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Second Annual Ella's Run: Running mates
Runners, dogs turn out for growing tribute to Meredith Emerson

BUFORD - When the Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage Center unveiled its eight miles of hiking trials to the public in 2006, Meredith Emerson and her trusty pooch, Ella, were frequent customers.

The woodsy, hilly outlay hit a soft spot for the nature lover living among the malls of nearby Buford.

To see those same grounds teem with people who loved and admired her - and strangers bent on supporting the causes she cared deeply about - would fill Emerson with gratitude, her friends say.

"I'm sure Meredith would be speechless," said friend Brent Seyler. "She was a very special girl, for those who didn't know her. She knows what we're doing."

Seyler is vice president of Right to Hike, the volunteer organization established in Emerson's memory. The group continued its mission to raise awareness of outdoor safety with its second annual 5K run and festival Saturday called Ella's Run, an homage to the black Labrador mix.

In events that shocked metro Atlanta, Emerson was kidnapped and later murdered while hiking in Blairsville on New Year's Day 2008. The microchipped Ella, who had accompanied her owner, was found alive several days later.

With a rough head-count Saturday of 1,100, organizers say attendance nearly doubled over the inaugural year. Another 300 or so canines made an appearance - impressive, considering their brethren from Athens were in the midst of an SEC rivalry game.

Organizers strived for a carnival feel with the second incarnation of the commemorative run - with live music, barbecue, a kids' zone and pumpkin patch - as a means to keep patrons around for a few hours. It worked.

"More people came out for the activities," said Danielle Wunn, marketing coordinator with the Heritage Center.

More than 700 runners and walkers participated, paying entry fees of $15 to $25. And Emerson's father, Dave, sent hand-carved pieces - from cutting boards to jewelry boxes - from his home in Colorado for a silent auction. The eight items reaped about $800.

Proceeds will fund a Meredith Hope Emerson Scholarship at her alma mater, the University of Georgia. Last year's event saw 25 GPS location devices donated to Union County Search and Rescue, which headed up the search for Emerson and Ella. Leaders hope hikers can use the devices in the event they're lost or need to be located.

Seyler said Right to Hike is weighing the possibility of another event in the spring, with hopes of fueling safety programs that relate to hiking and all outdoor activities.

"People use this to celebrate a dear friend, daughter, sister. It's a way for people to cope," Seyler said. "If Meredith could say something, she'd say 'Thank you.'"