STEPHENS CITY — What would have been the second  Trails 4 Miles Race for Autism was just weeks away from being held last year when the COVID-19 pandemic reached the Northern Shenandoah Valley. As a result, the fundraising event fell victim to the coronavirus.

Even though the pandemic is still raging, organizers are determined to get the race back on track this year. Registration is already underway for the second Trails 4 Miles, scheduled to be held April 10 in Sherando Park near Stephens City.

"It's crazy to think that we are still dealing with a pandemic, but now more than ever, it is vitally important that we are there for the autistic community," said Nicole Van Zandt, chief operating officer of New Horizons Professional ABA Services Inc. of Winchester. "As a mom of a special needs child, I can attest to the added struggles this pandemic has caused."

"I think it's important that we come to some sense of normalcy and continue with these important events," added Tina Stevens-Culbreath of the nonprofit I'm Just Me Movement of Winchester, which is coordinating the race in cooperation with New Horizons, Frederick County Parks and RecreationThe Arc of Northern Shenandoah Valley and Grafton Integrated Health Network.

Autism is a blanket term for a range of conditions that affect an individual's ability to process and cope with stimuli such as light, sound, voices and motion. No two cases are alike, but people with autism often have trouble with social skills and verbal expression, and they sometimes engage in repetitive behaviors such as rocking back and forth to help calm them when they are experiencing sensory overloads.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, autism is more common than most people think, with an estimated one in 54 people suffering from the disorder.

The primary goal of Trails 4 Miles, organizers said, is to make people aware of the varied needs of autistic individuals and their families in the Winchester area.

"A good portion of our community is impacted," said Stevens-Culbreath, noting that signs depicting local residents with autism will be on display throughout Sherando Park to remind Trails 4 Miles participants who they're supporting.

Trails 4 Miles is scheduled to start at 8:30 a.m. April 10 and is open to people of all ages. The event can be tackled in two ways. The easiest is a one-mile walk on paved trails through Sherando Park; the more-challenging alternative is a four-mile foot race traversing the park's paved and rustic trails.

Ashley Ferguson of Frederick County Parks and Recreation said the four-mile race is an official part of her department's competitive Running Series, which also includes the annual Battlefield Half Marathon and Relays at Kernstown Battlefield and Thanksgiving Day 5K at Sherando High School.

Registration for the four-mile autism race is $25 until Jan. 31, $30 from Feb. 1 to April 9, and $40 on the day of the event. Participating in the one-mile walk costs $15.

"We're definitely going to have some swag" for this year's participants, Ferguson said, but the status of the pandemic in April will determine if the giveaways will be physical or virtual. Additionally, everyone who runs or walks will receive a medal after completing the course.

Organizers said they are confident this year's Trails 4 Miles will be held as planned. However, if the pandemic is still limiting group sizes in April, start times for the race and walk will be staggered throughout the morning to spread out the number of people on the course at any given time.

Trails 4 Miles will be held on the same day as the Frederick County Parks and Recreation Department's Kite Fest in Sherando Park, so families can enjoy an extended outdoor outing on what will hopefully be a sunny spring day.

"We're very excited," said Niki Pangle, executive director of The Arc.

For more information or to register for the Trails 4 Miles Race for Autism on April 10, visit fcprdrun.wixsite.com/runatthetop.

— Contact Brian Brehm at bbrehm@winchesterstar.com

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