Peninsula residents came together Saturday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex to raise money for local Special Olympics athletes — while also enjoying some fresh air and exercise with their friends and family. The 2019 Law Enforcement Torch Run marks the 50th anniversary for the Special Olympics, and this year is also the first year that the central peninsula’s annual Torch Run took place in Soldotna instead of Kenai.
Tina Strayhorn, who is the local organizer for Special Olympics Alaska, said that this year’s run boasted one of the largest turnouts she’s seen since she started volunteering in 2007, with close to 100 people participating. The Law Enforcement Torch Run is one of the largest annual fundraising events for the Special Olympics, and is organized by local law enforcement agencies, as well as the Alaska Peace Officer’s Association. A dozen communities across Alaska, including Seward, Soldotna, Homer and Kodiak, hosted a Torch Run this year, raising thousands of dollars for their local athletes.
Colonel Barry Wilson of the Alaska State Troopers is the deputy director for the Torch Run and came down to Soldotna from Anchorage this year to participate in the race. Wilson worked in Soldotna for several years before moving to Anchorage, but one of this year’s participants, Mercedes, chimed in to take credit for getting Wilson down here.
“We peer-pressured him,” Mercedes said. Wilson admitted it didn’t take much pressure to decide to come down, and was proud of the support that the Special Olympics has on the central peninsula.
Wilson said that law enforcement agencies have a long tradition of supporting the Special Olympics, going back 40 years to Sun Run fundraisers, in which officers ran a relay from the Yukon River all the way to Anchorage. Wilson said that since the Torch Run began in 1991, the event has raised over $750 million for Special Olympics Athletes.
“I have the advantage of being old and really seeing the difference that the event has made over the years,” Wilson said. “It’s a great opportunity to support the athletes in doing what they love, and we get a lot of love back.”
Athletes were tasked with reaching out to their friends and neighbors to sponsor them in the run, and people also had the opportunity to donate online. One athlete, Tyne, said that she enjoys going out into the community and has fun raising money for the race. Tyne’s sport of choice is basketball, but she has been participating in the run since 2009. For the last couple of years Tyne has opted to ride her bike because it’s a little easier on the legs and she is able to finish faster.
Another athlete, Sam, has been participating in the torch run for nearly 20 years and also chose to ride her bike this year. This time around, she experimented with her Fitbit to see if it counted steps from cycling. Sam said she loves seeing everyone have fun and enjoy themselves each year in support of the Special Olympics.
After signing up for the run and shooting the breeze outside of the Soldotna Sports Complex, all the torch run participants gathered at the bike fix-it station by the entrance to the sports complex to hear a speech from Wilson and to take some last-minute group photos. Then everyone lined up behind the two torch-bearers — an officer and an athlete — before heading down the Unity Trail along K-Beach Road for a 5K loop. Tyne was right about the quickness of her bike and was one of the first ones to finish, but everyone was free to travel at their own pace.
After finishing the run, the athletes were treated to a cookout with hot dogs, sliders and plenty of fresh fruit and water. Strayhorn said that they tried to keep the menu as healthy as possible, but couldn’t resist throwing in a few sweets as well.
The weather was good for a run this year — partly overcast with the sun occasionally making an appearance — but bad weather has never stopped the athletes before.
“Raining, snowing, blowing, we’ve been out here in all of it,” Strayhorn said. All the proceeds from the fundraiser will go toward the local Special Olympics Athletes like Tyne and Sam and help fund their uniforms, equipment, training and transportation to competitions around the state.