Staff Photo: John Bohn Runners, walkers and dogs take part in the 4th annual Ella's 5K, Fun Run and Mud Run, put on by the organization Right to Hike on Saturday at the Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage Center in Buford. The event is to celebrate the life of Meredith Hope Emerson and is named for her dog Ella.
BUFORD -- Rusty, a purebred St. Bernard, lounged on the cool asphalt during a crisp October morning. Passersby stopped to pet the dog as they walked along, sporting sweat pants and tracksuits.
Dogs like Rusty didn't lack for attention Saturday morning at the Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage Center.
Canines of all kinds strutted at the sides of their owners during the fourth annual gathering to celebrate the life of the late hiker Meredith Emerson.
In its fourth year, Ella's Run continues to grow. Named for Emerson's sidekick Labrador retriever, the gathering drew more than 2,000 participants in total on Saturday. Last year, there were about 1,200.
Some knew Emerson, while others were touched by the tragic story of her kidnapping and murder nearly four years ago. Her dog, Ella, who had accompanied her, was found alive several days after her disappearance.
Ella's Run is a way for jogging and hiking enthusiasts like mother-daughter duo Sandy McLane and Brandi Poore to show support "for a great cause.
"I was really touched by Meredith's story," Poore said. "It's so wonderful to see all the other people here as well who want to honor her life and make a difference."
The 5K race, Fun Run, Walk and Mud Run helped raise dollars for the organization Right to Hike, which aims to "raise funds and awareness for causes close to Meredith's heart."
Their mission statement: the belief "that all people have the right to live without fear."
A majority of Saturday's proceeds go toward Right to Hike's primary objective: to donate emergency cellphone units on trails, at parks and greenways.
To date, the organization has donated three phones -- one at Sugar Hill's Gary Pirkle Park, another at the Suwanee Greenway and one at the Gwinnett Environmental Center.
Runners jogged in place, did jumping jacks and stretched at the environmental center in preparation for the Saturday morning event.
Richard Ruka watched all the activity from the sidelines with three grandchildren. Three of his daughters were participants in Saturday's race, and the family was there to cheer them on.
Ruka smiled. His grandchildren took turns pushing each other in a red Radio Flyer wagon. "Couldn't ask for a prettier day," he said.
Rusty, the St. Bernard, might agree. The canine stood up and yawned, following McLane and Poore down to the hiking trail.
For more information about Right to Hike, visit www.righttohikeinc.com.