“Runners take your mark”. It has evolved every year for nearly two decades, but to Peg Lahmeyer, the scene never gets old. Listening to the horn and watching the mass of runners surge from the starting line remains emotional for the executive director of The ARK of South Carolina. Because each of the competitors is there to support the organization’s mission of helping local families dealing with Alzheimer’s and other dementias.
“I’m in awe of it every year,” says Lahmeyer. “I’m even getting choked up right now just thinking about it, because people really do understand. It's a great way for us to raise awareness and educate people about what we do. There's just so much more visibility, and so many other opportunities for us to reach out and serve more families.”
Started in 2000 as a fundraising effort for a relatively new organization, the Race for The ARK has evolved into one of the Lowcountry’s more beloved road races, and the kickoff of the area’s running season. This August 24th brings the 20th edition, and the race’s success over the past two decades has played a major role in helping The ARK expand its services to help more people cope with cognitive loss.
“Each year, the funds increase. And each year we’ve broken the previous year's records as far as number of runners, corporate teams, and the funds that were raised,” Lahmeyer says. “And the funds all go back into the communities to serve local families. We use all of our fundraising dollars to serve the families that reach out and need the support.”
Growth and progress
In 2000, The ARK was four years old and operating out of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Summerville, and looking for ways to raise funds. Lori Daigle, a St. Luke’s parishioner and an avid runner, approached Lahmeyer about the idea of a road race.
“I trusted that she knew what she was doing, and I just had confidence that it would be successful,” Lahmeyer says. “And when we hit the 100th registered runner on that first year we were ecstatic, because we weren't sure if 15 people would show up. But we did go well over 100 that first year and, now we have over 550 5K finishers.”
Daigle served as race director for the first 11 years before relocating to Colorado, implementing a modern timing system and imbuing the race with a level of professionalism not seen at all 5Ks. “We're still using a lot of the tools that she taught us,” Lahmeyer says. Befitting The ARK’s mission, the spirit of the race became one of friendliness, with cheering spectators and spirit-boosting signs along the route.
Katherine Owens has run the race every year since it started, though she wasn’t a runner at first. A former neighbor of Lahmeyer, she signed up to walk the inaugural event with a friend and her son Spencer, but soon enough was picking up her pace.
“As I had already started passing a few runners, my pride made me keep going, even though it got more and more difficult,” Owens remembers. “I ended up running the whole way, minus the first 100 yards. I was shocked when I actually placed in my age group.”
The August date also makes the event an ideal tune-up for other races to come. “Being an avid and competitive runner, I’ve always considered Race for The ARK as the kickoff for the busy fall racing season,” says Daniel Clapper, who’s competed every year but one. “It’s a top-notch event for the entire family of runners and walkers to enjoy. Also, as a retired nurse, I fully understand caregiver burnout. The ARK provides an invaluable service to the local community.”
Serving the community
When the Race for The ARK started, its namesake organization offered one support group and a respite program. Now it has its own facility at 502 West 5th North St., offers four days of social respite, has a satellite center in Harleyville offering one day of respite, a neighborhood outreach project that helps support caregivers in underserved areas, and an early memory loss program called the Navigation Club.
“Our services have definitely grown in 20 years,” Lahmeyer says. “We’re just reaching out to so many more people, and our radius is five counties that we’re serving now.”
It’s no coincidence that The ARK and the Race for The ARK — which also includes a 1-mile fun run in addition to corporate and youth team events — have grown in tandem. Some competitors carry banners or wear T-shirts dedicating their run to family members who have battled Alzheimer’s or dementia. Runners like Owens continue to compete in part to support the organization’s mission.
“The ARK provides an invaluable resource to people who are suffering from memory loss and cognitive disorders,” she says. “It gives them a place to go where compassionate and knowledgeable people are there for them in their time of need. Their families know that they are in good and loving hands.”
Interested in signing up for this year’s race? Registration for the 20th Annual Race for The ARK can be found online. Those seeking more information on The ARK’s Alzheimer’s and dementia support programs can call (843) 471-1360, email info@TheARKofSC.org, or visit the organization’s website at TheARKofSC.org.