SARATOGA SPRINGS — The Saratoga Bridges’ 23rd annual Great Pumpkin Challenge returns on Sept. 30, helping to raise money for Saratoga Bridges’ programs and staff.
But for one family and their friends, the event is also a special opportunity for remembrance.
In 2002, Julie Niles and Mark Pitts lost their daughter, Nora Ann Pitts, to complications of mitochondrial disease just before her third birthday. Several years later, when Caroline, their oldest daughter, began showing an interest in 5K races, the family said they eventually discovered the Great Pumpkin Challenge.
In the years since, they have been joined by friends and family at the annual event, wearing bunny ears while they run or walk in remembrance of Nora. The bunny ears are a nod to a photo of Nora that they said is meaningful to them.
“More and more people wanted to be a part of it, our friends and family,” said Niles. “Some years, we might have 20-plus people running with the ears. It’s just become a really nice way, for our friends and family, one way that they show support for us and they remember Nora.”
Nora Ann Pitts. Her parents Julie Niles and Mark Pitts, along with friends and family, participate in the Great Pumpkin Challenge each year while wearing bunny ears as a nod to this photo of Nora (Photo provided by Julie Niles and Mark Pitts).
They credited their friend, Paige Allen, for the idea of running and walking with the bunny ears. The event also typically falls close to Nora’s birthday, Oct. 25, although this year’s event was moved to an earlier date due to construction in the State Park, said Pamela Polacsek, Development and Foundation Director of Saratoga Bridges.
In addition to honoring and remembering Nora, the team’s participation also supports Saratoga Bridges.
“Given Nora’s condition, she passed away from complications of mitochondrial disease. It was a disease that took little pieces away from her,” Pitts said. “She was getting physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy. It kind of parallels what Saratoga Bridges offers. Had she survived, she probably would’ve been a part of this community.”
Pitts and Niles also have a son, Murdock. They credited their friends and family for their support, including Allen, who they said has helped organize the team through the years.
“It’s really been our friends and family that have kept it going,” said Niles. “It isn’t driven by us, but we, of course, are really happy to participate.”
They noted that friends and family have traveled from all over to participate through the years, including from Boston as well as states such as Virginia and New Hampshire.
Others who have experienced losses have also been included in the group, Niles said.
“We’ve kind of incorporated other people who’ve had losses at the same time, and try to remember them as we walk,” Niles said.
While many participating in the race do so in costume to celebrate the Halloween season, Pitts, Niles, and their friends and family can be spotted throughout the crowd of participants by the bunny ears they wear.
“It’s a good atmosphere at the race,” Niles said. “It’s a very simple costume, but you have people spread throughout the race. You see clumps of us here and there.”
“We have the bunny ears on for one purpose, and everybody else is dressed up for Halloween,” added Pitts. “Occasionally, we’ve had people that have asked, ‘What’s up?’”
Beginning at 9:30 a.m. on Sept. 30, the Great Pumpkin Challenge offers both a 5K and 10K, as well as a Kids’ Fun Run. The events are NET-chip timed, and begin at the Columbia Pavilion in the Saratoga Spa State Park.
Prizes are awarded to the top three male and female finishers. The event also includes costume and pumpkin contests, as well as giveaways, food, and refreshments, according to a press release.
Registration is $30, and available at saratogabridges.org. Online registration will close at 5 p.m. on Sept. 26. In-person registration will be offered Sept. 29 from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m., at 16 Saratoga Bridges Blvd in Ballston Spa.
A virtual option is also offered for $30. Funds raised by the Great Pumpkin Challenge support Saratoga Bridges’ underfunded or unfunded programs and activities, such as the Creative Endeavors Arts Center, in addition to supporting staff, said Polacsek.
Pitts and Niles said their group has also grown along with the Great Pumpkin Challenge through the years, with Niles saying it has now become “this big community of friends.”
“It’s so needed in the community,” said Niles of Saratoga Bridges’ programs. “We’re just so blessed to have a great circle of friends and family that support us, and the whole of Saratoga Bridges.”