Friday, October 1, 2004

This race is about fun, forgiveness



Maggie Downs

When I die, I'd like to be remembered like Maria Olberding.

A vibrant party on an exhilarating, crisp night. Friends and family laughing, drinking, dancing together. A zillion people having fun.

The annual Reggae Run 5K race and party is a tribute to Maria Olberding, who was stabbed to death during an evening jog in Hyde Park. The family swallowed the tragedy and created a celebration in its place.

"It's about forgiveness," said Maria's brother, Doug Olberding, a 40-year-old who lives in Pleasant Ridge. "It's about trying to make the best with what you're given."

That's what makes this event different, he said.

"People see the honesty in the race."

The first year, just four short months after Maria's death on May 22, 1994, the family expected 200 runners, a typical turnout for many 5K running events. Perhaps 300 max.

Then they got word that more than 2,000 were expected. That's when this thing turned into a party.

"We've put most of our effort into the party and enhancing the experience," Doug said.

That's what Maria would have done.

When she worked for the Beach Waterpark as a lifeguard, Maria was always organizing fun activities.

"It was just this huge social thing for 120 lifeguards who were between the ages of 18 and 22. We had parties all the time and we never went home," Doug said. "And Maria was always at the center of it."

Maria was good at dashing off witty poetry on cocktail napkins or as birthday greetings for friends. She loved the happy, pulsing sounds of reggae music and had Bob Marley stickers on her 1973 Karmann Ghia.

And she wasn't the best athlete in the world, even though she was training for a marathon at the time of her death.

"She was just somebody who loved to run and liked to stay fit," Doug said.

Last year, more than 7,000 people participated in the Reggae Run. Red, green and yellow tents, balloons and entertainers made for a carnival-like atmosphere. The Ark Band played reggae tunes like, "Love is What We Need." Partygoers danced long into the night.

This year's run/walk is at 6 p.m. Saturday in Ault Park, followed by a reggae party until 11 p.m. Registration Saturday is $30. People can also attend just the party for $15. (www.reggaerun.com)

More than 35 vendors offer food, beer, wine and more, all free for partygoers. Most of this is donated and made by volunteers.

A favorite is the famous Olberding chili, made by Maria's father, Don. It was a favorite of the family when the children were growing up.

The first year Don made a batch to fill post-race tummies. And then he had to make more. And more.

Now he makes 150 gallons of the meaty concoction and stores it in a freezer truck prior to the race. It's a thick stew with carrots and onion and beans, not spicy or like Cincinnati chili. Still, it's something perfect for a fall night.

The chili booth - rowdiest of all the booths at the party - is manned by Maria's older brother, Steve, and his friends.

"They won't let you walk by without taking a cup of it," Doug said. "It's like a game. How fast can you get rid of 150 pounds of chili?"

The hilly race winds through Ault Park. Nobody sets his or her personal record on this course. But with the steel drums, the cheers of support and all the smiles along the way, nobody cares.

"There are a lot of nice events out there for wonderful causes," said Bob Roncker, owner of the Running Spot. "But with the combination of the race and the party, there's a synergy there that draws a lot of people."

Many don't come to the event for the race anyway. They come in tribute of Maria.

"People are thinking, 'Gee, this could have been me,'" Roncker said. "That struck a chord with people."

Maria's legacy is also in the Maria Olberding Foundation, a non-profit organization that was created to raise fund for local children with special needs.

During the past 10 years, the race has raised more than $400,000 for local charities. Money raised in this year's Reggae Run will once again go to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

"My mom especially always said you've got to take something negative like this and turn it into a positive," Doug said.

When I die, I'd like to be remembered like Maria Olberding.

With love.

E-mail mdowns@enquirer.com




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