[DURHAM, NH]– After almost a year of being cooped up indoors due to the coronavirus (COVID-19), participants of the Hop + Grind “Hoppy” Leprechaun 5K were able to safely get back out there and experience the joy of racing this past Saturday.  

For the first annual race, the number of participants was outstanding. Two hundred people, travelling all the way from Connecticut and Rhode Island, showed up to sprint a 3.1 mile loop starting and ending at Oyster River High School. There were 14 different groups created, competing against each other to donate the most amount of money.  

An honorable event, runners showed up in all of the green they owned and an Irish spirit no one could beat as everyone welcomed the 62°, bright, spring day. The combination of the great weather, a welcoming community and a respectable event, laughter and joy were displayed at every scene.  

Ashley Steeves, 32 of Amesbury, Mass., has worked her entire life giving back to the community. The “Hoppy” Leprechaun 5K was started by Steeves and her non-profit racing company, “High5EM.” In collaboration with Bobby Marcotte, owner of Hop + Grind and Rise + Grind, Steeves was able to sponsor an event that benefits St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.  

Why St. Jude? Marcotte has become a long-time supporter of St. Jude in honor of his late daughter, Allana, who lost her fight with cancer at age 13 in 2014. Steeves knew Bobby did fundraising for Allana throughout the year and wanted to help. “St. Jude is a phenomenal charity to support and give back to,” Steeves said.  

Steeves started High5EM with her wife six years ago. “We value supporting the community. We push ourselves and love the challenge of a 5K,” Steeves said. Overall, Steeves wants to give people the opportunity to finish a challenge while also benefiting the charitable side of the community. High5EM has a strong following of runners who support the events throughout the year. Before COVID-19, that would account for about 25 events between March and Thanksgiving.  

Entry fees for adults was $17-$35, depending on the day they registered, and $15 for children. High5Em even gave a discounted price to the surrounding University of New Hampshire students. The total amount of donations to St. Jude is still currently being calculated.  

Runners who chased this opportunity raced to the finish line at full speed with hearts pounding, lungs that feel like they’re torn apart and legs that couldn’t be felt anymore. Brian Shepard, 24, came in first place for men, completing the race in 16 minutes and 50 seconds.  Heather Searles, 38, busted out just barely under a sub 20; a first place champion for the women who participated.  

“I want people to take out an amazing experience. Some people even come and race alone. They come and race hard,” Steeves said. High5EM creates opportunities for people to meet up with friends and gives dedicated runners a new theme or a new course. “Racing gives [participants] an opportunity. You don’t have to think about anything,” Steeves added.  

The Durham Police Department allocated permits to High5EM and chaperoned the event to keep everyone COVID-19 safe. However, for participants that were not comfortable because of the pandemic, there was a virtual option. They had the weekend, starting on March 19, to complete the virtual event, while receiving all the glory including a chance to submit your race results. They weren’t eligible for awards, but were able to download a finishers certificate upon completion.  

One last St. Patrick’s Day hurrah at the event gave New Englanders a chance to feel somewhat normal while struggling in the pandemic. COVID-19 or not, Steeves mentioned that Marcotte is “super excited” to watch this event grow. He has been working on raising money for Allana and has pushed himself to create a memorial fund in memory of her as well. The Inaugural Hop + Grind “Hoppy” Leprechaun 5K allowed Marcotte a chance to create something specifically for Allana, someone who stands as a symbol of strength and courage to not only him, but the entire community. 

Photo courtesy of High5Em.