The only thing on the hallowed grounds of Charlottesville’s Foxfield race course that local high school standout Maddie Gardiner may not have outdone on Saturday morning at the 39th edition of the Charlottesville Women’s Four Miler was the very best that mother nature had to offer.
That’s no small feat, given the historically cool and dry conditions to which participants were treated.
Gardiner crossed the line in a jaw-dropping 23 minutes and 41 seconds to win the event. She was followed by her Covenant teammate, Reese Dalton, and Ann Dunn, the coach and mentor Gardiner credits with her dramatic improvement over the last year.
The trio led nearly 1,100 women who competed in an atypical race format designed to ensure that entrants were both safe and treated to the marquee race experience that its large cohort of perennial attendees have come to expect.
Race director Audrey Lorenzoni, along with a crew of experienced race organizers, including her parents, Mark and Cynthia Lorenzoni, also was at the helm in 2020, the first time in which the course was moved from Garth Road to the grass infield at Foxfield. For Audrey Lorenzoni, any accommodations necessary, to make the race a safe and comfortable experience for all, are worthwhile.
“I’ve grown up attending this event — racing, cheering, volunteering,” Lorenzoni said. “To now be in a position to ensure it continues, despite adversity, is an absolute privilege.”
Despite initially announcing that this year’s event would return to its original format, the decision was made to reuse the grass course in the interest of participant safety. Unlike last year, in which participant start times were staggered throughout four days, this year’s event offered three different, flexible, start times, all on Saturday morning.
The format allowed for a “customized” experience in which runners and walkers were offered a degree of distancing, socialization, and/or a traditional race experience that suited their own comfort level.
For race organizers, the logistical challenges associated with preparing a grass course, were mitigated by a reduced requirement for volunteers. This year’s Four Miler was flawlessly executed by 70 generous volunteers, a fraction of those required for the Garth Road course, including Tom Hintz, Art Lichtenberger, and Jack Masloff, among countless others who’ve shown tremendous and sustained dedication to the race.
The Foxfield Board, which has so graciously offered their venue to multiple charity racing events over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, not only offered enthusiastically to host the Four Miler, but Foxfield groundskeeper Gerald Shifflett worked with Mark Lorenzoni to redesign the racecourse based on feedback from last year’s finishers. The dramatically uphill second mile of last year’s course was circumvented, and the homestretch altered to go downhill. The changes were not lost on Gardiner, who, despite her youth, is a savvy competitor and mature beyond her years.
“I was worried I went out a little too hard the first mile,” said Gardiner, “but the changes to the second mile really helped and, ultimately, I’m just excited by the perspective the Four Miler gives me heading into a [high school] cross country season in which all the races are shorter.”
The performances of both Gardiner and Dalton, both sophomores, bode well for the season ahead. While the girls do not have enough high-school teammates to compete as a team in high-school competition, the best friends and training partners provide each other daily fuel and accountability.
For many, the logistics of the Women’s Four Miler will always be secondary to the cause with which it is so closely associated, the UVa Breast Cancer Center. The race is a major fundraiser for the center, which, this year, is celebrating the recent recognition of UVa’s Cancer Center, at large, as a Comprehensive Cancer Center by the National Cancer Institute. The designation represents an extensive and collaborative effort by clinicians and administrators throughout the Cancer Center, to demonstrate commitment to research, education, and innovation.
Race participants at Saturday’s 39th edition of the Women’s Four Miler represented a particularly resilient and committed assembly. Though mitigated by picture-perfect weather and a beautifully manicured course, the hilly, grass terrain was bound to challenge longtime participants in ways that the road course did not. One need not look further than Charlottesville Four Miler fixture, oncologist and breast cancer survivor Heidi Gillenwater, to demonstrate the mindset it took to maximize the experience.
“The beauty of the scenery more than makes up for the physical difficulty,” noted Gillenwater, who also was aided by the company of her teenage daughter, Grace, a standout pole-vaulter for Albemarle High School, for the eighth consecutive year.
Gillenwater has participated in the race since coming to Charlottesville in 2000, along with raising thousands of dollars for the cause that was made scarily personal by her own breast cancer diagnosis in 2019. The Gillenwater duo was one of many mother-daughter teams to have made memories competing together, some including barely school-age harriers, inspiring competitors and spectators, alike, throughout their four-mile venture.
Two years ago, no doubt, there would have been little appetite among longtime Women’s Four Miler participants or organizers for the temporary adjustments to the event that have since transpired. In a fashion truly representative of the COVID-19 pandemic as a whole, however, obligatory changes have yielded a greater appreciation for the camaraderie and shared experience that have been preserved thanks to adaptation and versatility. Look no further than Mark Lorenzoni to identify significant threads of continuity in the event.
“If you just squint a little, it’s not hard to recognize this as the festivus occasion it always has been,” he said. “There’s first-time racers and multiple generations of women, race-day jitters, and post-race jubilation. There are all of the things that make this sport and this event so very timeless.”