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Seneca Falls hosts race full of wonders

Several Western New York runners went about 100 miles east in search of some holiday spirit.

They found it in large quantities in Seneca Falls.

The town, located 40 miles west of Syracuse, is believed to be one of the inspirations for the setting of the classic holiday movie "It's a Wonderful Life." About 10 years ago, Seneca Falls started staging an annual "It's a Wonderful Life Festival."

Then in 2009, Seneca Falls resident Jeff Rook, his wife, and a couple of friends thought a 5-kilometer race would be a great addition to the list of events. They envisioned a race through the town at dusk, but encountered the expected resistance from the members of the festival committee.

"Every single one of them brought up the weather," Rook said. "They said, 'You do realize it's in December. Who's going to want to run at that time of year?' We had to do a little selling. We explained that there are 5K races that go on in the winter."

So off the race went, starting on a bridge that looks a great deal like the one in which character George Bailey ponders his fate before an angel-in-waiting, Clarence, jumps in the water to help him appreciate his lot in life. The race ends near the main street of Seneca Falls, Fall Street.

Rook said he was hoping for about 150 runners last year. "We thought that would be a success," he said.

Instead, he got 448 registered runners for "It's a Wonderful Run." Word apparently spread that the race was part of a charming event, because the number of registrants went up to an almost astonishing 893 this year.

The numbers were boosted by the members of the Lancaster Striders, a Western New York running club. Club President Joe Hastreiter credits wife Patty for the idea.

"I believe she saw it on the schedule on buffalorunners.com," Joe said. "There had been a race scheduled here that day, but she said, 'C'mon, it's Seneca Falls.' We spread the word from there."

About two dozen Striders and spouses made the trip.

"I liked the festivities in the town," Hastreiter said about the event. "It was nice running through the town and seeing all the decorations. The weather [high 30s and dry] was perfect. And it's always fun to see people you know."

Indeed, it was hard to miss the clothing from such Western New York events as the Shamrock Run and the Reindeer Run that was on display by runners.

"I said to my wife before the race, 'I can't believe how many people are coming from Buffalo,' " Rook said. "There were quite a few from Albany and Binghamton. We had 35 or 40 from out of state. We were shocked that it wasn't just a regional thing."

Participants in this year's race had something of a surprise waiting for them. The event was filmed for an upcoming episode of the MTV series "Made."

"I just got a random e-mail," Rook said. "I said, 'Is this for real?' I talked to a producer who told me a story about working with a girl from Rochester. They had a trainer working with her, and they wanted her to do a 5K race. I forwarded it to the festival committee, and the time was perfect. MTV thought the race was cute. They didn't want her in a race with 5,000 people.

"There was more to it than I thought. We had to go to the town and get insurance information. They needed releases from the town in order to film there. All runners had to sign a waiver allowing the show to include them."

Vanessa Diaz-Hemmerick of Rochester finished the race in 45 minutes, 51 seconds. Footage from the race will be shown sometime in January.

This year's event raised about $11,000 for the festival, which benefits a local food pantry and a scholarship fund. The festival will begin planning for the 2011 event soon, with an important item high on the agenda.

"I learned a couple of weeks before the race that we were going to far exceed the weight limit to the bridge," Rook said. "We're getting an engineer to verify how much weight we can put on there. We had about 15 tons on the bridge, and it has a six-ton limit."

Once the bridge passes inspection, you can expect hundreds of people sprinting down Fall Street toward the finish next year. A good-sized share of them no doubt will be from Buffalo, and some will steal a page from the movie's script as they yell out, "Merry Christmas, you wonderful old building and loan," as they run through downtown.

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Race calendar

*School's Out 5K, 12861 Route 438 in Irving, 10:30 a.m. Monday. 532-9225.

e-mail: bbailey@buffnews.com