The Bobby Crim 10-Mile is one of those legacy road races, birthed in the heyday of U.S. distance running, 1977, that popped up in unlikely places like Davenport, Iowa, or Falmouth, Mass., or in this case, Flint, Mich. Almost immediately, Crim attracted a top competitive field—Greg Meyer, Bill Rodgers, Herb Lindsay, Garry Bjorklund, Patti Catalano, Joan Benoit—and continued to do so for the next 38 years, due in part to a healthy prize purse.
This year, organizers of the Crim Festival of Races—which took place the weekend of Aug. 26-27—decided to take the nearly $40,000 earmarked for elite runners’ prizes to fund a scholarship program so that any Flint resident could enter any of the Festival’s races for free.
“We’re proud of the elite program we’ve built over the years, but in light of what has happened with the water crisis, we wanted to do what was best for the city and the community,” said race director Andrew Younger. “This is Flint’s biggest event of the year, and we wanted to make sure absolutely everybody could be part of it. We realized the elite program wasn’t the best thing for Flint this year.”
The water crisis Younger referred to began in April 2014, when Flint officials switched the city’s water supply from the anti-corrosion treated Detroit water system to the untreated Flint River, because it was cheaper. The Flint River was brown and smelled bad and toxic, but the real problem was that, untreated, it was so corrosive it allowed lead from the city’s many old pipes to leach into the water as it passed through. The beleaguered city’s plunging population over the last decade exacerbated the problem—fewer occupied houses on a block meant water sat in the pipes longer, leaching more lead from the pipes as it did so.
Residents were unwittingly knocking back lead-poisoned water for almost two years before Flint pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha sounded the alarm, after finding a jump in lead levels in her patients and going public with her findings. City officials attacked and attempted to discredit Hanna-Attisha; six state employees have since been charged with criminal negligence, but the damage is done. Children under six years old are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning, and the powerful neurotoxin causes permanent, irreversible cognitive and behavioral impairment.
“Our initial reaction was, ‘Oh no, what if no one comes to the race this year,’” said Younger, wondering if the negative publicity for the city would affect the Crim Festival, which consists of a Teddy Bear Trot, a 1-mile, 5K, 8K and 10-mile. “Then we thought, ‘Wait a minute—we have an opportunity to rally people and show the world what a wonderful community this is.’ There was so much positive we could do, for the health of residents of Flint and for the city’s reputation—in the face of insurmountable challenges, we’ve created Flint’s finest hour.”
While there is no cure for lead poisoning, Dr. Hanna-Attisha noted three factors that can help mitigate exposure—eating foods high in calcium, iron, and vitamin C; getting physical exercise; and mindfulness. Once lead is in the body, it can be excreted, which is preferable, or absorbed into the bones, which is not. Calcium, iron, and vitamin C bond with lead and help carry it out of the body.
As Younger explained, physical activity speeds up blood flow and metabolism, and helps prevent lead from being absorbed, while mindfulness/meditation has helped with the behavioral problems children with lead exposure have exhibited.
“I don’t know all the science behind it, but those three measures align perfectly with what the Crim Fitness Foundation has been teaching for the last ten years,” Younger said, “When we heard Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s recommendations, we thought, ‘That’s what we can do for the community.’”
Younger said encouraging people who would not ordinarily run a race to do so drove the decision to shift funds from prizes for a few top runners to subsidizing free entries for nearly 2,000 Flint residents.
“We partnered with churches and schools to make it easy for people to access the scholarship,” said Younger. “All we asked for was a Flint address. We thought about asking for proof of financial need or proof of address, but this was not the year for us to scrutinize applicants. It was about being as inclusive as possible. It was an investment in goodwill.”
Younger said the vast majority of applicants for free entries were for the shorter distance races. The hope is that these gratis runners enjoyed the race experience, and that walking or running becomes a habit they continue all year long. He had not yet gotten feedback from those who entered for free, but said the total entries for all races was 15,600, the second highest participation numbers the event has ever had.
Michigan native and 2:07 marathoner Dathan Ritzenhein showed up for the headliner 10-mile event, and won in an expectedly fast 47:23, the first time an American has won the Kenyan-dominated race in more than 20 years. Second place was more than two minutes back.
“We didn’t have nearly as many elite racers this year, but that’s their job. They go where the financial opportunities are,” Younger said. The lack of elite runners may have allowed Zachary Ornelas, citizen bib #7609, to place an impressive fourth in 51:48.
“We expected this year to be controversial, particularly with the elite running community, but we got nothing but positive feedback,” said Younger. “Not just okay, but true affirmation from the greater running community. We have yet to decide what we want to do next year. The key factor will be whatever is the best thing for our city. People really liked the scholarship. but that doesn’t mean we have to do it next year. Maybe we’ll do a mix—some scholarship funding and some prize money.”