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Meredith Hope Emerson celebrated with annual 5K fundraiser

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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 last year 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.

IF YOU GO

• What: Ella’s Run

• When: 9 a.m. to noon Saturday

• Where: Gwinnett Environmental & Heritage Center, 2020 Clean Water Drive, Buford

• Cost: $15 to $35

For more information: Visit www.righttohikein...

BUFORD -- Lace up your running shoes and put your pup on the lease because the fifth annual Ella's Run has returned to raise money for Right to Hike in honor of Meredith Hope Emerson on Saturday.

"I think that in the beginning it was a whirlwind that we weren't sure what we were going to expect," said Julia Karrenbauer, president of Right to Hike. "Each year, I think we get more participants through a word of mouth, which is a great honor for us. It's great that it's grown so much."

There will be a 5K, a fun run and the return of the mud run, which shares a course with those in the regular 5K, but then continues on to the Sweetgum Trail where things really get messy.

"I don't know why people like the mud so much, but it seemed like a trend," Karrenbauer said. "It's not a hardcore mud event, it just goes along the normal 5K path and then you get to obstacles. We tried it last year, everyone really liked it, so we brought it back."

The organizers want people to come out and remember Emerson instead of focusing on finances.

"We're never quite sure what each year is going to bring," Karrenbauer said. "We just want it to be a beautiful day with lots of people. ... This event is about it being Meredith's day and less about financial goals."

Besides human runners, canine sprinters are allowed into the race as well.

"That's probably the best part about the day to see people participating with their dogs -- everything from Saint Bernards to Chihuahuas," Karrenbauer said. "I think Meredith would have really enjoyed seeing all the different dogs out."

For those who don't know the back story of the event, it is to celebrate the memory of Meredith Hope Emerson who went missing on Jan. 1, 2008 while hiking in Blairsville with her dog, Ella, who she had adopted from a rescue shelter. She was found six days later murdered in the woods.

To honor the slain woman, friends and family founded Right to Hike Inc., a nonprofit organization that supports causes that were close to Emerson's heart, including hiking safety. Funds collected are donated to purchase emergency solar/wireless phones for greenways, parks and trailheads, to fund the Meredith Hope Emerson Award for Study Abroad at the University of Georgia, and to support animal rescues and microchipping.

To date, the group has donated three phones, one each at the Gwinnett Environmental & Heritage Center, Suwanee Greenway and the Gary Pirkle Park in Sugar Hill.

Each phone is roughly $5,000 to purchase, ship and install. With this type of expense, Right to Hike works closely with parks to decide where the next phone will be installed, but this week, the organizers just want to focus on the races.

"I think that's something that we'll decide after the race and see where we're at," Karrenbauer said. "The next one will stay in Gwinnett because it's a natural fit for us. When we look for 2013, we have to ask ourselves, 'Do we expand to metro Atlanta?' So many people could benefit from this."

Participants can register in advance through www.active.com, at the Buford Branch Georgia's Own Credit Union at 3360 Buford Drive today from 4 to 7 p.m. or on Saturday for an additional $5.