On Saturday, when the Komen Charlotte Race for the Cure celebrates its 20th anniversary, the three women who started it in 1997 will be walking the 5K course, blending in with thousands of others in pink and white T-shirts.
While the race is high profile – attracting an average of 15,000 participants and raising more than $1 million a year – its founders gladly stay in the background.
Penelope Wilson, Beth Kemp and Ellen Cuthbertson Archer met in 1996 and worked together for several years to get the breast cancer fundraiser established as an annual event. Today, they are race volunteers and participants, but no longer lead organizers.
At the Observer’s request, they met recently to talk about how it all began – with an article in the newspaper.
In 1995, Wilson opened She’s a Sport, a store selling women’s sports apparel, and the next year, she was featured in an Observer story about entrepreneurs. As an aside, she mentioned she would one day like to bring the Race for the Cure to Charlotte.
What the article didn’t say was that Wilson’s life partner, Annie, had died of breast cancer in 1992, at 48. Wilson said Annie had lived more than a year after her diagnosis while undergoing continuous chemotherapy and bearing “a scar from her mastectomy that, pardon my bluntness, looked like someone had used a machete during her surgery.”
Wilson didn’t have a time frame in mind for starting a race. But from that single sentence in the Observer, she got hundreds of phone calls from people who wanted to help. With that energy and excitement, Wilson decided to try for the next year.
Two people in particular – Kemp and Archer – got Wilson’s attention.
Kemp, a flight attendant with US Airways, was responsible for coordinating volunteer activities for the airline, and she thought breast cancer treatment and research would be a good focus for their efforts. Kemp was good at organizing and at asking people for money, skills Wilson knew would be needed to start a race in Charlotte.
Archer, whose mother had recently died of breast cancer, had been to Congress to lobby on behalf of the N.C. Breast Cancer Coalition. As a Charlotte native and small business owner, she had lots of connections and expertise that would also be useful.
The trio began meeting in Archer’s kitchen, sometimes over a bottle of wine, and spent the next year filling out forms and seeking donations, They also had to follow the myriad details outlined in a thick manual for local race directors from the headquarters of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, which today sponsors 136 races across the country.
“To get something started is tough,” said Kemp, who still remembers how hard it was to attract a grocery store sponsor.
“We had to buy fruit” the first year, Kemp says with indignation. But the next year, she recruited Dean & DeLuca, the specialty gourmet shop, which provided bananas and oranges, the natural energy boosters that are handed out to participants at the end of each race.
Wilson and Kemp flew to Komen’s Dallas headquarters for three days of training. Then, to get an idea of how a race should look, Wilson, Kemp and Archer attended the first Race for the Cure in Raleigh in June 1997, just five months before the Charlotte event.
As required by Komen, Wilson got both of the major Charlotte hospitals – Carolinas HealthCare System and Presbyterian Healthcare (now Novant Health) – to sign on as equal sponsors, despite their long history as fierce rivals.
Wilson, a Charleston native, had lived in Charlotte for only three years and didn’t know the background. She remains proud that the two hospitals’ names appeared on the back of the first race T shirt, one on each shoulder, in exactly the same size.
“I just asked,” Wilson said. “Being new to town, I didn’t realize that they didn’t like each other.”
The first race started in front of the Mint Museum on Randolph Road in the Eastover neighborhood where Archer had grown up. Wilson, Kemp and Archer had hoped to raise $100,000 but they got closer to $200,000. They also more than doubled the 1,000 participants they expected – and ran out of T shirts.
They liked the Mint Museum for its cozy, neighborhood feel, but the race grew too fast to stay there. In the second year, it attracted 5,400 participants – and complaints from the neighbors. “Charlotte had never had a 5K that large,” Archer said.
Since the third year, the race has been based uptown – first from the former First Union bank plaza, then from Gateway Village and now Marshall Park.
Over its 20 years, Komen Charlotte has raised $29.6 million through Race for the Cure and its offshoots, including Sing for the Cure and Laugh for the Cure. The local affiliate has given $5.7 million to research and awarded $15.2 million in grants to 69 organizations to help women get mammograms and other breast cancer services.
Today, Wilson, 52, is executive director of the Colon Cancer Support Network of the Carolinas. When she thinks of the nasty scar that her partner endured 20 years ago, she’s grateful for medical advances that have helped other women live longer, better lives. And she’s thankful that the newspaper article – and the huge response it got – pushed her to start the race here.
On Saturday, Wilson and her co-founders will enjoy sharing the early morning race with others dressed in pink.
“It’s women coming together in every imaginable point of their survivorship, walking and smiling and laughing together,” Wilson said. “There is an incredible feeling of hopefulness and support and love in the air for those two to three hours.”
Komen Charlotte Race for the Cure
Registration begins Saturday at 6 a.m. Race begins at 7:15, with closing ceremony at 9:30 a.m., Marshall Park, East Third and McDowell streets. Details: 704-347-8181; http://komencharlotte.org/.
Streets will be closed from 5 a.m. to 11 a.m. The route runs from Third to South Church Street, to Summit Avenue, to South Tryon Street, to East Morehead Street, to S. McDowell Street, then returning to the park.
Advance registration is down by 20 percent, according to Tami Simmons, Komen Charlotte executive director. Despite last week’s protests in uptown Charlotte, she said, “We have not had anybody who was signed up to pull out citing any concern about security or safety. We have had people call and ask, ‘Is the race still on?’ and we say ‘Absolutely.’ ” Simmons said plenty of police officers will be on duty along the race route.
By the numbers
▪ Raised $194,000 in first year 1997, when 2,300 participated.
▪ Raised $1.2 million in 2015, when race was cancelled because of Hurricane Joaquin.
▪ Ranked 25th by number of participants, of 136 races across the country, in 2015.
▪ Ranked 12th of 114 Komen affiliates in gross revenues in 2015.
▪ $250,000 has been raised since 2009 by one team, Circle UP, created in honor of Lynn Kennelly and Bryn Anderson.
▪ 75 percent of net proceeds provides breast cancer education, screening and treatment for under-served and uninsured in a 13-county region.
▪ 25 percent of net proceeds support Susan G. Komen Foundation’s National Award and Research Grant Program.