By Abigail Thornton
Friends of the Chessie Trail hosted its first half-marathon and 5K race this past Saturday, Oct. 15, kicking off what race organizers and participants alike say is sure to become a signature event for the organization.
Over 300 athletes took part in the competition, which featured both a half-marathon and 5K race and raised over $5000 for the organization, dedicated to the preservation and improvement of the VMI-owned Chessie Trail.
Runners enjoyed perfect fall weather on the trail, which is the former rail bed of the Chesapeake & Ohio along the Maury River.
“I think it’s great to see so many different kinds of people here in terms of ability,” said 5K participant David Howison. “The half-marathon in particular has brought a lot of people out here to the trail, and I think that this will become a tremendous event for the city of Lexington and for Friends of the Chessie.”
A nonprofit organization, Friends of the Chessie Trail was born in June 2014 after several members of Rockbridge Area Conservation Council (RACC) decided that there needed to be a separate organization devoted solely to the conservation of the Chessie. That winter, Friends of the Chessie Trail was formed, bylaws were drafted, a mission was stated and goals were set.
Becky McKenzie, education outreach and communications chair for the organization, was a critical part of these early stages.
“We’re a young organization, but a thriving one,” said McKenzie, who fell in love with the Chessie when she moved here in the 1990’s.
“I love the idea that you can get on it and just sort of be by yourself for a little while,” she said. “It’s great having a trail this close by that’s accessible and that I can help be responsible for.”
Though Saturday’s event was the first major fundraising effort by Friends of the Chessie, the trail has come a long way in the past year and a half thanks to the organization, which has improved the trail’s surface, installed bicycle-accessible gates and repaired a cattle bridge along the trail.
Over the past few months, Scudder has reinforced sidewalks along Route 60 and created an access trail connecting the Buena Vista end to a big parking lot near the city’s boat launch. Scudder’s efforts have made access to the Chessie much easier for Buena Vista users, McKenzie said.
“[Lexington’s] end of the trail is really well-maintained — it’s beautiful. It’s wheel-chair accessible,” she said. “So, we would all love to see the Buena Vista end get the same kind of attention, and [Scudder] has done some tremendous work so far.”
Ultimately, Scudder’s dream is to connect the Chessie to Buena Vista’s miles of trails, a project that he calls “Braiding the Chessie.”
“I think it’s an excellent idea,” said Howison, who found out about the race from his friend, race director Eric Sheffield.
How will the organization spend the fruits of its latest (and biggest) endeavor to-date? McKenzie said that the organization’s board of directors has a couple of ideas in mind.
Much of the money, she said, will go towards the continued maintenance of the trail.
Additionally, Friends of the Chessie wants to explore ways to make the area under the Interstate-81 bridge in East Lexington more aesthetically pleasing. The organization also wants to make the trail entrance off Furrs Mill Road more accessible for bicycles and wheelchairs.
“A dream of mine is to make that entrance ADA compliant,” McKenzie said. “It’s really dangerous right now, so we’ve been talking about how to make it easier for people to get down to the trail off that road.”
Projects like these are all part of the nonprofit’s greater efforts to get the whole community involved in the Chessie and its continued preservation.
McKenzie said that while the organization has grown steadily from around 50 members at its birth to nearly 100, she would like to see even more community members get involved, especially students.
Daphne Stickley, who volunteered at the event, is not a member of Friends of the Chessie. But the trail enthusiast said that this may soon change.
“I didn’t really know what it was all about before,” said Stickley, “But I can see that they do a lot of good things for the Chessie, and I think that I’d like to be a part of it.”
“I have tremendous respect for the people that have pulled this off,” added Howison. “It’s a unique race and this trail is just special.”