HiTOPS annual half marathon returns virtually later this month

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HiTOPS Princeton Half Marathon will be a little different this year, as the race event has adapted to the new normal of COVID-19 by going fully virtual.

The race event, which previously gathered many to a central Princeton course location to run the 13.1-mile race, will now have participants run anywhere they chose, as they log their miles for the half marathon. The miles can be run in one day or through however many days the runners decide to log their miles to complete the event from Oct. 25 to Nov. 8.

“Through our website we actually have a place for where people can record their miles. They will click the link ‘log your miles’ on the website and are then able to submit the miles that they run,” said Annie Pasqua, senior manager development at HiTOPS. “If they run all 13.1 miles in one day, they can submit it there or they can revisit that link as many times as they need to record all 13.1 miles.”

A daily email will be sent to participants to remind them to log their miles for each day from late October to early November. With an interactive online results tracking tool, there is also a leaderboard that shows who finished the half marathon and when based on the participant’s miles and times.

“It will also populate a map. For example, if you are running the miles in Princeton it would pop up and say you are currently on mile six at Washington Street Bridge,” Pasqua said. “As people log their miles they will be populated on the website and so at the end of the two weeks where people can log their miles, we will probably share on social media those results for people who are curious of where they fell in the final results.”

Top prizes this year for participants are three $150 gift cards to Hamilton Jewelers. Instead of prizes going to the top three finishers of the half marathon for 2020’s race, anyone who finishes the race will have the opportunity to win.

The race also features a new addition in 2020 for youth to run virtually. Just RUN is for all young people up to age 18.

“Since primarily we are a half marathon and we didn’t have any other way for people to be involved. We decided to add this new component to focus on youth, since we are a youth-focused agency,” Pasqua said. “We wanted to do a youth run to encourage young people to be active. They do not have to run a set number of miles, we just want them to run, they would receive a medal for competing in this race.”

According to HiTOPS, registering for the half marathon event costs $45, and is $25 for the HiTOPS Youth Run. Registration has been extended so participants can continue to register through Nov. 8.

“The monies that are raised go to the youth we provide services for, as well as, the adults that care for them. We provide support services and education throughout the greater Mercer County area and it is critical that we use this race to increase awareness,” said Lisa Shelby, executive director of HiTOPS.

Occurring each year, the half marathon is the nonprofit’s largest fundraiser and allows for the organization to provide programming to young people of all identities regarding sexual health education and LGBTQ+ support in Mercer County.

The fundraising goal for 2020 is a net of $50,000. HiTOPS seeks to raise the funds from registrations, sponsorships, and donations.

“The impact of the pandemic has only made circumstances worse for a lot of young people that we in particular work with,” Shelby said. “With all of the school closings and young people being more isolated, I think it is harder; potentially being in environments that are not safe and not being able to connect with their friends or their peers, especially for youth that identify as LGBTQ+. We knew we needed to pull out every stop to continue to support these kids.”

When planning began for the half marathon in January and with continued developments regarding the coronavirus pandemic, there was still no doubt that a race or event would take place for the organization in 2020.

“Unequivocally this was never in doubt. This is one of the biggest events that happens in the community on an annual basis and for HiTOPS this is our biggest annual fundraiser,” Shelby said. “We knew we would make this work no matter what. Lucky for us in 2019, we had already added a virtual component to the event, so we had that experience in our pocket. We were able to build off of that.”

Speaking with community advisors, which included the Princeton Police Department, plans for a virtual race were being crafted since March.

“As we began planning for the race in January and then the pandemic hit in March, we monitored and kept our ears to the ground. As we saw more and more organizations go to virtual races and events over the summer, we knew a virtual half marathon was possibility,” Shelby said. “We worked on getting our ducks in a row during June and July to be ready to go virtual and decided that we would make that decision at the very beginning of July.”

She added that HiTOPS has received a great response for the event from sponsors and also has promising commitments from participants.

“People can run or walk in the event. It has been really fun to see more youth join this event,” Shelby said. “We have strong community support and really affirms that so many people are coming out to support the work that we do.”