How do you compete in a virtual run? Community pays tribute to the 32 killed in 2007 mass shooting.
BLACKSBURG – On April 16, 2007, many current Virginia Tech undergraduate students were toddlers. Nonetheless, said Associate Vice President for University Relations Mark Owczarski, the tragedy that occurred that day continues to loom large in the collective memory of the Virginia Tech community. Current students, parents, Blacksburg community members and Virginia Tech alumni still need a way to remember the 32 lives lost. At the time, the horrific mass-shooting that day at the campus in Southwest Virginia was the most fatal in history.
Virginia Tech typically hosts a 3.2-mile Run in Remembrance on campus during the weekend immediately before or after the anniversary. The 3.2 mile course is typical of a 5K race. It also symbolizes the 32 victims of the tragedy, Owczarski said.
For the second consecutive year, the Run in Remembrance goes virtual this April. That’s because of safety measures necessitated by the pandemic. While Owczarski said it’s “disappointing” for folks not to be able to gather in-person, he added that the virtual event also presents opportunities.
“Regardless of the pandemic, we still remember the lives lost,” he said.
‘Community Aids in Recovery’
Virginia Tech’s annual Run in Remembrance began in 2009, the second year after the tragedy on campus. Nearly 15,000 people attended the most recent in-person event in Blacksburg, according to Owczarski. He said the community run has always been a tool to help students, alumni and local residents recover from the mass shooting.
“One of the huge takeaways from that tragedy is that community aids in recovery,” Owczarski said during a recent interview.
In a typical year, the Run in Remembrance is one of several events on-campus, including candle-lightings and a collective moment of silence at the exact time of the shooting.
But the run itself isn’t solemn, Owczarski said.
Participants “do a joyful run through campus,” he explained. They jog past several locations that invoke happy memories for students and alumni. The course weaves past academic buildings and Lane Stadium, ending at the school’s signature Drillfield. The Run in Remembrance is not a race, Owczarski said. Some people walk the course or push strollers.
“The run was historically followed by a community picnic on the Drillfield,” Owczarski explained.
At the picnic, race finishers can gather to reflect, pray, hug or just spend the day together.
“The idea was to be together in community, and also came from this idea that maintaining your physical fitness is very important in recovery,” Owczarski said.
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Run Goes Virtual
Last year, Owczarski said, Run in Remembrance organizers had to pivot to a virtual event at the very last minute. The pandemic hit Virginia in March, and organizers scheduled the race for mid-April. Despite what Owczarski described as a “quick, ad-hoc pivot,” last year’s event was a success.
“It engaged people all over the country—all over the world—who wanted to take (that weekend) to remember those lives lost,” he said. “The purpose of the Day of Remembrance was still intact.”
This year, organizers had plenty of time to prepare. They’ve planned for a virtual event since January. So how does a virtual run work, exactly?
The 2021 Run in Remembrance takes place over a three-day period—April 16-18—to encourage proper distancing, the event website says. Folks who register by March 9 can receive an event t-shirt and a printable bib by mail, to wear on the day they choose to log their three miles.
Officials encourage race participants to share photos of themselves or their route on social media, using the hashtag #VT32Run on Twitter and Instagram. Participants can also submit photos to the event Facebook page. The collective Virginia Tech community can track their miles via the Stridekick App.
Owczarski said the virtual event is not a replacement for the real thing. But during the COVID-19 public health crisis, “the virtual community of social media is the best that we have.”
Online Event Has Newfound Significance
While the community fostered by a virtual run isn’t identical to what it replaces, Owczarski said it still has value. “It’s been incredibly successful in spite of the pandemic, and we look forward to doing it again,” he said, even if an in-person event can occur in 2022. “To be honest with you, I think what we’ll find moving forward is that we’ll have that great combination.”
Owczarski also said that the roots of the event have particular resonance this year. The event was conceived “in the broader context of recovery from tragedy,” he said, “in much the same way that our communities will be moving toward recovery from the pandemic in the coming months.”
Even people outside the Virginia Tech community may have a desire to join in on the collective memorialization—and can do so via a virtual event. As Owczarski pointed out, Blacksburg is far from the only town that’s dealt with the trauma of a mass-shooting. “Sadly, Virginia Tech is not alone as a community that has experienced the tragedy that we experienced,” he said, citing the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and the 2017 massacre in Las Vegas as two examples.
Those wishing to participate in this year’s Run in Remembrance can register for free and optionally purchase a shirt online. Owczarski emphasized that race t-shirts are being sold at cost and that the event is a community service, not a fundraiser. “There’s no marketing, no fundraising,” he said. “This is just simply to remember those lives lost.”
Ashley Spinks Dugan is a freelance reporter for Dogwood. You can reach her at email@example.com.