Running With a Purpose

by Kari Apted

As the Covington YMCA’s primary fundraiser for the WHY IT MATTERS campaign, the Cheerios Challenge road race started with less than 50 participants nearly two decades ago and now averages 1,300 registrations annually.

The Covington Y Cheerios Challenge brings the community together every spring to fuel body, mind and soul. Most local residents have heard of the annual road race but many do not realize the story behind the event—or how much it impacts the youth of Newton County.

It was named after the popular breakfast cereal manufactured by local supporter General Mills. For nearly two decades, the Y Cheerios Challenge has attracted participants from all walks of life and all fitness levels. From serious runners looking to break their personal record to families wanting to enjoy some time outdoors together, Covington YMCA Executive Director Louly Hay-Kapp pointed to the inclusive nature of the race. 

“The races have no time limit, so it’s OK to go fast or slow,” she said. “Strollers are welcome. You can run, walk or shuffle over the finish line—whatever it takes to finish.”

The Y Cheerios Challenge is the Covington YMCA’s largest fundraiser for the WHY IT MATTERS annual campaign, which funds YMCA scholarships for children. It is the mission of the YMCA to never turn away anyone due to financial hardship. Registration fees, vendor fees and other funds raised through the annual event make Y programs such as day camp and swimming lessons available to all children, regardless of their ability to pay. 

“It’s a day of celebrating family, health and wellness while giving back to the community,” Hay-Kapp said. “It’s a culmination of efforts, where volunteers, law enforcement officers, businesses and citizens come together to support a great cause.”

While the race began with just 45 kids running one mile, it now averages around 1,300 annual registrations. Many local runners consider the Challenge a can’t-miss priority every year. Covington resident and retired music teacher Will Schmidt has only missed one run since the event began.

“Last year was the first year I missed, but I still registered,” Schmidt said. “In spring 2018, I tripped over a coat hanger—of all things—while running near the intersection of Floyd and Dearing streets. About a week later, my knee gave out completely, and it took a year to fully recover.”

“It’s a day of celebrating family, health and wellness while giving back to the community. It’s a culmination of efforts, where volunteers, law enforcement officers, businesses and citizens come together to support a great cause.”

Covington YMCA Executive Director Louly Hay-Kapp

The 67-year-old running enthusiast has since returned to running 100 miles each month and looks forward to the 2020 Y Cheerios Challenge. “Guys in my age group consistently make good times,” Schmidt said. “I can finish a 5K in about 30 minutes and a 10K in just over an hour.” In addition to maintaining his own best times, Schmidt enjoys the community aspect of being a Y Cheerios Challenge participant. “The YMCA excels at helping others,” he said. “Running in the Challenge is a way of giving back while doing something I enjoy.”

When Cynthia Eagan moved to Covington in 2000, the YMCA was one of the first places she visited. “The Y has been a central part of my life since I was 5 years old,” she said. “I grew up at the Y. I learned how to swim at the Y. Everywhere I’ve lived, the YMCA has always been my anchor, my base.” Eagan began volunteering at the Covington Y and worked with Hay-Kapp to launch the first Challenge in 2001. She enjoys building connections between individuals and organizations.

“We were seeking corporate supporters for the event, and Louly and I made a presentation at General Mills,” she said. The food manufacturer has been a consistent supporter ever since. Eagan marvels at how much the Challenge has grown since its humble beginnings. “We started out with a few kids running along Newton Drive in front of the Y,” she said. “Now we’ve moved to Legion Field and have over a thousand participants.”

Will Schmidt and Cynthia Eagan

Eagan’s own involvement with the YMCA has grown, as well. She and her husband have volunteered as Y coaches in a variety of sports, including basketball, soccer and cheerleading. The Eagans take turns serving on the Covington Y’s board, and her health-focused lifestyle has led her to also serve on the boards at Piedmont Newton Hospital and Newton Trails.

“It’s my goal to have a race on the trail someday, if we can work out the logistics,” she said. “I love to give back to the community. Although I could just give monetarily, I prefer to be there. I’m fortunate to have the time to volunteer.”

Even if they cannot run on race day, Eagan’s family of six registers every year.

“We want to support the WHY IT MATTERS annual campaign financially—and we all want that T-shirt,” Eagan said with a laugh. “I am passionate about the Y, and I love how the Y Cheerios Challenge brings the community together.”

The 19th annual Cheerios Challenge will be held on April 18 and offers several levels of competition. Participants may choose to run a 15K, 10K, 5K or one-mile fun run, while children age 5 and under can run in the 50-yard Tot Trot. Early registration ends on April 10, and all registered participants receive a T-shirt. Visit www.ycheerioschallenge.com for more information on registering as a runner or vendor.

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