Bells, clackers and warm words of encouragement on a cold, overcast morning kicked off the last Angels Race Triathlon in Lynchburg on Sunday.
The race, drawing to a close after a 13-year run, went out on a high note with 405 racers converging on downtown.
“It’s bittersweet,” David Broman said of the event’s final year. “Part of me says it should be the last year. Part of me says we should do it forever.”
Broman, of Pennsylvania, created the Angels Race with family and friends to honor the memory of his niece, Brittany Groover, a Jefferson Forest High School student and athlete who died in a car crash in 2002.
The event started out as a way for the family to channel its grief, but grew into a beloved race where hundreds of athletes pay tribute to their lost loved ones.
“The race always has a special meaning to it,” said Parker Spencer, 25, who was the first to cross the finish line Sunday.
Spencer, who raced in memory of his grandfather, said often when training it’s easy to become fixated on yourself and your time and performance.
“It’s really cool to be able to do a race where you think of somebody else the whole time,” he said.
The race remains very much a family affair with Brittany’s parents, Tim and Beth Groover, among its chief organizers along with Broman, his brother Geb Broman and family friend Mick Gunter.
The families agreed this year was the right time to close out the triathlon.
“It’s been a great 13 years. It really has,” said Tim Groover, adding he must have been approached by 20 strangers Sunday thanking the family for putting on the race.
“We really thank them, because it wouldn’t have been possible without them being a part of it,” he said. “… It’s been great to see people enjoy it and embrace it. That’s the part we’ll really miss; all the folks who love and find joy in the race.”
“We’ll miss all of it. But again, it’s the right time.”
The Angels Race course, which athletes tackled at staggered start times, began at the YMCA pool, advanced to a 25K bike ride and finished with a 5K run that ended at the Community Market, where racers were greeted by volunteers waving celebratory plastic clackers.
David Broman kneeled down at the edge of the pool and talked with every swimmer about whom they were racing for. The answers ran the gamut from a parent to a friend to a family pet. One long-time regular joined the triathlon after losing his son, Broman said.
“He’d get in the pool, and we’d cry and hug,” Broman said. “This race has helped a lot of people … I can’t put into words how much it has helped us to do it.”
When the 13th and final Angels Race came to an end, the organizing families gathered together at the finish line for a photo.
Hanging nearby were large banners that racers had signed over the years and scrawled with messages for their loved ones.
This year’s banner was already filling up fast. But one message, penned in red marker, stood out in the corner.
“Brittany,” it read. “We/You did it! I love you so! Dad.”
Editor's Note: This article was updated May 7 to reflect that Parker Spencer was racing in memory of his grandfather.