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Ella's Run sees growing turnout, picturesque weather

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Frank Molloy and his daughter Megan Cox crawl through a mud pit with their dog Koda during the 5th annual Ella's Run which consisted of a 5K, Fun Run and a Mud Run at the Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage Center in Buford on Saturday. The event celebrates the life of Meredith Hope Emerson, who was kidnapped and murdered while hiking near Blairsville on New Year's Day 2008.

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Frank Molloy and his daughter Megan Cox crawl through a mud pit with their dog Koda during the 5th annual Ella's Run which consisted of a 5K, Fun Run and a Mud Run at the Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage Center in Buford on Saturday. The event celebrates the life of Meredith Hope Emerson, who was kidnapped and murdered while hiking near Blairsville on New Year's Day 2008.

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Christina Schwering of Seneca, S.C., runs by with her dog at the start of the 5th annual Ella's Run which consisted of a 5K, Fun Run, and a Mud Run at the Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage Center in Buford on Saturday.

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Frank Molloy and his dog Koda run through a tire obstacle during the mud run of the 5th annual Ella's Run at the Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage Center in Buford on Saturday.

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Aidan Hardy, 6, of Sugar Hill runs through the mud pit during the 5th annual Ella's Run which consisted of a 5K, Fun Run and Mud Run at the Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage Center in Buford on Saturday.

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Participants Tammy Nunnally, Corinna Ragsdale and Connie Bryant make their way through the 5K course during the 5th annual Ella's Run at the Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage Center in Buford on Saturday.

BUFORD -- An event that has become a staple on the calendar of 5K events around Gwinnett was again treated to picturesque weather on Saturday.

About 600 people, many with four-legged friends, participated in the fifth annual Ella's Run at the Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage Center. Julia Karrenbauer, president of Right to Hike, a nonprofit organization that puts on the event, said the entries continue to grow each year, and this year race organizers added an obstacle course to the Mud Run, which brought the number of entrants from 40, who ran in the first Mud Run last year, to 80.

"I think a lot of it is word of mouth and people are bringing their friends and family members and experiencing the event and telling everybody and bringing groups of people with them," Karrenbauer said. "It definitely has a good reputation, and the people who have been here since Day 1 are still here."

Ella's Run is to 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. Emerson was found six days later murdered in the woods.

Right to Hike was formed to support causes close to Emerson's heart, including hiking safety. Funds collected are donated to purchase emergency solar/wireless phones for greenways, parks and trailheads and to fund the Meredith Hope Emerson Award for Study Abroad at the University of Georgia. It also supports animal rescues and microchipping.

The group has donated three phones to area parks, one each at the Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage Center, Suwanee Greenway and Gary Pirkle Park in Sugar Hill.

Before the race, Karrenbauer and an honor guard from the Gwinnett Sheriff's Department, whose members volunteered time to search for Emerson, welcomed participants and shared memories of Emerson.

"A lot of you knew her, but a lot of you didn't," said Karrenbauer, who admitted she became a bit emotional. "What this shows is what a great community we have."

Karrenbauer said the bittersweet, but beautiful day was again marked by weather that was delivered in part by Emerson.

"We always say Meredith gives us the best weather," Karrenbauer said of the temperatures in the high 50s and sunny skies. "I don't think we could have picked a better day."

Emily Salazar of Lawrenceville ran for the first time after she read about the event in an REI newsletter. Salazar said she initially participated because of the 5K, but once she heard about Emerson story, she wanted to come to contribute to something good in the community.

John and Sabrina Klaus of Duluth were introduced to the event by their daughter, who also ran in the 5K. The Klauses took part in the Fun Run with their dogs, two cairn terriers.

"It's a good cause," Sabrina said. "We'll do this one again. I like the dogs. I like that the dogs are accepted, because we go everywhere with our dogs."

Rusty Skelton of Johns Creek ran the 5K on Saturday, and said he typcially runs in similar races twice each month. Skelton, who recently moved to the area from Texas, said he loves the competition and the cause.

"It's sad, but it's contributing to a good cause," he said. "For the money to go to something besides a T-shirt."