'Fun runs' pass endurance test


First came the kids. Then the parents. Then the competitive runners.

And what started out as a "fun run" for folks in Arleen Dinneen's neighborhood 22 years ago has turned into an exercise in community.

Every week in the summer, 100 to 200 people converge on her Ellicott City house to run - or stroll - a mile in the hilly, tree-lined development.

They come from all over the county and elsewhere, too. Some who participated as children now bring their kids. Others are third-generation fun-runners. A handful of folks don't run but volunteer, week after week, as traffic-watchers and timekeepers.

"There's nothing else like this in the state that I know of," said Dick George, president of the Howard County Striders, a road-racing club that sponsors the event. He attends most weeks with his wife and daughter.

"We get people who run it in 20 minutes; we get people who run it in four-and-change," he said. "There's a lot of speed up front - then there's the bulk of people who come to socialize. It's a real nice time."

Dinneen, the woman behind it, started the informal "Centennial Fun Run" because she thought her 7-year-old daughter would enjoy a short sprint with friends. Her daughter - now almost 29 - still runs every week.

An avid runner, Dinneen, 57, rarely gets to participate. She stands at the finish line with a digital timer instead. She also schedules activities for after the run, hands out random prizes, and sends names and times to local papers each week.

"I think it's amazing how she's organized the community like this," said Amy Richards, a 28-year-old friend from Baltimore who started fun-running this summer. "She's so enthusiastic.

"This family is really excited about running and wants to get other people excited, too," Richards said.

The fun runs, at 7:30 p.m. every Tuesday, begin in mid-June and end Aug. 15 with an awards ceremony. Runners pay 50 cents each time, which is usually enough to cover costs, and they start and finish in front of Dinneen's split-level house on Colonial Drive.

This week, 172 people turned out - tan college students, parents carrying babies, children in swimsuits. It's this diverse mix of competitors and families that makes the fun run so unusual, George said.

The runners lined up next to the county Fire and Rescue's Kids' Safety House - the activity for the evening - and waited for the cue from Dinneen:

"Runners ready: Go!"

They took off - some with less blazing speed than others.

Overstreet, 31, walked briskly, pushing her 3-month-old twin sons in a blue stroller. Her husband, Keith, disappeared in the distance with their speedy black-and-tan "purebred mutt," Guinness.

Laura Overstreet passed by her father, Dave Fitzpatrick, who every week is the flag-carrying sentry at Century and Cross Country drives, slowing approaching cars.

And she trekked the rest of the way with her flip-flop-wearing mother, Peggy Fitzpatrick, who remembers when Laura sped across the course 22 years ago.

It is, without a doubt, a fun-run family.

"It was always really exciting because you wanted to beat your time from the week before," said Overstreet.

"A lot of the same people are doing it," she said.

That includes the volunteers. Fitzpatrick was the flag man for many years, coming out faithfully every summer until a stroke put him in a wheelchair five years ago. When he returned to the corner in 1998 in a motorized chair, people cheered.

Fitzpatrick met up with his daughter yesterday as she ended the race - last, as she had predicted.

As far as Dinneen is concerned, the secret to the fun run's success is that it lives up to its name.

"Somehow it works after all these years," she said. "It is such a wonderful sense of community. I couldn't give this up."

Information: Arleen Dinneen, 410-465-7735.

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