York’s 44th White Rose Run this September will be the final one for longtime race directors Clay Shaw and Karen Mitchell.
But there’s also a talented new race director waiting in the wings.
By Karen Hendricks
When the York White Rose Run takes to the streets for its 44th running in September of 2021, it marks the end of an era, as well as a new chapter in Pennsylvania running history.
That’s because it will be the final race for longtime race directors, husband and wife, Clay Shaw and Karen Mitchell. Combined, they have managed the race for more than 30 years. And they’re planning for a smooth transition, passing the race director’s baton to Karen Lam-Duckett for the 2022 edition.
Running, as an American sport, has gained momentum over the past 30 years—simultaneously as Shaw and Mitchell grew with the sport. It was my honor to sit down with the couple to capture some of their thoughts and reflections on the York White Rose Run’s colorful and storied history.
How long have you been involved in the York White Rose Run (WRR)?
Clay: I was race director from 1980 until 2008. The race began in 1977 and it was a big deal because Lancaster had the Red Rose Run, so naturally York had to have the WRR. Somebody from the York Chamber went out in a Volvo, drove a route that was 4.7 miles and called it 5 miles. In the second year, a train interrupted some of the runners. They didn’t rent a display clock, and when I ran it in 1979, attempting to go under 30 minutes, I was so mad my time was 30:01. Then I became president of the York Road Runners, and there was a need for a race director. At that time, I was young and full of energy, and I wanted to see things done the right way—with a measured course, a display clock, etc. Then I realized if you’re a race director, you don’t run in your own race, so I didn’t have to chance to run the White Rose under 30 minutes again.
Karen: I’ve helped as long as I’ve been married to Clay—since 1997—but he did the bulk of it. We’re both longtime runners, and back in 1996, something happened that changed the way we organized the WRR. We were race directors for a one-year-only marathon. An insurance company in Lancaster called Clay in 1995 and asked us to put together a marathon—they wanted it to go from the square of York to the square of Lancaster, across the Wright’s Ferry Bridge. I mean, think about all the logistics. In order to pull it off, we needed a race committee and race course captains each taking on a section of the race.
In 2018, I was elected president of the York Road Runners, and I had several goals. One was to focus on the WRR because it had happened for 41 years, and then [under different management], it didn’t happen in 2017. I’m a history freak—I love history—and I just thought with the long history of the WRR, it was so important to continue it. So the club voted on taking it over as owner and organizer. So Clay and I once again became race directors, 2018 through this year—2021, and we implemented the concept of a race committee with race course captains from our one-time marathon experience. That organization, having each person in charge of something important—all runners or former runners—has been such an incredible committee.
What are some of the highlights, from your 30 years with the WRR, 1980-2008 and 2018-2021?
Clay: My first race as director, 1980 was a highlight. It was really the first time we had runners from all over the region running as fast as they could over the 5-mile distance, with large crowds of 700-800 people.
There was also a lot of camaraderie between the runners through the years. For example, in 1992 Steve Spence came to the race. He was born in Elizabethtown, graduated from Lower Dauphin HS, and is a longtime Shippensburg University cross country coach, but he became nationally known after competing in the Barcelona Olympics. Keith Dowling grew up in York, went off to Pitt, and become a nationally-known athlete. They ran against each other, and once word got out they were going to compete, the streets were lined with people. Dowling nipped Spence at the end—both men were timed at 23:37 with Dowling winning by a step. It was an epic race that came down to the last second.
In 2003, we had three Russian women charging down the finish line—along with a Brit and Romanian. You have this European competition playing out in the streets of York. Tatyana Petrova (now Arkhipova), who won, later took the bronze in the 2012 Olympic marathon in London. I always think it’s cool that the guy or girl down the street can run in a race with athletes that go on to run in the Olympics.
Since 2019, the WRR has donated proceeds to the nonprofit organization Not One More, York Chapter, which is dedicated to preventing drug abuse—especially opioid addiction. What has this partnership meant to you?
Karen: This was personal for us, because we lost a family member to an opioid addiction. We lost our nephew Dylan several years ago, and we were very close—even taking him on vacation with us for several weeks when he was in high school. Making donations to Not One More can’t bring him back, but it might help other families in similar situations.
Clay: He was a good kid who had a problem, and it got the best of him. It hurts forever—it doesn’t go away. There are other causes just as noble, but this one hits close to home. Opioid addiction is such a cruel thing.
What was it like to put on the 2020 race amid the pandemic?
Karen: We all know what happened in March of 2020—it was a scary time for a lot of people. May and June came, and quite frankly, neither Clay nor I wanted to put the race on due to health and safety concerns. The last thing we wanted was for the WRR to be a super-spreader event.
But we met with Jeremiah Anderson, co-owner of the White Rose Restaurant Group including the White Rose Bar & Grill. His sponsorship of the race has been a fantastic partnership because his restaurant marks our start/finish line. Even though his restaurants were completely closed down at the time we met, he wanted to move forward with the race, which was pretty amazing. When you have a valuable partner like that, you have to take their lead, so we figured out how to move forward with the race. The race committee stepped up to the plate, and we put it on—socially-distanced—selling out the race at its maximum capacity of 250. It went remarkably well.
Clay: We were one of few races that had a common start—not staggered—with masks, hand sanitizer, dots painted six feet apart for runners to start on. Numerous downtown merchants sincerely thanked us for staging the event and bringing people to downtown York. We did what we could to keep the race as safe as possible. Races organically social distance themselves because some people are faster than others. We figured we’d lose a ton of money but we didn’t. We added a virtual race, which added another 100 participants. The post-race party wasn’t really a party but the White Rose Bar & Grill provided wonderful individually-wrapped sandwiches. Not only did we receive thanks from the runners but they were heartfelt thanks— because most runners hadn’t been to a race in ages.
What has being a race director meant to you?
Clay: Sometimes it’s just a lot of work. Sometimes it’s stressful, and then on the other hand, it can be so rewarding once it’s done and you take a deep breath and say, “Wow, that was cool—that was worth it.” We want people to enjoy our race and have that feeling that it’s a special race, not just a random race. We always wanted the WRR to be the kind of race that you put a big circle on the calendar for.
Karen: The first thing that comes to mind is: It’s a lot of work. But the second thing that comes to mind is: It takes a village—it takes an excellent race committee and a lot of dedicated people.
Is it bittersweet, to move on?
Clay: I’d say no, because we have somebody very competent taking over as race director, surrounded by competent people on the race committee. It feels like the right time to turn things over and leave it in good hands.
Karen: We’re busy retirees—we’re looking forward to resuming travel plans, nationally and internationally. And we’ll continue photographing races—we’ll be photographing Boston and Chicago this fall. We’re active grandparents, and I’m a York County Master Gardener. I don’t think we’re going to have time to be bittersweet about it.
The new race director, Karen Lam-Duckett, is not only a great person—smart, organized and energetic—but in 2018 she was the WRR water station captain, then she took on captainship of the city’s part of the course, and this year—2021—she’s the overall volunteer coordinator. She knows the race well, having served in these race committee positions, so she’s the perfect person to be next year’s race director. She’s also a very accomplished and humble runner—she probably wouldn’t tell anyone—but we can—that one year she won the Harrisburg Marathon.
What do you hope is the legacy of the White Rose Run?
Karen: Because I’m very interested in history, I’ve spent a lot of time reading about the history of races worldwide. My hope would be that the WRR just keeps going—that it stays in the city of York, that it happens for many more years to come, that runners continue to support it.
Clay: I’m from California, but I’ve lived in the York area since 1975 and it’s become my home. I tried to put York on the map as a good place to run—I tried hard to have the best athletes, the best performances, and I always wanted to show the city of York in a positive light.
The character and personality of this race are all about York. The route highlights the core business district downtown, where there are microbrews, the market and boutique shops. But then you pass by Penn Park, York High, the house where Special Olympian Loretta Claiborne grew up, a cool Victorian B&B, Farquhar Park, the Heritage Rail Trail—the course combines all the historical parts of York. It’s a contrast of red brick and green trees.
It’s also a unique distance. It began as a 5-miler because Lancaster’s Red Rose Run was a 5-miler. York and Lancaster have this competitive thing. So the WRR became a 5-miler, not a 5K or 10K like the Olympic distances—the 5-miler is an American distance.
We regularly go to Berwick for their Run for the Diamonds, which is in its 111th year and is nationally known. Unfortunately, there are examples of local races that went away. There used to be a Capital 5K and Kipona 10K in Harrisburg, but a generation later, people have never heard of them. I didn’t want that to happen here in York. I hope the WRR continues as a showcase race for runners of all abilities—that race you continue to circle on your calendar every year.