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The mission will go on: Annual Pat's Run goes virtual for 2020

The event was moved online due to the COVID-19 pandemic

The 2016 Pat's Run took place on Saturday, April 23, 2016, around the ASU Tempe campus.
The 2016 Pat's Run took place on Saturday, April 23, 2016, around the ASU Tempe campus.

Every year since 2005, thousands of runners have met in Tempe to honor the memory of Pat Tillman, the Arizona Cardinals and ASU star safety who was killed in a friendly fire incident while serving in Afghanistan in 2004. 

This year, those runners will not be running through the streets of Tempe, but they will be doing it virtually because of concerns over the novel coronavirus.

The Pat Tillman Foundation announced its virtual plans on March 14, following social distancing recommendations issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to slow the spread of COVID-19. Those recommendations included canceling or postponing large events. 

The run was expected to bring nearly 30,000 people together for a 4.2 mile run that would have finished on the 42-yard line of Sun Devil Stadium. The mile distance and ending point are a tribute to the jersey number Tillman wore at ASU, 42. 

Even though the in-person run has been canceled, nearly 30,000 runners are staying committed and have told the foundation not to refund their entrance fee, Henry Terrazas, events manager of the Pat Tillman Foundation, said. Instead, many are choosing to run 4.2 miles remotely while social distancing or are donating their entrance fee to the foundation.

“We have seen great support from all of our participants,” Terrazas said. “It's been overwhelming with how many of our participants have understood what's going on, obviously with what's happening in the world, and are glad that we didn't cancel.” 

This will be the first year that Pat’s Run will not be hosted in Tempe since its inception. But while the virtual run will go ahead, Tempe officials say the city will still lose an estimated $3.3 million, hitting the stores, restaurants and hotels that will lose the business of the thousands that visit Tempe for the run the hardest, James Tevault, Director of Sales of the Tempe Tourism Office, said.

“It’s definitely pretty devastating on the local economy,” Tevault said.

The run’s proceeds have helped to raise $18 million in scholarships for more than 600 Tillman Scholars while honoring the legacy of the ASU and NFL star. 

Pat Tillman gave up his football career in 2002 to enlist in the Army Rangers following the 9/11 attacks.

“Pat has always just been our guy,” race committee member and runner Joe Healey said. “It’s incredibly important that we remember him, what he did, what he stood for and the person that he was.”

Healey is planning to run in his neighborhood on race day to honor the Tillman legacy. 

Navy veteran and ASU engineering education Ph.D. candidate Michael Sheppard was awarded the 2019 Tillman scholarship, which covers full tuition and living expenses. Sheppard — who is completing his dissertation at ASU — will be running his first Pat’s Run this year.

Now that the race is virtual, Sheppard and other Tillman scholars have organized a 24-hour virtual relay race, of sorts, in which runners will run remotely, connected by social media.

“There will be a Tillman scholar running for 24 hours that entire day,” Sheppard said. 

In past years, Pat’s Run recruited about 2,400 volunteers to help with the pre-race expo and with in-person race day support. This year, all volunteers have been released from their duties, Race Volunteer Coordinator Mary Tunberg said.

While this year’s volunteers have been sidelined, Tunberg said she has received “nothing but support” from the recently released volunteers. Some have gone as far as offering to mail race materials for runners themselves. Instead, runners will receive their race shirt and medal after Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey lifts the statewide stay-at-home order, which is currently slated to end on April 30 but could be extended.

Tunberg will be running the 4.2 miles on a trail near her home in Gilbert.

Social distancing orders created a scenario in which race organizers were faced with a choice: cancel the event or go virtual. 

“At the end of the day, we wanted to make sure that we still stay close to our mission, which are the Tillman scholars,” Terrazas said. 

The decision to hold the race virtually has been met with the “same passion” and support from participants as in previous years. 

“There’s really nothing that I do 364 days a year that matches that one day of the year,” Healey said. “You can’t completely mimic the experience, but what we can do is we can all go out for 30 minutes, an hour or a couple hours, or however long it takes you to complete 4.2 miles.”

Sheppard said he is “excited” that the race wasn't canceled and is instead virtual. 

“It’s a good way to get everyone actually physically together, which is one of the challenges for the virtual run this year,” Sheppard said.

Reach the reporter at and follow @kevinpirehpour on Twitter. 

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