DANIEL ISLAND — Few donned pink at the 19th annual Komen Lowcountry Race for the Cure quite like Old Fort Fire Engineer John Johnston on Saturday.
The 39-year-old — who lost his best friend, Michelle Kelly, to breast cancer last year and his father to multiple cancers six years ago — not only returned for his second Race for the Cure to walk the 5K in a 90-pound firefighter suit but dyed his hair bright pink.
It was a commitment that will last long after October’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month is over.
“I bleached it and it’s dyed, so it’s going to be pink for a while — probably for a month,” said Johnston, who vows to be part of the Race for the Cure for as long as he lives. “I have been getting some strange looks lately if I don’t have any fire department paraphernalia on but it gives me an opportunity to talk about the cure, which is very important to me.”
That’s just one example of the dedication people have to a cause that seems to touch everyone’s lives.
A crowd of at least 10,000 converged on Daniel Island for Saturday’s event, which seeks to raise more than $1 million in funds. Of the money raised by the event, 75 percent of it stays in the Lowcountry to pay for examinations and education efforts and 25 percent goes to the national affiliate for research and other programs.
Presenting sponsor Bi-Lo made a big gift toward that $1 million goal on Saturday, giving the Lowcountry affiliate a check for $200,905 collected in mostly small donations from customers and employees at stores in the Carolinas, Tennessee and Georgia. The supermarket’s initial goal was $10,000.
Rusty Streetman, vice president of store operations for Bi-Lo, said the company turned the fundraising effort into a competition, sending out fundraising reports every two days which gave employees an extra incentive to an already powerful one to raise money.
“So many of our employees and families have been touched by this terrible disease,” said Streetman. “This is not only a great cause, but it’s easy to get people charged up about it and for finding for a cure.”
Komen Lowcountry Executive Director Taffy Tamblyn said the Bi-Lo gift is the single largest in the affiliate’s history, but added that she will not know how much it has raised from this year’s drive until collections are due and tabulated in late November.
She also declined to speculate on fundraising but hopes to crest the $1 million milestone for the first time. Last year, the event raised a little more than $900,000.
Tamblyn says she is often touched by gifts, both big and small, including one donated by the children of a young woman who had treatment for breast cancer last year. The mother delivered a plastic jug, decorated with pink ribbons, used to collect money from a bake sale and filled with crumpled bills. It added up to about $400.
The College of Charleston sorority, Zeta Tau Alpha, also put in extra effort this year, according to ZTA members Meredith Looney of Anderson and Aly Cohan of Atlanta.
The juniors said the sorority, which raised $7,000 last year, surpassed the $10,000 mark this year through bake sales, other fundraisers and online donation requests. More than 100 current sorority members and alumni also joined in volunteering to help with the race.
The race itself set a participation record, but more by virtue of timing — and counting — all the runners and walkers in the 5K. The 2010 record of 3,070 was smashed with a preliminary figure of 5,380, which will likely rank the 5K among the top three biggest races in South Carolina and top 30 biggest 5Ks in the United States in 2012.
Komen Lowcountry also timed the 1-mile fun run and walk, which had a preliminary count of about 1,400.
Total registration figures, as of Friday night, came in at about 9,200, according to a race spokesperson Jordan Freeman.
Saturday’s race, once again, was marked by organized, calm traffic — thanks to shuttle buses from shopping centers in North Charleston and Mount Pleasant first implemented at last year’s race — and perfect conditions: sunny skies and cool but not cold weather.
One issue for competitive runners, however, was the length of the course. A 5K is 3.106 miles long, but many who were wearing GPS watches noted that Saturday’s race was long, about 3.35 miles. Times also were consistently about a minute off for top runners.
In fact, the winner — Michael Banks, 26, who moved to Charleston in August — is used to running 5Ks well under the 16 minutes, 11 seconds that he was clocked at on Saturday.
Banks, a former collegiate runner and coach at Georgetown University, has track times of 13:38 for the 5K and 3:40 for the 1,500 meters, but was a bit more diplomatic about Saturday’s long course than other top runners.
“It (the course) was a little long, but it wasn’t a big deal” said Banks, who is working at the Charleston School of Law. “I had a lot of fun today and I’ll definitely be back for this race. It’s for a tremendous cause, all the people were friendly, the course was great, and you couldn’t ask for better running weather.”
Top female finisher Kathryn Ashton wasn’t happy about her time of 19:35, but was with her first-place finish.
“I’m excited to win a race this big … I wasn’t expecting this at all,” said Ashton, who lives in Columbia with her husband, Eric Ashton, a nationally ranked masters runner. The couple also have a home on Daniel Island and marked their second year doing the race.
In contrast, some were getting the gumption just to walk the local Race for the Cure for the first time.
Shirley Carter of James Island, who is a four-year survivor of breast cancer, walked in her first, in part, because her cousins Loretha and Marlaine Wilder, who lost a sister to breast cancer, wanted to do it.
“Every year I kept saying I was going to come do it and I never did make it,” said Carter, adding that she enjoyed the day so much that she will strongly consider coming back next year.
Marlaine added, “Cancer touches everybody.”
Thousands of people, including groups of co-workers and friends, participated in the annual Komen Lowcountry Race for the Cure on Daniel Island on Saturday to show their support for mothers, aunts, sisters, grandmothers, wives and friends.×