A (half) marathon of generosity: Driftless Half-Marathon donates to area organizations and awards scholarships

Allamakee County Sheriff’s Department ... Left to right: Allamakee County Sheriff Deputy Ross Kolsrud with K9 Tyr, Driftless Half-Marathon Founder Amanda Hess and Allamakee County Sheriff Clark Mellick. Submitted photo.

Lansing Emergency Medical Services (EMS) ... Left to right: Lansing EMS volunteers Matt Wagner, Conrad Rosendahl, Steph Hill, Janet Hess and Brittany Darling, and Driftless Half-Marathon committee members Amanda Hess, Becky Rea and Kayla Smith. Submitted photo.

Lansing Police Department ... Left to right: Driftless Half-Marathon founder Amanda Hess, Lansing/New Albin Police Chief Conrad Rosendahl, and Driftless Half-Marathon committee members Becky Rea and Kayla Smith. Submitted photo.

Lansing Fire Department ... Left to right: Lansing Fire Department volunteers Tony Becker and Troy Hill, and Driftless Half-Marathon committee members Amanda Hess, Becky Rea and Kayla Smith. Submitted photo. Not pictured in any of the photos are other Driftless Half-Marathon committee members Amanda Robley, Maryann Baldwin, Rebecca Manning and Brooke Welsh, as well as additional donation recipient Harpers Ferry Fire and Rescue.

DHM Scholarship recipients ... Left to right: Waukon High School 2020 graduate Maddie Ellingson and Kee High School 2020 graduate Kinley Schobert. Submitted photos.

by Julie Berg-Raymond

A group of volunteers in Allamakee County ended 2020 – a difficult year, by any estimation – on a positive note, by donating $4,500 to organizations that serve their communities, as well as awarding scholarships to a pair of local high school graduates.

The volunteers, organizers of the third annual Driftless Half-Marathon (DHM) held October 10 between Harpers Ferry and Lansing, recently presented checks to the Allamakee County Sheriff’s Department K9 Fund; the Lansing Volunteer Fire Department; Lansing Volunteer EMS; the Lansing Police Department Kindness Campaign; and the Harpers Ferry Volunteer Fire Department and EMS.

“The majority of our donations (totaling more than $13,000 since the race’s founding) go to those who help make the race safe,” says DHM Founder and Director Amanda Hess. “Our medical volunteers are out on the course before and after the runners.”

This year, 194 participants finished across all events (half marathon, relay and 5k). There were 251 registered. “This is exciting, given the circumstances,” Hess says. “Most races canceled for the majority of 2020, due to COVID-19.”

Special protocols were observed because of the pandemic. “We had participants sign a COVID-19 waiver and encouraged social distancing and mask wearing,” Hess says. “Hand washing/sanitizing stations were provided. We didn’t have any volunteers at the water stations along the course, in order to minimize person-to-person contact.”

Additionally, the DHM committee hosted a food drive during which face masks were given to people who donated non-perishables. The food - over 560 pounds - was donated to L.I.F.T (Lansing Iowa Food Trust).

Created in 2017 by a handful of Lansing community members and runners, the DHM was first held in 2018. Its stated goal is two-fold - to bring people from across the country into the scenic Driftless Area of Allamakee County; and to give something back to the community.

In addition to raising funds, the race has attracted hundreds of people to the area and drawn attention to the natural beauty of Allamakee County. Testimonials on the DHM’s official website indicate the annual event has developed a reputation for being “the most scenic and well-organized small-town race – ever” (thedriftlesshalfmarathon.com). The 13.1-mile half marathon starts a mile north of Harpers Ferry on the Great River Road; takes a scenic detour onto Red Oak Road; returns to the Great River Road at Wexford; and finishes at the Lansing Fire and EMS Station.

“DHM is made possible by our loyal sponsors. They play a huge role in helping us host a professional-level running event,” Hess says. “The biggest thrill for me is seeing people in public wearing the DHM race shirt or sweatshirt. I was at a race in Madison, WI and was creeping on another runner that had our shirt on. It’s just surreal.”

This year’s sponsors included Cunningham Hardware, Waukon Feed Ranch, Bluff Country Meats, Eagle Ridge Land Company, Trinity Fabricators, Inc., Kerndt Brothers Bank, Gundersen Health System, Lansing Fitness Center, GFMutual Insurance - Dan Byrnes, Alliant Energy, Winke Law Office, New Albin Savings Bank, Mayo Clinic Health System, W&M Ag and Culligan Water Conditioning.

Ross Kolsrud, a K9 handler for the Allamakee County Sheriff’s Office (the K9 Fund is a 2020 DHM donation recipient) ran in the 2018 and 2020 half-marathons. He says the DHM is “challenging, to say the least. With the terrain and the monster of a hill at the halfway point, the course is definitely intimidating. But the beauty of the Midwest in October puts much of the intimidation at bay. The gorgeous yellow, orange and red leaves overhead and the crisp October air - not to mention the mighty Mississippi backdrop - give a special meaning to this race.”

Kolsrud did much of his training for this year’s race with his K9 partner, Tyr, by running with him along the backroads of Allamakee County. He says the training and the race, itself, are good preparation for their jobs. “Being a K9 handler, I need to be physically and mentally prepared for any situation, whether it be a short, 10-minute drug search or an extended track that may go for miles,” he says. “With our hilly terrain in northeast Iowa, the demands put on K9 Tyr and myself are much different from that of an urban patrol team. The Driftless Half-Marathon helps prepare K9 Tyr and me for those challenges we face.”

Becky Rea - a part of the DHM team “since day one” - says there’s a lot involved in organizing an event like this, “such as getting the appropriate approvals from local officials, and attending meetings to make sure we are following correct protocols; finding volunteers, a timing company, medals, shirts and finisher food; arranging for photographers, advertising, aid stations, porta-potties, etc. A lot of thought goes into the fine details, because the DHM committee wants to make sure we meet the runners’ expectations. We are always looking to improve, going into the next year.”

Rea says she thoroughly enjoys race day and being around other runners. “There’s a certain vibe at these events that automatically puts you in a good mood and puts a smile on your face,” she says. “I also love the fact that we are able to donate back to our community and keep the money local.”

The Allamakee County Sheriff’s Office provides safety and law enforcement services to the Driftless Half Marathon. In a letter emailed to Hess following the 2020 event, Allamakee County Sheriff Clark Mellick wrote, “It is always a pleasure to work in conjunction with the organizers and volunteers. This has been an amazing opportunity to showcase the beauty of Allamakee County through the run. The organizers and volunteers have done an excellent job, making this an amazing event for our county. The Allamakee County Sheriff’s Office has been a recipient of funds donated by the event; these funds have gone toward the Allamakee County Sheriff’s Office K9 program. Funds are utilized for the purchase of equipment and supplies to continue this invaluable service. We would like to thank Amanda Hess and her staff and all volunteers for involving our agency and look forward to next year’s run.”

In addition to making donations to area fire departments, law enforcement organizations and EMS, the 2020 DHM committee awarded two $500 scholarships to graduating seniors this past spring - Kinley Schobert from Kee High School in Lansing and Maddie Ellingson from Waukon High School. Applicants for the scholarships were asked to write an essay explaining why Allamakee County is important to them, and why it is important to give back to the community they call home.

“I have met so many incredible people along the way who have inspired me,” Schobert wrote in her application essay. “These people talk about a town in need and then go start a food shelf. They hear of someone with cancer and arrange a benefit that the entire town attends.

They feel sadness for a community mourning a loss and they light up a bridge to offer visual comfort. These people have inspired me. They have reminded me of the character of this community, and why it is so good to live here.”

Schobert is currently attending Western Technical College in La Crosse, WI pursuing a major in surgical technology.

In her application essay, Ellingson wrote, “I am lucky to have grown up in an area where I feel safe, comfortable, and welcomed by my neighbors. I hope that wherever my future takes me, I will remember this feeling of community that I learned in my hometown. From all the things that a community like Allamakee County has given me, I have learned the importance of giving back… I joined the Allamakee County 4-H program in the fourth grade, and was immediately exposed to countless community service opportunities that are around me.”

Ellingson is currently in her first year at Wartburg College in Waverly, studying accounting and criminal justice.

“I’m very happy we were able to host the event, given the circumstances of what’s happening in the world,” Hess says. “We worked hard to provide a safe environment for our volunteers and participants. When it comes down to it, our runners really just wanted an in-person race so they could have a tiny bit of normality - and so they could live out the passion they have for running. I’m so happy that we could provide that for them.”

The DHM committee is already planning for and working on its 2021 event. “If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that people want to race,” Hess says in looking ahead. “They want to be a part of something good, something positive, something that makes an impact in the local community. The DHM provides a space for them to do just that.”

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