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Vern's No Frills 5K: The cheapest run around

Run all night at the Run to the Sun

Staff Writer
Austin 360

No one runs the Vern's No Frills 5K for the finisher's T-shirt.

That's because there's not one. There's no big after-party, either, though you can usually lay your hands on a breakfast taco or two at the finish line.

Still, no one seems to mind the lack of amenities. Registration — which can't be done in advance, only on race morning — almost doubled in 2011, when a cumulative 2,060 athletes crossed the finish line in the series. Three times last summer it drew more than 200 runners to the start.

The main attraction? The race costs just a buck (free for students grades 12 and younger), it's fast and flat, and it's about as non-intimidating as you can get. At 8 a.m. the third Saturday of each month, a motley group of runners that includes first-timers, speedsters and even the occasional senior with a cane, takes off on the course at Berry Springs Park and Preserve in Georgetown. There's no time limit.

"All of it is just about trying to get people to get out there and run and have fun and enjoy it," says race director Bill Schroeder, who started the event to encourage beginners, combat childhood obesity and make sure high race fees didn't get in the way. It's his way of giving back to a sport he's long loved.

The race is named for Vern Cantwell, a cyclist whose wife ran with Schroeder's No Excuses Monday running group.

Cantwell never ran, but he always cheered on his wife and other runners. He showed up at the very first No Frills run in April 2009 but died of a heart attack while riding his bike four days later.

Georgetown Running Club sponsors the run, which is staged through Schroeder's company, No Excuses Running. The certified course is almost all on paved trail; a short stretch is on a cinder pathway. Strollers and leashed dogs are allowed.

Craig Lutz of Flower Mound, the 2010 high school state cross country champion, set a course record of 16 minutes and 11 seconds in 2010.

Proceeds from the race go back to the park where it's held. In 2011, the series raised $1,900. Money has been used to help stock a fish pond, buy wildflower seeds, purchase a log splitter and install limestone half-mile markers.

The park is located at 1801 County Road 152, just east of Interstate 35. For more information, go to noexcuses running.com.

Imagine running under a full moon, through the Texas Hill Country, past mooing cows and howling coyotes you can't even see.

After 5 or 6 miles, a glowing light appears in the distance. As you get closer, you see a cluster of vans pulled off the road. Your friends are there, sipping coffee and urging you on. When you finally reach them, you tag one of your teammates, who starts running through the night.

On April 28 and 29, several hundred athletes will run 90 miles from Enchanted Rock State Natural Area to Austin during the Run to the Sun. The event raises funds for Beyond Batten Disease Foundation, a nonprofit, Austin-based organization that raises money to fight Batten disease, a rare and fatal neurodegenerative disorder.

During the first-ever Run to the Sun last year, runners sped from Mount Bonnell in Austin to Enchanted Rock near Fredericksburg, where they finished just as the sun rose over the huge granite dome. This year, they're reversing course, starting in the country and finishing in the city.

Lance Thompson started the race to draw attention to the disease that has affected Christiane Benson, the daughter of Austin couple Craig and Charlotte Benson. The disease, which affects children born to parents who unknowingly carry a gene mutation, starts with vision loss and seizures and eventually causes mental and physical disabilities. People with Batten die by their late teens or early 20s.

Running through the night symbolizes what Christiane and others who have the disease go through as they lose their sight.

"It's supposed to be hard. That's what she's going through," says Paige Alam, who ran the relay last year and plans to run again.

Teams of eight, each with two accompanying support vehicles, run a total of 16 legs. Runners wear reflective vests and blinking lights, and signs warn motorists that they are on the road. The event drew 25 teams in 2011; more are expected in 2012.

The race will end with a pancake-fueled, music-infused celebration at Laguna Gloria, where the Bensons will speak about their daughter and the foundation. Christianne is now a 9-year-old third-grader at Casis Elementary. Two teams of teachers plan to run in her honor.

Entry fee is $85 per person, and each team must raise $5,000 for Beyond Batten. The race raised about $240,000 last year. To register or for more information, go to www.runtothesun relay.com.

Austin's awash with runners who ramble all over the city in preparation for their next marathon or half marathon. If you've never run even a few miles, though, just the thought of joining them for training might make you break out in a cold sweat.

The Austin Runners Club wants to take away the intimidation factor.

Jack Wilkinson and Diane Sager will coach a new ARC training group that will guide rookies through their first 5K race.

The group will meet at 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays starting April 3 at O'Henry Middle School, 2610 W. 10th St. The group is free, but for $30 new members get a one-year membership in the Austin Runners Club, a running shirt and entry into any one of 23 Sunstroke Summer Stampede 5K races. Non-ARC members must pay their own race entry.

For more information or questions, contact Jack Wilkinson at newarc runners@austinrunners.org.

Contact Pam LeBlanc at 445-3994