PLAINVILLE—Bill Ronalter has run in road races for 20 years. He hadn't heard silence like he heard Sunday morning when Dr. William Petit Jr. spoke before the GE Petit Foundation 5K Road Race.
"I can tell you this: Normally when somebody's talking before a race, nobody listens," said Ronalter, a lawyer from Burlington. "People always talk. But I couldn't hear anyone talking today, other than Dr. Petit. That was pretty cool."
Race organizers said there were more than 3,000 participants for the first-year event, which benefited the foundation established to honor Petit's wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, and his two daughters, Hayley Elizabeth, 17, and Michaela Rose, 11. The three were murdered in a home invasion in Cheshire last July 23.
Petit, 51, ran and walked in the race Sunday, finishing the 3.1 miles in 44 minutes, 42 seconds. Afterward, he struggled to describe how he felt. Sunday's run was one of the many events he has attended in the past year to honor his family's memory.
"You almost stay in the moment with the event," he said. "You know why you're here ... so you try to stay in the moment, stay positive. Even when you feel like crying, you don't want to cry in front of [a lot of] people."
Wherever Petit went Sunday, he found support.
"There were a lot of hugs," he said. "The sweat doesn't seem to deter them."
Shadrack Kiyai of Kenya won the race in 15:04, and Claudia Camargo of Naugatuck was the first women's finisher at 17:19. There were 1,398 5K finishers, but there were many walkers, as well as a separate kids' race.
Brothers Gary and Bob Heslin of Plainville have known Petit since their Little League days. They were classmates at Plainville High, graduating in 1974. After hearing Petit speak at a memorial service last July, they wanted to do something. As both were runners, they decided to put on a road race.
It grew beyond their wildest imagination.
"We thought we'd get 300, 500 runners," Gary Heslin said. "That's big for a road race. Here we are at 2,500, plus 700 walkers. It's unbelievable the way the community has supported us. We're real happy with the turnout."
About 50 members of the Petit family were there, including William Petit's parents, Barbara and William Petit Sr. The senior Petit ran and walked, while his wife walked.
"We expected it to be big, but not this big," William Petit Sr. said. "So many people care. But then you think of the reason for it, and ... I wish they didn't have to be here for this reason."
A group of 40 nurses and doctors from the emergency room at the Hospital of Central Connecticut at New Britain General, where Petit is an endocrinologist, ran Sunday.
"It was close to our hearts because Dr. Petit works at New Britain," said Laurie Button, a nurse who organized the group. "I don't know him personally, but several of the nurses do."
Some nurses got off shifts at 3 a.m. Sunday and came to the race. One said, "Don't get sick today, because we're all here."
Petit was overwhelmed by the turnout.
"We have a big family and a lot of friends," he said. "I've seen people from high school, my Dartmouth friends are here; people from Pittsburgh who I went to medical school with; people from Rochester where I did my residency; Yale, where I did my fellowship, people from the Hospital of Central Connecticut, the churches in Cheshire and Plainville. My family. There are people from all circles."
He said he planned to mark Wednesday's anniversary of the tragedy quietly.
"There will be a number of small events at the various places the girls were associated with," he said. "I think people are just going to take time to think about it and contemplate, try to have good memories. It's been hard to think about. You do some avoidance. It's been like, 'OK, we have to go and set up the race today. OK, we have to go do this today.' It's kind of a coping mechanism."
Contact Lori Riley at firstname.lastname@example.org.