The running club has expanded over the last decade through an all-levels-welcome approach.

A runner holds up a medal and smiles with two children in a stroller in front of him. A Pacifica Runners staff member stands next to him.
“From the beginning, the purpose of Pacifica Runners was to be family-oriented and really welcome kids to join the 5K races along with their parents or alone,” says Pacifica Runners president Kendra Chun. (Photo courtesy Pacifica Runners)

The shrapnel and explosions from the Boston Marathon news footage still felt fresh when Kelly Gahagan, Naomi Gutierrez Cook and Kristi Nemes met with their families for a run in the south end of Pacifica on April 17, 2013.

Swimming with the collective grief of the tragedy that killed three spectators and injured over 200 others just two days earlier, the self-dubbed “Amigos run for Boston in Pacifica” hit the sand on a 1 mile out-and-back stretch. The mothers chatted about how they longed for a local group that would inspire runners and their families to race and felt like a community.

The three women cobbled a race together over a flurry of emails and discussions. Barely a month later, they gathered on May 19 at San Pedro Valley Park, expecting up to 30 people.

They didn’t realize they needed an event permit to race there, and nearly 70 people showed up. The seeds for what would become Pacifica Runners were sown.

“When we decided to create Pacifica Runners from that first formal run, there were no running clubs (in Pacifica),” says Gahagan, who credits Nemes with leading the effort to organize into a legitimate running club. “Then it was very much a group effort to get us to where Pacifica Runners is today.”

Running for community and for a cause

Since that initial race, the group has expanded to produce two to four 5K races every year, often coinciding with holidays and seasonal themes and coined with festive, family-friendly names like Trick or Trot and Summer Sizzle. Accompanying the 5Ks, the club hosts the Bella’s Kid Dash, named in memory of a Pacifica girl who died from leukemia. Custom-made wood medals, goodie bags for the kids and post-race barbecues with tacos for both participants and spectators alike round out the races as community events.

“The first races were very informal. We have improved a lot and recently started chip timing (timing runners by using small electronic chips), which is a big endeavor. A Runner’s Mind is a huge sponsor/partner and has really helped us out with clinics, awards and advice,” says Kendra Chun, who now helms the club as president and has served on the board for the club since its first year. “From the beginning, the purpose of Pacifica Runners was to be family-oriented and really welcome kids to join the 5K races along with their parents or alone.”

A crowd of runners waits at the start line surrounded by trees.
Runners of all levels are welcome to Pacifica Runners’ events. (Photo courtesy Pacifica Runners)

Beyond the races, the club, which is a nonprofit, has hosted a variety of events, including workshops on nutrition, breathing, foam rolling, trail running and women’s running history. The club has donated to the Pacifica Resource Center and Pacifica Beach Coalition and partnered with local schools and businesses.

A running club open to all levels

Perhaps the group’s biggest appeal is its welcoming nature. Join a club run and you might run alongside a classically trained soprano, a neurologist or a construction manager. While there are about 100 active club members showing up to events and races, there are over 400 in the Facebook group alone.

“When we post our (group run) announcements, we always say ‘All levels welcome, no matter your pace or distance,’” says club vice president Ami Kelly-Hodge. “It’s important to us that no one feels left behind or unchallenged.”

That all-levels approach appealed to Pacifica native Ramona Esquivel. Invited by a friend to come run in 2016, Esquivel says she was hooked by the warm and inviting energy of the group.

Esquivel started running in 2013 as part of a major lifestyle transformation. “I went from walking 5 (minutes) to running 5Ks in a year,” she says. “Then I trained for 10Ks and (half-marathons) after that.”

Esquivel recalls a time when her family came out to one of the club’s races to support her. 

“None of them were runners at the time. But they came out and had a great time and said it really made them want to try it more,” she says. “That for me is huge. Family and friends coming together and having fun in sports.”

Recovering from the pandemic

When COVID restrictions clamped down in March 2020, the club faced a hurdle. The race directors reluctantly canceled the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day 5K. The group then had to get creative on how to keep their members engaged.

The club transitioned their Saturday morning group runs to the virtual space, meeting at 8 a.m. in a Facebook Messenger room instead of the Pacifica Pier. They issued monthly challenges, including an activity bingo card, invited members to post selfies to their Facebook group and encouraged them to support Pacifica businesses.

Cristina Campion joined Pacifica Runners at the end of 2020, in the midst of the club meeting virtually. Her last experiences with the sport were 10 years ago in cross-country at her East Coast high school. She credits the monthly challenges, Strava kudos and Facebook likes with keeping her fitness on track.

Bolstered by that encouragement from the club, Campion recently completed her first marathon, the Big Sur Marathon – a goal race for many in the sport to run a closed Highway 1 from Big Sur to Carmel.

For the club overall, the virtual engagement during the pandemic was effective. “When we held our first live race since the start of the pandemic, we restricted the number of participants to 25 and we had 24 show up. It was clear not everyone was anxious to race in person just yet,” Kelly-Hodge says. “But by the time we had our Tiki Trot in August, people were ready and feeling comfortable again. We had over twice as many sign up!”

A runner excitedly hands an envelope to staff at a table with snacks.
(Photo courtesy Pacifica Runners)

Building ties with other clubs

As far as future growth for the club, Kelly-Hodge raises the issue of accessibility, as Pacifica isn’t easily accessible without a car. One solution could be partnering with other local running clubs to brainstorm transit options so more people can join in on their events.

On the more immediate horizon, the club plans to host an Introduction to Chi Running workshop. And as in 2021, this year’s Tiki Trot 5K race is again a state championship event for the Road Runners Club of America, a national running organization representing 200,000 individual runners in 1,500 running clubs, including Pacifica Runners.

No matter what the future holds, the club’s vision will remain the same.

“Pacifica Runners is a group for everyone,” Esquivel says. “Kids, parents, joggers, walkers, runners. We are all-inclusive and really love everyone.”

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