SARATOGA SPRINGS More than 2,300 runners converged on Saratoga Springs early Sunday morning for the eighth annual Saratoga Palio: Melanie Merola O’Donnell Memorial Race.
Participation was up by about 40 percent from last year, said volunteer Kara Waters of Saratoga Springs.
“We didn’t do that much advertising or anything; it’s just word of mouth,” she said.
The race is conducted as a tribute to Melanie Merola O’Donnell, a city resident who lost her life in a 2006 auto accident.
O’Donnell worked with crisis response teams to help counsel families after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. She volunteered with and later became a staff member of the National Organization for Victim Assistance, and also provided assistance to individuals affected by traumatic life events such as natural disasters and school violence.
At the time of her death, the 33-year-old was working toward a doctorate in clinical psychology.
The race held in O’Donnell’s name supports local charities and raises funds to provide scholarships to graduate students pursuing a degree in the field of mental health.
“She pretty much might be the nicest person I ever met in my whole life,” said volunteer Kristine Zingaro of Liverpool, who graduated from high school with O’Donnell. “She was just a very sweet, kind person, just saw the best in everybody.”
That sentiment was echoed by a number of the 200-plus volunteers who staffed Sunday’s race, which included a half-marathon, a 5-kilometer run/walk and a kids’ fun run.
“When you talked to her, you instantly liked her,” said Alicia Baker, the volunteer coordinator for the event. “She was just a kind soul.”
A colorful mob of athletes packed Broadway right before the half-marathon kicked off at 7:30 a.m. Their running shorts providing little protection from the 50-degree air, they bounced up and down and rubbed their hands together to keep warm until the air horn signaled the beginning of their 13.1-mile trek.
Five minutes later, the 5K runners and walkers, a group about one-third the size of the mass of half-marathoners, were on their way. The first year the race was held, it was in Saratoga Spa State Park, with only about 240 runners participating, recalled Steve Merola, O’Donnell’s father.
His wife, Vicki Merola, said she attributes the event’s steady growth to the committee that works so hard to make each year’s race a reality.
“They do it from the heart, and I do think it comes through to people that our volunteers and our race committee, these people are not just doing it because it’s another race,” she said.
Even those who didn’t have a personal connection to O’Donnell enjoyed the atmosphere of the event and the run though the just-waking city.
“It was a great race. It was tons of fun. Everybody did a great job putting it together,” said Geoffrey Howles, 11, of Saratoga Springs, as he caught his breath after coming in third place in the 5K race.
Eighteen-year-old Evan Quinones of Saratoga Springs came in first in the 5K, after deciding to participate at the last minute.
“I just love the running community,” he said, near the finish line at High Rock Park. “I just come out to have a good time.”
This year’s Melanie Foundation scholarship recipients are Kevin O’Leary, a clinical psychology student at Antioch University New England; Jessica Bodie, who is studying clinical psychology at Temple University; Keira Moore, a behavior analysis student at Western New England University; Katherine Castejon, a student in the school of psychology at the University of Northern Colorado; and Magda Permut, who is studying clinical-community psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.
A portion of the proceeds from the event will also be donated to the Jake’s Help from Heaven Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports individuals with multiple medical challenges and disabilities.