A huge community event is returning to Mercer Island this March. More than a half marathon, the Mercer Island Half, presented by the Rotary Club of Mercer Island, is an opportunity for people of all abilities to come together and give back.
Race director Wendy Weiker, who is also the Mercer Island deputy mayor and a Rotarian, said she is most excited for the way the event brings the community together. Last year saw more than 2,000 event participants and the goal this year is to have at least 2,500.
Benefiting colon cancer, as well as other local causes and Rotary International programs, the 47th annual event takes place the morning of Sunday, March 22. A half marathon, a 10K, a 5K and a kids dash are just a few ways people can get involved.
Swedish Cancer Institute is the event’s primary sponsor, working with the event and the Colon Cancer Coalition. A primary goal is education.
For more than 20 years, after the inspiration of one local family’s story, the Rotary Half has advocated for colon cancer awareness and education in addition to supporting colon cancer research and programs.
In 2002, 46-year-old Susie Lindquist Mjelde died of colon cancer leaving behind her husband and three children, including Heather (Mjelde) Hall. Since then, Mercer Island Rotary has worked with her family to make colon cancer prevention the primary focus of its annual half marathon, in honor of “Susie’s Legacy.”
Hall said that while her mother was fighting colon cancer at such a young age, she and the whole family worked to inform the public.
“My mom and our family wanted to become strong advocates for awareness, prevention and screening,” Hall said. They became a large team and asked the Rotary Club for their cause to be connected to the Rotary run.
Her mom’s younger sister also started her own grassroots organization called the Colon Cancer Coalition, which has grown to raise awareness across the country. It also removes barriers to screening and helps families who have been affected by colon cancer.
Susie was a patient at Swedish Cancer Institute. Through that connection and in working with other health organizations the coalition was born, and to date more than $23 million has been raised for colon cancer at various walks, runs, and events in the U.S.
Susie herself came up with the tagline, “Get Your Rear In Gear.”
“We formed this colon cancer coalition to support my mom’s goal to prevent others from having to share her fate,” Hall said. “Knowing things we can all do to be more healthy and prevent colon cancers.”
She said the important work is getting out there and educating people and getting them screened. The issue affects people of all ages, not just old but young people, too.
Hall, who grew up on Mercer Island, said she and some family members still live there and a team participates in the Rotary Half each year.
“We want to inspire other people who might be affected by colon cancer and help them get the resources they might need and also inspire education and awareness and hopefully spare people from having to share my mom’s fate,” she said.
Her family typically has an informational table at the event every year, she said. People also can fill out flags or paint a star in honor or memory of someone.
“It’s not really about us, we just want to help others. We want to educate and be a place for families to get together and walk and run for a good cause,” she said.
She said she hopes for a good turnout and encourages everyone to participate at any level.
“It’s a nice community event for Mercer Island to bring in many volunteers and families, and there’s a kids dash and everybody has an opportunity to participate somehow,” she said.
The family’s effort brought a breath of fresh air into the event, Weiker said.
“The family really re-energized this event with their story,” Weiker said. “Everyone wants to get involved when it’s backing up a beloved family on the Island and helping Islanders be safe and get checked.”
Anyone is welcome to attend without having to participate – spectators can join in the fun. Volunteers and sponsors also are needed.
Each year there are more than 350 community volunteers who make the event possible. Weiker said local service clubs, the Chamber of Commerce, businesses, regional transit agencies, and the city all help out.
“I love being able to connect people and lead my army of volunteers to pull it off and make sure everybody there is safe and having a good time and that they know they are there to support the community,” she said. “And maybe they’ll learn something and get themselves checked for colon cancer.”
Weiker said another big focus this year is on inclusivity and diversity. New this year, nonprofit Ainsley’s Angels will guide those with mobility issues and disabilities through the race. She said she is also excited to see local senior walking groups partaking.
“Everyone is welcome — all ages and abilities, all levels of walkers or runners. Really it is a fun, collaborative community event and I love it,” Weiker said. “Hopefully folks will shop our downtown on their way out.”
She said people attend for different reasons. The race literally surrounds the Island, with the course circling around it.
“They do it for fun, for community, and for exercise,” she said. “I love being part of something bigger than myself.”
She said fundraising is not the main purpose of the event, but rather the community.
“While we’d love to raise $250,000, that’s not the goal. The goal is to get as many people watching and participating and supporting as possible,” she said. “It’s first and foremost a community building, gathering, pride event, and then any money we give back. Thank you to our sponsors who underwrite the event so all of the registration proceeds support local, regional and global charities.”
Mercer Way will be closed that morning. More information about the event can be found online at mercerislandhalf.com.
“On the 22nd, when it all comes together, it’s going to be a good day — rain or shine or even snow,” Weiker said.