For 10 years Sandy Thomas had been running a 2-mile circuit most mornings around her North Laurel neighborhood of Hammond Village to stay physically fit, but in 2006 life handed her a detour.
Her husband, Jim, died that year from skin cancer, and the ranch-style home where they had lived for nearly 40 years and raised five kids suddenly seemed too big. So she sold the house in 2007 to her son, Mark Thomas, and moved to Hanover, Pa.
Sandy Thomas, who is fit and youthful at 71, continues to run in her new community. When Mark, 46, asked her to join him in the Maryland Half Marathon in Maple Lawn on Saturday, she figured it was a good way to check an item off her "bucket list" of things she wants to accomplish in life.
She will run in the 13.1-mile race in memory of her husband, and with her son literally at her side. The pair will run at her pace so they can cross the finish line together.
All proceeds from the half marathon, and the Maryland 5K race added this year, will benefit the University of Maryland Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum Cancer Center in Baltimore for the sixth consecutive year.
"Our intention at first was to move the race to different jurisdictions because races run in the same place can get stale, no matter how great the venue," said Michael Greenebaum, co-founder and co-chairman of the race, which benefits the center named in his parents' honor.
"But we feel very much at home in Howard County and our intention is to stay," he said of the event, which was moved from Baltimore County to Fulton in 2011 and continues to draw between 1,700 and 2,000 entrants each year.
Greenebaum's mother is a 24-year breast cancer survivor who takes an aromatase inhibitor developed by a University of Maryland doctor, he said.
Her successful treatment is the reason behind his parents' $10 million gift to the University of Maryland Medical System and the University of Maryland School of Medicine nearly 20 years ago, he explained.
"One of the reasons we like it here in Maple Lawn is because this is a really health-conscious and progressive county," said Greenebaum, whose real estate company developed the planned community.
Like much of Howard County's topography, the route for the Maryland Half Marathon is "really hilly," he noted. "This year we've cut out a couple of major hills and the course will be run entirely on the north side of Route 216, but runners will still find it challenging."
The 5K was added to make the event more inclusive, he said.
"We wanted to take any excuse off the table by runners who may say they're not ready for the race after the brutal winter" altered normal training regimens, he said.
Sandy Thomas said she has run 5K races with friends, but hasn't yet tackled a half marathon. She's been extending the distance she runs on each outing as she trains, and also runs on her treadmill at home and works out at a gym.
Mark Thomas, who ran the race two years ago, uses an app on his smart phone that keeps track of the miles he runs during training and at what pace he runs them. Despite that, he plans to run at his mother's pace the entire route in a show of solidarity.
He said he and his mother are planning to wear T-shirts printed with the names of his father and father-in-law, who died of cancer long ago. His wife, Maria, ran in the race last year and her brother, Ramil Palmaira, of Silver Spring, will run this year and also wear a shirt.
"The whole atmosphere is friendly and fun," observed race co-founder Jon Sevel, who will run in this year's race in memory of a family friend who died of leukemia. "Howard County has a strong running community that has welcomed us with open arms.
"We're very excited that we will be celebrating the sixth anniversary of the race, which has already raised more than $1.5 million for the cancer center," Sevel said. He estimated that this year's event will raise between $300,000 and $400,000.
Robyn Humphrey, a 30-year member of the Howard County Striders, will run in the race after returning recently from completing the Boston Marathon on April 21.
"I travel a lot for runs, so I just love the local ones," said Humphrey, a retired Ellicott City resident who took second and third place in past Maryland Half Marathons.
"The spectators who live in the Maple Lawn community are very sweet. They come out in their robes and slippers" to cheer runners on, said Humphrey, whose parents both died of cancer.
Mark Thomas agreed that support is important to running a good race.
"It's great to have family waiting to greet you," he said, adding that his wife and 3-year-old son, Mason, and possibly a couple of siblings, will meet up with him, his mom and his brother-in-law at the finish line.
Sandy Thomas has only one goal: "To finish the race without embarrassing my family," she said with a laugh.
Mark Thomas said the race's timing this year is perfect, occurring the day before Mother's Day.
"My gift to her this year will be to let her beat me," he joked.
If you go
The Maryland Half Marathon will start first on May 10, and the Maryland 5K will kick off shortly afterward. The event will feature a Kids Fun Run and a Kids Zone, as well as a post-race festival and concert.
•The half marathon starts at 8 a.m. Registration fee is $85 through May 9; $90 on race day. Runners must be 14 and older.
• The 5K, for all ages, begins at 8:30 a.m. Registration is $35.
• The Kids Fun Run for ages 12 and under begins at 8:45 a.m. Fee is $15. The Kids Zone is free.
• The County Cup will be presented to the executive who represents the home county of the first state resident to cross the finish line.
For more information, go to mdhalfmarathon.com.