May. 10, 2024 |
by Beth Sparks

Taking the PATH Back to Life

After a slight sabbatical, one of the Tri-State Area’s most popular running events is returning to Huntington in the fall of 2024, with funds raised by PATH to the Cure still going to help cancer victims.

“People begged for it to come back because it was such a huge success,” said Julie Neal, who organized the first run and was overwhelmed by the groundswell of acceptance it generated. “It’s been in big demand.”

PATH to the Cure came to life in 2011 as a 5-K run and walk to benefit the St. Mary’s Medical Center Foundation (SMMC). Money from the first five races went to the Pink Ribbon Fund for breast cancer screenings and the Paul Ambrose Trail for Health (PATH).

With the resurfacing of the race, proceeds will go to the Good Samaritan Fund. This fund helps needy cancer victims at all three Marshall Health Network hospitals with the costs of travel, lodging and other expenses associated with treatment.

Ironically, since she organized the race as a volunteer to benefit patients being screened at St. Mary’s Medical Center, Neal later joined the St. Mary’s staff as Director of Volunteer Services. She has since taken on the same title for the Marshall Health Network, overseeing efforts at all MHN hospitals.

Inspiration for the Run

Neal found the inspiration for PATH to the Cure by participating in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in Washington, D.C. She was working for another company in 2008 when she and friend Alecia Rice decided to get healthy. After hiking the Grand Canyon and entering the Komen Race—which benefits breast cancer research—they decided they wanted to do something to benefit their own community.

Neal recalled that the second year she ran Komen with her then 21-year-old daughter, she realized she had raised a grand total of about $8,000 in two years. While it was for a great cause, she kept thinking about what $8,000 could for Huntington: “I decided to do something for our community.”

While there were many steps along the way, in 2010 Neal pitched the idea of a 5K to raise funds for breast cancer screenings to the SMMC Foundation. Then-Director David Sheils asked if he should put it on that fall’s calendar, but Neal asked for more time to plan the event. On Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011, hundreds of runners appeared for the inaugural run.

The response proved a bit staggering, since Neal only expected to stage a one-time event. Instead, it kept growing, with an all-time high of 3,000 registrations in 2013. That year also featured a Sunday afternoon concert by country music singer Kellie Pickler (who donated all the proceeds to PATH to the Cure), adding to the festival-like atmosphere.

Thousands of Participants

Over five years, more than 10,000 people registered for the 5K, with nearly 8,900 finishing. No records were kept of the number of wheelchairs, kids in strollers, and dogs who tagged along for the fun-filled, family-oriented outings.

The last event in 2015 saw 2,100 runners finish the course and marked Neal’s swan song. There was a practical reason Julie had to drop out of race organizing: her daughter was getting married in 2016. She needed to spend 10 months planning for that joyous occasion instead of a 5K.

The following year PATH to the Cure combined with a Cabell Huntington Hospital Foundation run and changed to Colors for a Cure and then Concert for a Cure before fading after 2018. Staffing shortages coupled with the pandemic that followed in 2020 kept the concept on the sidelines but now the PATH to a Cure is resurfacing.

“We wanted to go back to the name,” said Neal, who has been replaced as the point person by MHF Foundations Event Organizer MacKenzie Morley. “We never thought we would have such a massive turnout.”

On the Cutting Edge

Not only did the 5K stir interest quite unlike other races, it proved to be on the cutting edge. PATH to the Cure was the first organization to use a QR code for registration; in 2011 they weren’t a fact of daily life. One of the races also incorporated a drone, a technology that few local residents had seen at the time.

“That was cutting edge in keeping people informed,” Neal recalled. “We used social media too. People were asking, ‘Who’s sponsoring you?’ or ‘Who are you walking for?’

“It was really about people battling cancer. It was a day to celebrate our sisters, mothers, wives, grandmothers and friends in our lives, show them support, and encourage them to take their health into their own hands.”

On a practical note, the first five races raised more than $315,000. Just over $252,000 went to the Pink Ribbon Fund and $63,000 to the Paul Ambrose Trail for Health. The trail is named for Huntington native Dr. Paul Ambrose, who died in the 911 terrorist attacks.

Although the proceeds will be used in a slightly different way, Neal is pleased that PATH for a Cure is coming back to life.

“There’s never been another run like it,” she said. “It’s so much more than a 5-K. It was never about running or winning a race. It was about showing support for people who walk that journey every day. It was always about community.”