Olympian efforts highlight fifth Beach Bum 5K

— The annual Beach Bum 5K always offers a unique challenge among local distance races.

Windy conditions, running on sand and dodging incoming surf make times slower and legs more achy.

That doesn’t mean the race isn’t one of the area’s most popular.

“It is one of the most challenging courses in Southwest Florida because of the possible weather conditions,” said race organizer LeRoy Huenefeld of Gulf Coast Runners. “It can be tough but everyone who does this race loves it.”

The fifth annual race is today, starting at 7:30 a.m. Proceeds from the event go to a scholarship fund for local high school students who run track and need money for college, said Huenefeld.

The cost is $18 in advance for Gulf Coast Runners members and $20 for non-members and on race day.

This year’s race is notable because two local Special Olympic athletes are joining the fray.

Both Dawn Coe and Matthew Berman excel in Special Olympics events in Collier County and on a statewide level.

“I’ve been doing Special Olympics for over 30 years,” said Coe, 48. “It’s good exercise and it is fun.”

Coe runs three or four times per week and also swims competitively. Her training regimen allows her to compete against, and often beat, younger athletes.

Berman, 24, also swims and competes in track and basketball. In February, the Special Olympics basketball team he plays on won the state championship.

“I’m a little excited and a little nervous,” Berman said of the upcoming beach run. “It is one of my favorite things to do.”

Charlie Monahan, a Gulf Coast Runners member and volunteer for the Collier County Special Olympics, is sponsoring one of the Special Olympic runners and the running club is sponsoring the other.

Monahan came up with the idea of inviting the athletes and will run alongside Coe and Berman on Saturday.

“If they can compete in the Special Olympics, I thought we should try them in an outside race and see how it turns out,” said Monahan. “It’s a chance for them to get out into the mainstream and do something they’ll remember all their lives.”

Monahan said Special Olympic athletes personify sportsmanship.

“They are the last of the pure amateur athletes,” he said. “They are there for each other and for the sport of it. It would be nice if we could all see sports the same way.”

Carrie Berman, Matthew Berman’s stepmother, said running in an open race will give her son more confidence.

“Sports provides a good way for Matt to fit in with the group,” she said. “His abilities help him build confidence. He holds his head higher and is able to be in the world better, really.”

Coe and Berman will be part of a large field.

The Beach Bum race has grown from 125 runners the first year to over 200 finishers last year.

“This year, we are running probably 20 percent over last year in registrations,” said Huenefeld. “I may have to put a cap on the race one day.”

The Beach Bum 5K is also known for the colorful tie-dyed T-shirts every runner receives for competing, and for the themed trophies awarded to top finishers.

In past years, runners have been awarded sand molds and beach shovels. This year, trophies will be made from “Beach Bum Beer” bottles provided by Budweiser, said Huenefeld.

The course begins and ends at Lowdermilk Park, a circuit stretching north to Doctor’s Pass and south to Second Avenue North.

Huenefeld said competitive runners should expect slower than usual times but more fun.

While a winning time in a road 5K might be 17 minutes, the top finisher in the Beach Bum race probably won’t break the 19-minute mark.

“The times are not very good and I’d have to say tenacious is a key word,” he said. “You have some obstacles to overcome and it’s competitive, but everyone does it because it’s fun.”

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