Themed races and running groups gain popularity in Pittsburgh

Samuel Vescovi dashed by elephants, lions, zebras and several types of monkeys for more than two miles last fall.

On a November morning, Vescovi took to the pavement for a less-than-traditional 5K during the ZooZilla Run at the Pittsburgh Zoo. 

“Once you got to the top of the hill, and you started running down, you ran through actual [exhibits] of the animals,” Vescovi, Pitt’s recreational sports coordinator, said.

Vescovi, a 2011 Pitt alumnus, specializes in exercise science and recruited Pitt students for the run. 

A number of runs and running groups with entertainment, philanthropic or fitness goals have sprouted up across the Pittsburgh area. For Pitt students, such races have provided outlets to join a group or participate regardless of their levels of experience.

The term “fun run” has escalated in popularity recently, with races including the Color Run, a 5K where volunteers douse runners with colored powder at each kilometer, and the Electric Run, a nighttime 5K where runners are treated to light shows and music along the route.

For Pittsburgh’s annual ZooZilla, the roughly two-hour race — occuring again this November — charts a course around the Pittsburgh Zoo.

According to Vescovi, about 400 of last year’s 600 ZooZilla participants — estimating more than 100 students — were affiliated with the University. 

The race awarded top runners, but Vescovi said he ultimately considers ZooZilla a leisurely race and encourages students of all fitness levels to pursue a 5K. 

Vescovi said he wants to recruit 100 to 150 freshmen to run a 5K each fall, since “a 3.1 [mile] goal is not something everyone has done in high school.”

“And then whenever they advance at the University as a sophomore, junior or senior, they will run further distances and add more physical fitness to their lives,” he said.

Philanthropic causes also motivate participants to sign up for a group race.

Elizabeth Nagle, a professor from Pitt’s School of Education who has studied exercise and sports science, said all-inclusive charity runs can draw people who might not have ordinarily signed up for a 5K race. 

“[The race] is something very meaningful to them, whether it’s personal or with a family member or friend,” Nagle said. “You’re with others, and you’re feeling support from others, so I’m sure it would translate over to having additional participation at those events as well.”  

One such themed run in the Pittsburgh area is the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure on May 11 — Mother’s Day — in Schenley Park. The 22nd annual race is tailored to combine both beginner and expert runners. 

The race is part of a daylong initiative to raise money for breast cancer research and local prevention efforts in the area. The festivities also celebrate breast cancer survivors and commemorate those who have passed away from the disease.

According to Debra Lanzarotta, race and special project coordinator of Komen’s Pittsburgh affiliate, the event raised more than $2 million last year.

Competition levels vary depending on the race, including competitive or noncompetitive courses and a mile-long fun walk. About 3,000 participants of the 25,000 to 27,000 people in attendance participated in the competitive race last year according to Lanzarotta, and many competitors were in the college age range.  

“Some people just attend the events because we have a lot of sponsored events and activities going on,” she said.

Among the Pitt students in attendance last year was Kaylie Springer.

For 10 years, Springer, a senior studying political science and English writing, has joined the festivities with the rest of her family. Springer ran the 5K each year — except one because of shoulder surgery.

“[My family] know[s] plenty of people who have fought and overcome or fought and passed away from breast cancer,” Springer said. “So it’s just a really cool atmosphere to be able to celebrate with those people or see families with survivors.” 

Various groups at Pitt encourage students interested in running to participate in races together.

Three years ago, Lutong Yang wanted to spark an interest running as more than a health obligation.

Yang, a senior majoring in finance, founded Panther Strides, a student fitness organization welcoming students to the sport of running. She described Panther Strides as a “fun run” group, aimed toward leisure running.

Panther Strides is planning its first charity 5K, called The Run to Zero, at 9 a.m. March 29 in Schenley Park.

The race’s name represents the belief of United Nations Children’s Fund, which strives to provide humanitarian relief for impoverished youth, in a world where zero children die of preventable causes. The group plans to donate proceeds to UNICEF and an impoverished school in India. 

The event, although geared toward runners, is open to all Pitt students and community members. Participation is free, with a suggested donation of $10. 

Another recent addition to the Pitt running network is Panther Pride Running Crew managed by the University’s Department of Intramurals and Recreation.

Stephanie Valera, a Pitt senior majoring in health and physical activity, said the group offered a discounted registration fee for Pittsburgh half and full marathons. Valera interns at the Department of Intramurals and Recreation and said she entered the position as part of an effort to encourage campuswide running.

“[Panther Pride Running Crew] is just a running community for students,” Valera said. “This semester, we’re focusing on training for the Pittsburgh half and full marathon, but it’s open to any students. So if anyone wants to come and sign up and do runs with us, the more the merrier.”  

According to Valera, 160 members registered for the 13.1 and 26.2 mile races on May 4 through Panther Pride Running Crew.

Valera said the group meets on the weekends and separates into groups based on individual fitness goals. One group runs five miles, while the two remaining groups train for the half and full marathons.  

Despite PPRC’s high-mileage training, Valera emphasized the group’s openness to all types of runners. She hopes to register the group for 5Ks and 10Ks in the fall.

Valera has not yet planned themed 5Ks for the group. She sees the benefit in themed runs, such as the recently popularized entertainment races, but she said that she believes they might not suit competitive participants.

“It’s great for novice runners — no pressure — but for those who are out there to run a great time [and] really challenge themselves, themed runs aren’t really what that’s for,” she said.