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Event, group thrive in hiker's memory

Photo by Ralph

Photo by Ralph

BUFORD -- Friends of hiker Meredith Emerson assumed interest in her tragic story would dwindle with the passing years.

Not so.

The story -- and the lessons inherent in it -- has not only survived, but spread from parent to child, from friend to friend, a cautionary tale fueled by reverence for its main character.

As such, the third incarnation of Ella's Run, a 5K run and festival named for Emerson's sidekick Labrador retriever, drew about 1,200 attendees and a couple hundred dogs to the Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage Center under pristine October skies Saturday.

Those figures, and the roughly $4,000 profit culled from race entry fees, are the healthiest since the event began, said Brent Seyler, vice president of Right to Hike, a volunteer organization established in Emerson's memory. Participants trekked from as far as Florida.

The organization is run by a youthful staff with personal connections to Emerson, a nature-loving University of Georgia graduate. It marks the group's first foray into not-for-profit fundraising and certainly large-scale foot races.

"Yes, we are a successful organization, but we're successful because we realize why we're doing this ... Our hearts play a large part in what we do," Seyler said. "We certainly will never allow Meredith to become less than the forefront."

In events that stunned metro Atlanta, Emerson was kidnapped while hiking the North Georgia mountains on New Year's Day 2008 and later murdered. The micro-chipped dog, Ella, who had accompanied her owner, was found alive several days later.

Ella lives in Colorado with Emerson's parents. Emerson's grandmother drives from Charleston to attend the event each year, said her former roommate Julia Karrenbauer, Right to Hike president.

"We figured that maybe as the years go on, (Emerson's) story would dwindle a little bit. But we've found the opposite. Everybody remembers," Karrenbauer said. "Even if they're here just in passing, they still relate to it. She's still at the forefront of everything."

Proceeds from previous events funded the installation of a $4,100 solar-powered, emergency cell phone station at the center for walkers or runners in distress. Funding from Saturday's event should supply a second station on a local trail, such as the Suwanee Greenway, pending an agreement with the city, Seyler said.

Melissa Johnson, Right to Hike treasurer, said the event went off without a hitch, save for a runner who twisted an ankle but finished the race. The wooded trail network was a favorite escape of Emerson's.

"I don't think many people thought we were going to be around for three years," Johnson said. "The continual support really creates a positive energy."

More information on Ella's Run and the organization is available at www.righttohikeinc.com.