Mingo County residents are running for their lives
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.
"It's contagious, the way they're doing it," said resident Rick Robinette, waiting for the 5K to start. "You see people running, then you see them again, then you want to do it, too, so you think about it, then maybe the next month, you show up, and then you're hooked.
His wife, Suzanne, said the every-month schedule makes a big difference. "It's motivating," she said. "It makes me want to run in between 5Ks, to get in better shape, to see if I can do better next month."
So far, it's paying for itself, Hatfield said. They charge $20 for adults, $5 for kids. Everyone gets a T-shirt, and every child gets a little trophy. Sometimes, sponsors kick in. Williamson Memorial Hospital sponsored a recent run.
"Our aims go hand in hand with the aims of the Diabetes Coalition," Hatfield said. "This is a good partnership."
"What we're doing is, we're adding running and walking to the county cultural mix," said Vicki Hatfield. "It's not weird to run down the street anymore."
Most Mingo adults are not going to jump up off the couch and start running, she knows. "But some will, and a lot more will think about it, so we're starting there. It will spread."
Mingo County has one of the state's highest unemployment rates and lowest per capita incomes. "And walking or running doesn't cost a dime, once you've got shoes," she said. "This is something any county could do."
"Something is happening around here," said retired teacher Dru Simpkins, waiting for the October 5K to start. "Something is changing."
People who run with Batausa see some of the changes. Sometimes, they run past the farmers market and the two new hoop greenhouses that supply it. They run past the community gardens where, in warm weather, elderly people grow corn in the middle of town. Sometimes, they run up the mountain to the new pick-your-own orchard. Or they run on acres outside town where the Redevelopment Authority is creating a recreation area with hiking/biking trails.
"It used to be that you never saw anybody out walking," said Simpkins' walking buddy, Mary Ann Elia, 59. She and her friends walk 4 miles a day now, she said. "Now we always run into people walking or running on the floodwall and in the streets,"
Scott Suttles, from nearby Pikeville, Ky., called it cultural change in action. "I think we're revising our own stereotype of ourselves," he said.
The next monthly run is a night run at 7 p.m. on March 22. Registration begins at 5 p.m. at 201 Central Ave. in South Williamson.
Reach Kate Long at 304-348-1798 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
"The Shape We're In" has been supported by a Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism fellowship, administered by the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.