ELYRIA — We will never forget.
Runners by the hundreds pounded those words into the pavement Saturday morning to kick off the annual James A. Kerstetter 5-Kilometer Race and 1-Mile Family Fun Walk. Each time feet hit the ground, whether it was from a fellow Elyria police officer running to honor his or her fallen brother or a community member out to stay fit, the legacy of Kerstetter reverberated on the concrete.
“It means a lot to know so many people came out to support a fallen officer,” Officer Dan Sumpter said. “I only hope and pray Jimmy Kerstetter is up there, watching us all and smiling.”
Sumpter, decked out in a black T-shirt with Kerstteter’s dispatch call number ‘177’ displayed on the back, was one of more than two dozen Elyria officers who ran the race in formation — a tradition that began in 2010, a few months after Kerstetter’s death.
Then, the running signified their solidarity to get through the grieving process. Now, it’s about keeping Kerstetter’s memory alive.
In March 2010, Kerstetter answered a call about a neighbor dispute. A 15-year veteran of the force, he was killed in the line of duty.
“He was a good friend and great officer,” police Capt. Andy Eichenlaub said. “It is outstanding that the community comes together and honors the memory of Jimmy with this race that keeps growing.”
When the death was so fresh in the minds of many, the words “We will never forget” were uttered by family, friends and strangers alike. But there was no way of knowing if the promise would continuously be fulfilled by those who did not call the officer son, brother, husband, father or friend.
Then, the first 5K took place. A few hundred runners jogged on Kerstetter Way and neighboring streets on a course patterned after the route the fallen officer used to take when he ran.
Each year, more runners joined the field.
Saturday, the total was 915 registered participants.
“I thought as the years went on, it would diminish,” said Kristy Sawyers, a sister of Kerstetter. “But it just keeps growing. It’s a great tribute to the city of Elyria. They have kept that promise and stood by it. As a family, that has helped us every day.”
Proceeds go to the James A. Kerstetter Memorial Scholarship Fund.
The number of runners who know Kerstetter only by his name are now too many to count.
“I wish I would have met him,” said 54-year-old Sheffield Lake resident Karen Loescher. “This is an awesome thing the community does.”
A first-time participant, Loescher walked with her sister in the family fun walk and returned to sit on the curb near the finish line to cheer the runners on as they returned.
“Keep on going. Good job,” she screamed over and over as runners crossed the tape one by one. Her nephew, Michael Haney, ran the race.
Leslie Evans, 40, of Lorain, came with one goal: She wanted to run the entire race, not stopping to walk. She didn’t know Kerstetter, but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to support the cause.
“It’s important to support the community as well as help ensure people have money to continue their education,” she said.
Evans ran with a large contingent of runners from Cross Community Church, of Elyria. They, like the Elyria officers, ran as a group.
With Elyria officers leading the runners, the presence of law enforcement was strong Saturday. Officers from Lorain police as well as Ohio Highway Patrol took part in the race.
And, just like in years past, when the Elyria officers finished their run, they turned around and fell in behind the last runner to ensure no one crossed the finish line alone.