Women's Only 5K: The loss of a race 'in the community, for the community'

Greensboro's Women's Only 5K Walk & Run leaves an impact on the women and families it assisted and on the event's participants.

Women's Only 5K: The loss of a race 'in the community, for the community'
The sea of pink leaving the starting line of the Women's Only 5K Walk & Run on Green Valley Road in Greensboro in 2018 (photo courtesy of Cone Health).
Click above to see a video story I assembled during the 2017 Women's Only 5K Walk & Run in Greensboro.

If Carolyn Churchill had run the Women's Only 5K Walk & Run one time in the ninth month of a pregnancy, well, that would be an amazing feat.

She did it three times.

After one of those races, in 1996, Churchill went into labor the next day.

"I was ready to deliver," she says, "and my doctor peaked his head in the door and said, 'Do I have time to change?'

"Do it," she told him. "Just hurry!"

Carolyn Churchill giving chase during a Women's Only 5K Walk & Run, although competing solo in this one (photo courtesy of Carolyn Churchill).

Wendy Burns, in 2009, sat through chemotherapy on a Thursday during her bout with breast cancer. But two days later, the Jazzercise Greensboro Fitness Center owner still led the Women's Only 5K's warmup, a tradition that dated to the event's early years.

"Did not do the walk," she says with a laugh. "I went and sat down."

Greensboro's Ellen Essick at the Women's Only 5K Walk & Run in 2011. She participated in all 30 races, from 1992 to the final Women's Only in November 2022 (photo courtesy of Ellen Essick).

Ellen Essick's perfect participation record at the Women's Only 5K, which matches Churchill's at all 30 races, hung in the balance on a Saturday morning in 2011.

Surgery about four weeks earlier to repair a torn labrum in her hip – bones rubbing together tore it – left Essick using forearm crutches. But Essick started the event and kept her streak intact.

"I was so determined to keep running that race every year," Essick says.

The Women's Only 5K, which made its debut in Greensboro in 1992, created those inspirational stories and so many more. Those stories began to take shape among those first 357 women, including Essick and Churchill, to the waves of 3,000 and 4,000 runners and walkers clad in pink shirts, survivors of breast cancer themselves or celebrating and honoring friends. The race, put on by Cone Health, benefited the health-care provider's Mammography Scholarship Fund and the Alight Program, a patient assistance fund.

"It became a community of people that just showed up every year," Essick says. "The same people, and they became friends. It wasn't like a lot of the other races where it's a bunch of runners, walking around, getting ready to get their best time, looking at their watches.

"It was a group of people chatting about who they knew that had breast cancer or what's going on in the community, or 'Golly, it's been so long since I've seen you.'"

But Cone Health, citing growing race expenses, waning sponsor support and an intent to broaden its women's health focus, announced this month that Greensboro's second-oldest road race would not return in October. The decision makes last year race, the first Women's Only 5K since the pandemic and the 30th overall, the final one.

Wendy Burns, center, and the Jazzercise Fitness Center Greensboro team leading the warmup for the Women's Only 5K Walk & Run in Greensboro in 2022 (photo courtesy of Cone Health).

"The money went here," Burns says. "It helped people here in the community. Being a survivor and having a mother (Carol Gibson) who is a survivor makes that connection different.

"But even if I had not been a survivor, it was just an inspiring thing to see the celebration of these women in our community that had breast cancer and overcame it.

"It was also a celebration of people that didn't survive," she says, her voice catching.

Cone Health eyes next steps

The decision, while seemingly sudden and just five months from the race's typical first Saturday in October, follows years of internal conversations or questions about how long the event would continue, says Jill McAllister, Cone Health's corporate events manager.

"It's been 30 years," McAllister says. "Is this is a good time to say, 'We've left a good legacy here'? We have certainly expanded the message about breast cancer screening, about prevention. Because 30 years ago, that was kind of a new message, and it's not anymore.

"It's really prevalent in our community now, which is great. We feel like that's in large part due to the Women's Only. But now is just a really good time to say we have expanded what our definition of women's health is, and can our event strategy be shifted to meet that?

"So we decided that this was a good time now that we've got 30 years under our belt to step back and re-evaluate and start seeing how we can build on the legacy of the Women's Only and even expand it out and turn it into something, hopefully, bigger."

Participants at the Women's Only 5K Walk & Run in Greensboro in 2017 (photo courtesy of Cone Health).

McAllister says Cone Health's Center for Health Equity is developing a new familiy-focused event, for which details could be disclosed in a few weeks. She said other initiatives could be announced in 2024.

Cone Health raised more than $1 million for the Mammography Scholarship Fund and for the Alight Patient Assistance Fund in the 30 years of the Women's Only. Patients in need will continue to be assisted, Cone Health says.

"Our philanthropy team is constantly working," McAllister says. "They keep that scholarship fund well-stocked. For a long time, the Women's Only was the only source of money going into that scholarship fund, and it's not anymore.

"We have a mobile screening unit that goes out into the community every single day performing screenings, and they take scholarship applications. Our commitment to breast cancer screenings and getting that message out was not limited to the Women's Only and is not going to stop."

And that will be good news for the community. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force this month revised its medical advice and now says that women of all racial and ethnic backgrounds who are at average risk for breast cancer should start getting regular mammograms at age 40, instead of treating it as an individual decision until they are 50, the New York Times reports.

The task force cited an increase in the number of cancers diagnosed in women under 50 and a failure to narrow the survival gap for younger Black women, who die of breast cancer at twice the rate of white women of the same age, the Times reported.

A race's memories run deep

The Women's Only 5K, held on the first Saturday of May in its first 11 years, proved quite the unique family event for Carolyn Churchill and her husband, David.

Carolyn carried son David in her ninth month of pregnancy in May 1994, and he was born 16 days later. Daughter Tori was nearly born the day following the May 1996 race but came into the world after midnight that Monday morning. And in 1999, Carolyn again ran in her ninth month before delivering daughter Ally nine days later on May 10.

"Wasn't planned; just happened to be May birthdays," Carolyn Churchill says. "But I was known for years and years as the woman that ran the Women's Only nine months pregnant several times."

And as the woman who was still fast. Her husband, also a runner, remembers her finishing one of those 3.1-mile runs in 24 minutes, shy of her personal best of sub-19 minutes but, she says, "pretty good for a pregnant woman."

All three of the Churchill siblings (a son, Mark Guard, from a previous marriage lost his life in 2021) took part in sports growing up. Tori competed in track and cross country at the College of Charleston. Both Churchill daughters ran in the Women's Only last year, with Tori finishing second.

Carolyn Churchill with her daughters, Tori, left, and Ally at the Women's Only 5K Walk & Run in Greensboro in 2022 (photo courtesy of Carolyn Churchill).

"There's a lot of history in this race," Carolyn Churchill says, "and my daughters and I were looking forward to doing it this year, too.

"I said, 'Tori, you've got to go back and get first this year.' And then Ally said, 'I'm going to train this year.' And I was thinking, 'I am, too,' but we don't have one to do.

"I was sad to hear the news that they were not going to do it this year. It would have been nice to know that when they had it last year, that we knew that it would be the last. But I'm glad that I did it with my daughters that last time; we all participated in the 30th."

Wendy Burns, a walker in the Women's Only 5K besides getting participants prepared on race morning, is also surprised to see an event she considered motivational, and important, go away.

"Whether you were walking or being pushed in a wheelchair or you were running to win the race or to win your age group, it was just a very strong sense of community," Burns says. "And just to watch that grow every year was inspiring."

Wendy Burns and the Jazzercise Fitness Center Greensboro team at the Women's Only 5K Walk & Run in 2004 (photo courtesy of Wendy Burns).

Burns' mother, Carol Gibson, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1987. She's now 77 and doing well, Burns says. But Gibson was living in South Carolina, and Burns didn't get to see the kind of system that the Women's Only 5K supported until her own diagnosis 14 years ago. Burns calls the loss of an event that made a direct impact on that help "disheartening."

"I actually got to see behind the scenes, how the whole system works here in Greensboro when you're diagnosed with breast cancer," Burns says. "And all of the little things, besides your doctor – that's a given. It's the support behind the scenes: The classes for how to do your makeup when you're going through chemo, how to tie a kerchief around your head, support groups.

"A lot of the people that I worked with at the race also worked in those areas," she adds. "That was even more inspiring to see where that money, even though I didn't benefit from the mammography fund, was going and how it was actually helping the community."

Ellen Essick ran for fitness during her basketball career at Peace College in Raleigh and at UNCG and continued it afterward. Friends in health care who were also running colleagues and were training for the Marine Corps Marathon suggested they try this new 5K in Greensboro in 1992.

So Essick signed up for that first Women's Only 5K. She didn't miss another one.

Essick, who also ran in the Boston Marathon, enjoyed the Women's Only 5K focus on women and that awards went five-deep in age groups, although she lamented one year when prize money attracted speedy runners from outside of the area but changed the event's vibe.

"It came back to what was the essence of that race, and that's a race in the community, for the community," she says. "I'm a public health person (section chief for the N.C. Department of Instruction's Healthy Schools section), so it also focused on prevention and mammograms for women who can't afford them. And for me, that was incredibly important."

Last year's race was the first staged away from the former Women's Hospital site on Green Valley Road. The 2022 event started and ended at Cone Health's new MedCenter for Women on Third Street.

"Going down Green Valley, there's just a sea of pink shirts," Essick says. "It's just beautiful to see that many people who would come out to do this event. That's been the success of it."

While Essick's friends have fought breast cancer, she hasn't had to face that challenge herself. But Essick has turned some of that pink race wear into a treasure: A friend stitched together T-shirts from Essick's first 25 Women's Only 5Ks, and Essick donated the quilt to Cone.

"I'm really sad, honestly, that they're ending it," she says.

Carolyn Churchill and Ellen Essick, the Women's Only 5K Walk & Run's 30-year finishers, with the quilt made of Essick's T-shirts from the event's first 25 years (photo courtesy of Carolyn Churchill).

Like Essick, Churchill hasn't had to confront breast cancer herself, but her mother, Margie Haines, has. Haines, 90, also has participated in the Women's Only with her daughters, including Churchill.

So the race's support of the mammography scholarship fund resonates with Churchill. She wants to have her mother's long life, and she's a believer that regular exams are a necessary part.

""I'm just 64 years old," Churchill says. ". ... Mammograms can save your life. I'm lucky to be a mom and hope to be a grandma someday."

Breast cancer survivors at the Women's Only 5K Walk & Run in 2018 (photo courtesy of Cone Health).