BY REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — When Niskayuna resident Kathy Verna first ran the Cherry Blossom 5K at Congregation Gates of Heaven in 2010, she laced up her sneakers and set her eyes on the finish line simply because she liked to run. She didn’t know much about ALS — amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease — for which the annual race raises money.
“I’ve been a runner all of my life,” Verna said. “I ran competitively in high school and some in college. Mostly years go, but when we moved to Niskayuna, its such a runner-friendly [place], I’ve been running a lot more since we moved here.”
Two months later, her older brother was diagnosed with ALS. He passed away that spring, and Verna missed the 2011 race.
“But in 2012, I came back and ran it again. It had taken on a whole different meaning for me,” she said. That year, she finished first.
“It was really special to have my brother in mind when I did that,” she said. “That was when I started helping.”
Verna is now on the board for the race, which began seven years ago and has since raised more than $10,000 for the St. Peter’s Regional ALS Center. Participation has grown from just over 100 runners during the first run to more than 600 runners on the 5K course and 300 walkers on the 1.5 mile course in the spring of 2014.
The race has a special meaning for a number of residents whose loved ones have been affected by ALS. Taree Martel, who also lives in Niskayuna, lost her sister, Heidi Biddiscombe, to the disease eight years ago.
He was diagnosed at age 43 and lived to be 56, much longer than most people with the disease survive. Martel and her children, 23-year-old Drew, 20-year-old Eric and 18-year-old Emily, participate whenever they can to help keep Biddiscombe’s memory alive. This year, Eric and Emily will run the course while their mother volunteers on the sidelines, helping runners stay on course.
“She was always smiling, one thing we always remember about her,” Martel said of Biddiscombe. “She was a kindergarten teacher. She continued to teach everybody even when she was sick.”
Martel, a nurse at the St. Peter’s Intensive Care Unit, said part of the reason she dedicates so much time to the annual race is to help raise awareness for ALS. She said the Ice Bucket Challenge, a viral trend online that peaked in 2014, in which participants challenged each other to dump ice water over their heads or donate money to ALS research, helped greatly to spread awareness.
“I don’t think people really realize what it is, and that there is no cure,” she said. “There are a lot of cures for things. But this one isn’t moving anywhere fast.
“I would love to someday say, ‘Here’s a drug, take this and it’ll go away,’ ” she added.
While the race has significant meaning and an undertone of loss for many runners and volunteers, it’s also a community tradition that celebrates spring, and plenty of runners join in just for the fun of it.
Niskayuna resident Barbara Burgess said she just wants to get some exercise.
“This is my first time doing the Cherry Blossom, and the last time I did a 5K was probably before Samantha was born,” Burgess said, referring to one of her daughters.
“She’s 17,” she added, laughing. “I’m a physical therapist, so I should know better.”
Her other daughter, Alex, 13, will sing the national anthem before the race. Burgess said she’s most excited about the opportunity to hear her daughter sing, and to run alongside an old friend, Mindy Fricke, who grew up in Niskayuna and will travel from her current home in Connecticut to participate this weekend.
And no matter how long it takes to cross the finish line, whether running 3.1 miles or walking 1.5, the companionship is what the race has really come to be about for organizers and participants alike.
“It’s just nice to see your friends and neighbors out providing the support that they can,” Martel said.
The seventh annual Cherry Blossom 5K Race for ALS, a fundraiser benefiting St. Peter’s ALS Regional Center, will run rain or shine Sunday, April 26, at Congregation Gates of Heaven in Niskayuna. To register for either the 1.5-mile walk or 5K run, email email@example.com.