education programs administered by the Crim Foundation and its partners this school year. In addition to traditional youth sports programs, the initiative has led to nutrition programs, yoga and mindfulness programs and—through partnerships with local hospitals and healthcare providers—school nurses or “health navigators” to serve as resources in each school.

“We’ve been able to bring back youth sports to all Flint elementary and junior high schools for the first time in decades,” Younger tells GOOD. “These programs bring parents together and bring the entire community together. The public school system is the lifeblood of any community. The stakes are so high for us to do this right.”

The Race

Although the Crim Festival of Races has grown to include several different distance options—1-mile, 5K, and 8K races, and the Teddy Bear Trot for kids—the signature race has always been the 10-miler. It’s essentially Flint’s Boston Marathon. And, after the city and its residents dealt with a catastrophic public health crisis over the past year, organizers of the Crim used Boston as an example of how to further cement the race as a source of pride and rallying point for Flint.

The stakes are so high for us to do this right.

After the terrorist attack at the 2013 Boston Marathon, “Boston Strong” became the mantra for the 2014 race. Participating in one of the most famous running events in the world was the ultimate way to rally around Boston and show support for the city in the face of tragedy.

The 2016 Crim had its own call to action—“I Crim For Flint”—imploring participants from outside of the city to run, to show their support for Flint’s residents, and to see that the city is defined by much more than the water crisis. And it worked.

“This is one weekend each year where the entire city of Flint comes together, everyone supports each other and everyone takes pride in the city,” says Jasen Anthony, a Flint native who has participated in the Crim race for the past 14 years. “Flint shines during Crim weekend.”

The Crim has represented not only a race for Anthony, but an opportunity for his family members to spend quality time with one another.

“As a family, we plan our summer around the Crim,” he says. “We see each other weekly because we do the training program, we spend our entire Saturday race day together. The Crim pulls us all together and facilitates that.”

As a training program participant, Anthony has also seen firsthand the potential transformation that can happen to people’s health by just getting active. Anthony discovered he could run 10 miles, and a member of his running group lost 80 pounds.

“Anybody can become a runner,” he says. “One of the great things about the Crim is you don’t have to be a great athlete, but you can go out there and run in the same race as world-class athletes.”

(Image via Crim Fitness Foundation.)

Indeed, in years past the 10-mile race has been won by runners from nations such as Kenya, Tanzania, Great Britain, Mexico, and Zimbabwe. But the crop of professional runners who made the trip to Flint for the race this year was smaller than normal. This was intentional.

Race organizers took funds usually reserved for the prize purse and directed them toward scholarships for up to 2,000 Flint residents to run in one of the festival’s races. The entry costs this year ranged from $15 each for the Teddy Bear Trot to $125 per person for a three-race combo package.

“We wanted to eliminate barriers and give the people of Flint the opportunity to try a race and participate,” Younger says. “We saw a boost [in registrations] among all ages. It was a fantastic response.”

Ultimately, Michigan native and former Olympian Dathan Ritzhenhein became the first American to win the 10-mile race since 1990.

The Future

After switching back to its original water source, Flint’s water quality has steadily improved. Homes that have lead service lines into their homes have begun receiving replacement lines. Several service organizations, residents, and even celebrities continue to support Flint and its residents through a variety of programs. The long-term ramifications of the water crisis still are undetermined, but the city is steadily recovering from the initial emergency.

(Image via Crim Fitness Foundation.)

This year’s Crim 10-mile race did not magically heal the significant issues Flint must overcome, but it was emblematic of a city and people who, for generations, have not given up hope or pride of place no matter what catastrophe they are faced with.

“The Crim wouldn’t exist like it does here anywhere else,” Younger says. “There are bigger races in Michigan and around the country, but this is such a big deal here. Everyone drops what they’re doing, supports each other and just puts their best foot forward.

“We owe everything to Flint.”

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