Runners and non-runners gather for Old First Night race

As sunlight streaked across Chautauqua early Saturday morning, the scene was quite different from Chautauquans packing their cars to leave after a week at the Institution, or lazy coffee-accompanied walks around the grounds.

The annual Old First Night Run and Walk filled North Lake Drive with participants donning neon orange race T-shirts and running shorts. Some brought strollers filled with bleary-eyed children and dogs on short leashes to join them on the track.

Some participants jogged around, pacing back and forth, kicking their shins to stretch before running the 2.7-mile loop. Others were sipping on cups of coffee, groggy-eyed and awake enough only to follow a herd of runners and walkers.

Alli Chertack, a lifeguard at Chautauqua, had one goal: “To finish on my two feet and not crawl across the [finish] line.”

The historic Old First Night Run had two tweaks in its annual operation: the race started at 8 a.m., an hour earlier than in the past, and racers were guided through the newly built brick walk through Miller Park before a straightaway on North Lake Drive that led to the finish line.

Nearing the start of the race, the Sports Club was an idyllic atmosphere, broken up only by the blaring of music and the eventual buzz of a starting horn, which race marshal Riley Burton set off.

Unable to attend last year’s race because of her continuing battle with Wilms’ tumor, a cancer of the kidneys, Burton threw up her hands moments before the race, which stirred a series of cheers from participants.   

“She’s a sweet, brave girl and a personal inspiration to me,” said Peggy Ulasewicz, who organizes the Old First Night Run, Walk and Swim. “We missed her, so it’s wonderful.”

Runners and walkers, 682 in total, darted from the starting line, but slowed down once they made the turn onto Bryant from South Lake Drive — 14- and 13-year-old Clay and Brooke Swanson among them.   

“We ran until we got to the big hill, and then we walked,” Clay said.

“She wants the trophy, but she doesn’t want to run,” Brooke said.

Toni Goldfarb, who lives near the corner of Palestine and Massey, was urging runners forward from outside her home, a practice she has done every Old First Night Run since she moved into the house in 1990.

“I’m handicapped [and] I can’t run, so I figure I know some people in the race, let me give them some encouragement,” Goldfarb said. “This is about the halfway point. We [measured] it in the car once.”

Echoes of “Go, go, you’re almost there!” rung as runners trekked onward on Palestine, which eventually turns into Prospect.

Runners and walkers paced down North Lake Drive, weaving through the most immediate bends on the course. Many sprinted along the lawn bowling field toward the finish line and heaved themselves over.

Ryan Hetrick took the open men first prize with a 15:04 finish time and was unable to accept his trophy because he continued to run as ceremonies took place. He beat his nearest competitor, Nicholas Shea, by 48 seconds. Marc Bullard finished third with a 16:07 time.

Caroline Jahrling won the open women first prize with an elapsed time of 16:48. Mary Humphrey and Kylee Witchey-Clements finished second and third, respectively, completing the race six seconds apart from each other.

The walking portion of the race is judged by the lowest difference of a predicted and actual time. Walkers are not allowed to wear a watch during the race. Brothers Jeff and Dan Miller finished with an 11- and 36-second difference, respectively, in the open men’s competition. In the open women’s competition, 11-year-old Lily Broughton won by one second over Karen Newhall, who finished with a five-second difference.

The scoring for swimming was set up similar to walking, as participants predicted and compared their actual time to compete for lowest difference score in the lap lanes of the Turner Community Center. Rachel Montgomery placed first with a two-second difference.

On Chautauqua Lake, an open fleet sailing regatta took place and Old First Night fleet awards were presented for C Scows, which went to Tim and Shannon Jahrling, and Lightnings, which went to Becky, Maggie, and Candy Scanlon.

Around the World, which gives Chautauquans from outside the grounds to run the race, sent in pictures and results from around the country, including Aaricka Oliver, who ran around Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Capitol.   

After the race concluded, participants gathered on the shuffleboard courts to hear the various flight awards, but used the space to gather and converse.

“I’ve been told it’s the second-most popular weekend because of the run,” Ulasewicz said. “I’m proud of that. I think it’s different than the [Chautauqua] culture, so it’s just different avenue for people to enjoy this place that’s not necessarily opera or ballet — it just appeals. People walk here anyways and [Old First Night] just makes it more of a community.”