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Runners gearing up for local spring races

One run held each spring is the 10k

One run held each spring is the 10k Run for ASPIRE held on a course that winds through the roads of Plainview and Old Bethpage. Here, the runners take off from the H.B. Mattlin Middle School on Washington Avenue in Plainview. The race also finishes there. (March 27, 2010) Credit: S. Polansky

Here's a true sign that spring has arrived:

This weekend there were no fewer than six road races held across Nassau-Suffolk: the popular Kings Park 15K (9.3 miles), a St. Patrick's Day 4-miler in Huntington and four 5K (3.1-mile) races -- one of them the aptly named the "Spring Thaw" 5K in St. James.

Indeed, this is the season when Long Island's road-running community begins to hit full stride. While some runners race year-round, the more sensible among them realize there is a season to everything -- and the not-too-hot, not-too-cold months of April and May are among the best for long distance.

So if you're looking to shake off the winter cobwebs -- and contribute to some good causes along the way -- Long Island has more than 30 events in the next eight weeks sure to test your fitness and help put a spring in your step.

Among them are these five, a combination of established "must-run" events and hot up-and-comers for good causes. All are interesting races in interesting places -- also good for mere mortals interested in being part of the volunteer crew or cheering from the sidelines. 

Nationwide 10K Run for ASPIRE, Plainview
Sunday, April 3; Registration:

It's the oldest continuously held 10K (6.2 miles) on Long Island, and this will be 34th annual running of what many consider a rite of spring. The first year, recalls Mike Polansky -- president of the Greater Long Island Running Club, which organizes this race -- one latecomer "ran up to the start about three minutes before the gun waving a $5 bill in his hand, which was gratefully accepted by the race director." The latecomer won.

It costs more to run now ($20 preregistration; $25 day of race), but you'll still find an event that brings back many runners year after year. Among them is Sue Fitzpatrick, 50, of Dix Hills, who estimates she's done this race 15 times. "It's a great course, it's got a challenging hill at mile five, it goes through neighborhoods . . . for me, it's pretty much a must-do race,' " Fitzpatrick says of the route, which winds through Old Bethpage and Plainview, starting and finishing at the Mattlin Middle School on Washington Avenue.

It's also for a good cause: ASPIRE is an organization that helps with the rehabilitation of young amputees, and there are usually about 25 members of the ASPIRE team who compete in the race, providing inspiration for all.

Doug Wood Memorial 5K Cross Country Run, Northport
Saturday, April 9;

The namesake for this race was a longtime member of the Northport Running Club.

"Doug was a very special guy," says Bill Fleming, director of the race now in its eighth year. "He was always interested in you and what you were doing." Wood was 62 when he died of a heart attack in 2003.

He was known to love the woods -- specifically, running along the trails of the 160-acre Makamah Nature Preserve, near Crab Meadow Beach, where the race is now held. (Start and finish is at the Norwood Avenue Elementary School.)

The few changes that have been made appear to have generated even more interest.

"When we dropped the distance from 8K to 5K, we went from 270 [runners] up to almost 500," said Fleming, 52. "We also changed the name [in 2009] from the Cross Country Challenge to Cross Country Run," a move he said made the course "seem a little less intimidating."

"It is challenging, but it's so much fun," says Northport's Kathryn Martin, 59, a national age-group champion who has done this race several times. "You're just running through the woods."

The race's male and female winners, which have included Martin, each get a special prize: works of art -- lamps, clocks, mirrors and sculptural trophies -- created by Wood's daughter Nancy, 35, an artist and runner.

And every entrant gets a shot at what must be one of the most unusual post-race raffle prizes anywhere: an introductory flight lesson, donated by a friend of Nancy Wood, over the North and South shores and back to Long Island MacArthur Airport.

Jigsaw 4-Mile Run/Walk for Autism, East Islip
Sunday, April 10; Registration: ejautismfounda

The couple behind this race are prominent names in Long Island running history: Pat Petersen, 51, a former national champion marathoner, finished in the top five in the New York City Marathon three times (only three other American runners can make that claim in the marathon's 40-year history). His wife, Bea Huste, 46, was a top competitive women's racer in the late 1980s and 1990s.

But the impetus for this race is not about their pasts but the present -- specifically their sons, Jack, 10, and Eric, 8, and the programs that serve them and other autistic children on Long Island.

"There are a lot of kids diagnosed with autism on Long Island, and we're about taking care of these children now," said Huste, who founded the EJ Autism Foundation in 2006 and started the 4-miler the next year. The race name, she says, is because "all of the participants help us put the pieces of the puzzle together to create a clearer picture about autism for at least that one day."

In each of its first four years, the Jigsaw Run/Walk has raised $15,000 for local programs. And with 739 finishers last year, it's becoming one of the largest local events of spring.

"It's our way of giving back and being grateful for what our children have received," Huste says. "All those years of running, building up all of our friendships in the running and autism communities, was leading to this."

RXR/TIAA-CREF Long Island Marathon: Festival of Races, Uniondale
Saturday-Sunday, April 30-May 1; Registration:

With six races spread over two days and about 6,000 participants annually, this is the largest running event of the spring and one of the largest of the year on Long Island.

The main event on Sunday traces its roots to some of Long Island's earliest marathons, in the 1970s. In 1984 a half-marathon (13.1 miles) was added, and its popularity soon eclipsed the 26.2-mile race. A 10K was added a few years later.

All three start on Charles Lindbergh Boulevard, by the Mitchel Athletic Complex, and finish in Eisenhower Park. (Saturday features three events: a 1-mile, 5K and a fun run for kids.)

While old-timers fondly remember the point-to-point half-marathon course that used to start in the park and finish on the boardwalk in Jones Beach, the new 13.1-mile course -- which runs through Westbury before circling back to East Meadow and Eisenhower Park -- is fairly flat and fast and eliminates the long stretches of the Wantagh Parkway that many found tedious and difficult.

One of those who has run this race through the various course iterations and returns year after year is Karen Cotty, a Merrick native who now lives in Quogue. Cotty, 47, ran the Long Island Half Marathon for the first time 25 years ago, cheered on by her father, Edward Cotty. When Cotty won the Long Island Half in 1991, she dedicated the race to him -- he died in 1987 -- and it's a practice she has continued.

"Every year at the starting line, I think of him," said Cotty, who still runs competitive times here. "He always told me . . . and I tell my daughter this now . . . no matter how fast or slow, the important thing is doing the race."

Oysterponds 5K Run, Orient
Saturday, May 14
; Registration:

Compared to the other races listed here, the Oysterponds 5K is Lilliputian, with 125 finishers last year. And yet, it affords runners a rare glimpse of an East End community few know: the historic and breathtakingly beautiful hamlet of Orient, on the very tip of Long Island's North Fork.

"This course is the most beautiful road 5K on Long Island," declares Kevin Barry, 48, the cross-country coach at East Hampton High School, who raced the Oysterponds 5K and now handles the timing chores for the event. "You go down these back roads, past old farmhouses and all these water views . . . you see Gardiners Bay, Bug Light House. It's great."

It's also for a good cause: The race is a fundraiser for an annual $1,000 college scholarship awarded by the faculty association of the Oysterponds Elementary School to a graduate of Greenport High School who attended the elementary school. "We get a lot of former students coming back, teachers, and family members," says race director Jennifer Wissemann, 42, a runner and fourth grade teacher at the school.

While its appeal may be hyper-local, she says, people from "Up Island" (as East Enders call the rest of Nassau-Suffolk) can use the 5K as part of a day-trip to one of the most scenic parts of Long Island. "I tell any of our Up-Island runners to bring a bike with them," she says. "After the race you can bike around the North Fork, you can have lunch in Greenport, visit the brew pub or a winery. Make a day of it."

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