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EARLY CONCLUSION: Keith Walker, right, and his son Kasey take down their tents following the conclusion of this weekend's Union County 24-Hour Relay. The relay was stopped about 2 hours early because of rain. (The Observer/DICK MASON).
EARLY CONCLUSION: Keith Walker, right, and his son Kasey take down their tents following the conclusion of this weekend's Union County 24-Hour Relay. The relay was stopped about 2 hours early because of rain. (The Observer/DICK MASON).

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

Rain did what muscle fatigue, blisters and lack of sleep could not on Sunday.

It forced the fifth annual Union County 24-Hour Relay to be ended early.

A rainstorm canceled the final 2 hours of the relay around 7:30 a.m. on Sunday.

The inclement weather was the only blemish on an otherwise successful event. The relay was called but not before about 220 participants ran and walked a total of 1,427.75 miles at La Grande High School's track.

"This is a great community event. You get a full cross section of the community hanging out together. There is a real sense of camaraderie,'' said Keith Walker of La Grande, one of the relay participants.

The event is a symbol of county residents' commitment to create a drug-free community. Money raised at the relay goes toward helping fund drug- and alcohol-free programs for youth.

Sunday's rain followed a long stretch of dry weather.

The relay started under clear skies at 10 a.m. Saturday. The weather remained ideal until Sunday's rain. A wind gust then blew through the infield of the track, rattling many tents. A hard rainstorm which lasted about an hour accompanied the wind.

"When I heard the pitter patter of rain on my tent I knew we were in trouble,'' Walker said. "We had a cloud with an attitude.''

The rain quickly sent people scattering.

"I was sorry it had to be cut short. But everything was soggy and nobody knew how long it (the rainstorm) would last,'' said Merle Comfort, one of the relay directors.

This year's relay was again won by the National Guard's team, which ran 134.25 miles.

The Guard's Chris Kerr said his team had an edge because its members are used to long and rigorous military training exercises.

"Maybe we have an advantage because we are used to working hard and staying up all night,'' Kerr said.

Relay participants were encouraged to run at least one mile before giving the baton to a teammate. Many ran more than a mile during their relay legs, giving their team members more time to sleep.

The National Guard's Lou Gerber used the event to prepare for the Portland Marathon by running 10 miles on at least one of his legs.

Kent Coe of La Grande said his team members ran one-hour shifts at night and in the early morning so that team members could get more sleep.

Laps became harder to finish as the relay wore on, said Michael Bassell of Island City.

"I was walking with a passion,'' said Bassell, a freshmen at La Grande High School.

Bassell said he became so tired as the relay progressed that he had to rely on the passion he feels for the importance of the relay to keep going.

Last year the relay raised about $8,500 for youth community groups and projects. The total for this year's relay will be announced later.

A significant portion of the funds raised are generated from registration fees. The fee was $400 a team or $40 a person.

Saturday's weather was so ideal that the LHS track and field looked like a festival site. Many people relaxed between relay legs in lawn chairs on the tent-filled infield while music was played in the afternoon and evening.

"It was relaxing. We sat around all day and played badminton and board games,'' said relay participant Mark Karl of La Grande.

Home Town of Central Elementary School placed second in the relay, with a total of 109 miles.

There was a 12-hour relay division, with the Stripling Warriors of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints winning with a total of 67.5 miles.

The Turtle Award, which goes to the team that completes the fewest miles went to Team Timin' V of the La Grande Middle School, which covered 38.5 miles. Preliminary plans call for next year's relay to again be conducted during the last weekend of September.

Walker joked that the time lost this year will be made up in 2003 by starting the relay on Saturday at 7 a.m. instead of 10 a.m.

It appears that after five years the relay is becoming an autumn tradition.

"The community is really dialed into it,'' Walker said.

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