Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Running with a Purpose

Story and Photos by Bridget Chavez
Link to Unedited Interview here
Link to Video Package here


Have you ever wondered what it would be like to go somewhere and have every single person know your name? And no, we're not talking about Cheers, "where everybody knows your name."  Penny Noll of Cazenovia knows exactly what that's like.

Walking into Fleet Feet on Erie Boulevard for packet pick up, you'd think Noll is a local celebrity to the Central New York running world and in a way she is. Folding tables labeled alphabetically by last name line the room and more than 6,000 runner's bibs are neatly organized in red plastic containers. But as Noll walks up to the table labeled "N," she's greeted by every single volunteer in a highlighter orange t-shirt. Before she even utters a a word, they've already pulled her bib and have her packet ready for her. Now that she has her bib she ducks under the table, slips a volunteer shirt on and helps the next runner waiting.

Noll has been volunteering with the Syracuse Half Marathon since its inception in 2013. Usually, she sticks to volunteering, but this year she's running the race.

"There's some sort of magic that happens on that start line," Noll says as she hands a racer his bib. "I feel all excited and a little bit nervous."

Noll began racing when she turned 50 because she says she realized her kids were getting older and she wanted to make sure she would still be around. One by one runners come to Noll's line to pick up their packets. Each is greeted and congratulated as if part of her own family.

"Congratulations!" she says to everyone racing and of course her motherly tendencies come out as well, "Now be sure you have everything and make sure you don't forget this come race day," she lectures.

She's earned that right having run a combined total of 33 half marathons and full marathons in the last 15 years.

"I thought to myself, I want to be around for grandchildren," the mother of two says, "I want to be healthy and I want to take care of myself." 

She started off by walking her dog around the block and progressed from there.

"A little more each day," she laughs. And about a year later she was running her first half marathon. But Noll's love for running developed further and she soon became a racing coach for the YMCA in Syracuse as well as a race coordinator and volunteer.

"She literally gets you through the race," Kathy Krzykowski says. Noll helped her train for this race and she says she couldn't have come this far without her support.

Race Day

Now, a cold, rainy Sunday morning makes most people want to curl up and stay in bed all day, but not for Noll. Long before the sunrise the 65-year-old was literally up and at'em making sure every last detail was in place for the Syracuse Half Marathon. 

The YMCA Runners of Syracuse gathered an hour before the start time in a corner of the OnCenter. Noll runs around throughout the morning counting heads to make sure everyone is there and ready to go. She also has a handful of gift bags for the runners she's coached running their first race. The bags have a water bottle, energy bar, Gatorade, an orange and running goo. 

Vicki O'Connor, who is also a member of the YMCA runners, says Noll has been with her from the beginning.

"She actually ran my first half marathon with me side by side," O'Connor says of Noll. "It was such a gift.

On the Line

As the start time draws near an announcement is made over the loudspeaker for all racers to take their places at the starting line. Noll makes her way out of the OnCenter and into the cold to find her place in the starting pen. 

"Good luck!" she squeals to a group of women from the YMCA.

"You're going to be great," she tells one nervous runner. "You've made it this far you can do it."

Noll finds a spot near the guardrail and begins stretching. The sound of the crowd drowns out the music playing at the start line. After several tries, the announcer is finally able to make his announcement that the race will begin shortly.

The National Anthem blares over the loudspeaker and the crowd falls silent. Runners with American flags raise them high above the crowd.

"And here we go..." the announcer bellows. "Three....two.....one..." Bang the gun goes off and Noll along with more than 6,000 runners is off.

Post Race

Just over two hours and twenty minutes in, Noll is nearing the finish line. Now by this time many runners have a look of utter exhaustion on their faces, but her face lights up at the sight of the finish line.

"We can do this," she encourages those alongside her. Noll finishes the race at the two hour and 22 minute mark. Vicki O'Connor from the YMCA is there to greet and give her the coveted medallion marking the accomplishment. The two embrace and Noll takes a quick walk to congratulate more runners.

"Okay, now I'm off again, "she says. She begins running the course backwards, seeking out the runners she's been coaching and anyone who looks like they may need some extra encouragement.

She disappears out of sight, but soon is running side by side with a runner.

"You're doing great. It's all you from here," she says. And again turns back around to seek out more runners. Returning again over and over with more runners. Doing this several times over, Noll ran alongside seven runners to help them cross the finish line.

Like the Energizer Bunny, Penny Noll keeps going and going.

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