WILLIAMSON, W.Va. -- As rain threatened and fog circled the mountaintops, about 120 people -- adults and kids -- lined up along the Tug River flood wall up for Williamson's monthly 5K run and walk, chatting, laughing, greeting.
Many were beginners. Schoolteachers, railroad workers, kids, housewives, grandparents, some had never run or walked a 5K before. There was excitement in the air. "My friend did it," one woman said, "so now I'm trying." Others echoed her.At the signal, everyone ran -- or walked -- through town, streamed across the Corridor G bridge, then headed up the steep road looping through the Williamson cemetery. City police cars with flashing lights kept them safe on the bridge.
In nine months, these monthly 5Ks have become a regular Mingo County community event, not advertised much beyond the county. They are one prong of a many-pronged, multi-agency effort to improve the coalfield county's alarming health statistics.
In 2011-12, 39 percent of Mingo fifth-graders were measured with high blood pressure. Almost 40 percent of adults are obese, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control. The county leads West Virginia in hypertension. Mingo's early-death rate is one of the highest in the nation.
"We're facing a situation no one agency can solve," said Randy Keathley, Mingo County Schools superintendent, "so we're working together as a county -- as one, not as a bunch of individual agencies. It's going to take everyone working together."
About three years ago, a determined group of Williamson-area residents from multiple organizations, government offices and businesses decided to pool efforts and try to lower those numbers. They managed to develop an array of projects "that are starting to add up to real change," said Dr. Dino Beckett, president of the Williamson Redevelopment Authority.
The monthly 5Ks are one of the most visible and least expensive. About 25 people showed up for the first one, last June. The next month, 70 came. The next, it was 100.
"Wait till warm weather," said organizer Alexis Batausa. "Then it's going to explode."
"Anyone who exercises a half hour three times a week is less likely to get diabetes and heart disease," Batausa said. "This is something any county can do for its residents."
The Tug Valley Road Runners sponsor high-profile marathons each year, such as the Hatfield & McCoy Marathon. They attract people from several states. "But these monthly races are for us, for local people," said David Hatfield, club president.
Batausa is in the perfect position to inspire people. A Williamson High graduate, he ballooned up after graduation, then shed it by running. People look at him and think change is possible, he said.
Every week, in between 5Ks, he invites everyone to join his daily runs around Williamson. On the Tug Valley Road Runners Facebook page, he keeps up a stream of tips and encouraging chatter and tells when/where the next daily run will start.
Williamson residents have gotten used to seeing people run past.