Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Race for autism awareness draws largest crowds yet

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Leah L. Jones⁄Special to The Gazette
Runners cross the start line at the Autism Speaks Eighth Annual 5K Run in Potomac Friday.
Though the Fourth of July dawned rainy in Potomac, the skies soon cleared up, and between 2,500 and 3,000 runners and walkers flocked to the Autism Speaks Eighth Annual 5K Run⁄1 Mile Walk in Potomac Village.

The event, a fundraiser for the autism awareness group Autism Speaks, has become a July Fourth tradition in Potomac. And this year, crowds reached their highest numbers in the event’s eight-year history.

The number of those who participated in the run shot up from just over 900 last year to just under 1,400, and the numbers of walkers increased as well, said Susan Pereles, who founded the event. All in all, about 800 more people participated this year, Pereles said.

‘‘It was amazing,” Pereles said. ‘‘We didn’t have enough T-shirts, we ran out of registration forms...but it’s a great problem to have.”

The event has raised between $240,000 and $250,000 for autism research this year, though donations are still being accepted through the group’s Web site, Potomac5k.org, until the end of the month. Over the years, the event has raised more than $1 million for autism research.

Pereles said she worried the early morning rain would keep the crowds away, and was amazed at the turnout this year. Helping to get the word out through media, advertising and word of mouth may have contributed to the large number of participants, and she suspects that more people may have stayed closer to home over the July Fourth weekend because of rising gas prices.

‘‘It’s very exciting,” Pereles said. ‘‘It’s really turned into this community event.”

Pereles founded the run eight years ago after her nephew was diagnosed with autism. Looking for a way she could help in the fight against autism, the Potomac 5K race was born. This year, she organized the event with Potomac resident Barbara Guterman.

‘‘There was a real sense of gratitude and a show of love and support for the autism community,” Guterman said of the race day.

Potomac resident Lauren Salzberg, whose son Justin, 9, has been diagnosed autistic, agreed. ‘‘We stand together on this, and there’s strength in numbers,” she said. ‘‘The more awareness that is created for this, hopefully, the sooner they’ll find a cure.” Salzberg walked in the event and worked as a volunteer. It was her third time participating in the race after moving to the Washington area about four years ago.

Pereles said she hopes that eventually, advances in autism research will render the race unnecessary. According to Autism Speaks, autism affects one in 150 people, making it more common than pediatric cancer, diabetes, and AIDS combined.

‘‘I wish we didn’t have to have this race next year,” Pereles said. ‘‘Hopefully within the next couple of years there will be more treatments and more hope that there will be a cure, but until then, we’re just going to keep having this race.”